Norway’s Greatest Mystery
The Isdal Woman
Does this face look familiar?
If so, you may hold the key to the Isdal Woman — a 44-year-old cold case that remains one of Norway’s greatest mysteries. “Isdal woman” is the term for an unidentified woman who was found in Isdalen in Bergen, Norway.
The mysterious death of Isdal Woman continues to transfix investigators across the globe.
On a chilly November morning in Norway’s Death Valley, a university professor made a gruesome discovery: they found a burnt and stripped corpse in a rockery at a secluded path in Isdalen. The charred remains of a naked woman lay hidden amongst the rocks at the end of a remote hiking trail. Around the fire was a burnt passport. Surrounding the body were a dozen pink sleeping pills, an open bottle of liqour, two empty kerosene containers. A nasty bruise discoloured what remained of her neck.
Police still do not know her true identity or what happened in the days leading up to her demise. They eventually ruled her death a suicide, though the decision remains highly controversial. Many are convinced the Isdal Woman was a spy and her end an execution.
A full scale murder investigation was immediately initiated and the case has since evolved to become the most comprehensive criminal case by the Bergen police.
The real identity of this woman and the cause of her death are still not clear to date. In her car police found encrypted notes. She has never been identified. The Isdal Woman died from a combination of burns and carbon monoxide poisoning, and an autopsy showed traces of at least 50 sleeping pills in her body. The cause of death might have been suicide, but murder is an option, too. The woman was described as 30-40 years old and good-looking.
Police found out that the Isdal Woman had travelled around Europe with nine different false identities. She was traced to two suitcases found in a train station in nearby Bergen, Norway. The labels had been removed from the clothes she wore, her fingerprints had been sanded away. In one of the suitcases police discovered 500 Deutsche Mark. Witnesses reported that the Isdal Woman had spoken French, German, English and Dutch. One person testified that she had said “Ich komme bald”, which means “I am coming soon” in German.
The investigation of the police revealed that she had been travelling with several false names and false documents and therefore had probably been a secret agent. What she did and for whom she worked is not known.
Bergan police interviewed nearly 100 people during their investigation. They learn that the woman had visited Bergan three times between March and November of 1970. Her last visit would be on November 18 of that year. The first day she stayed at the Hotel Rosenkrantz, checking in under the name Elisabeth Leenhower. On her second day she moved to the Hotel Hordaheimen, where she stayed until November 23, mostly keeping to herself and appearing “watchful”, as witnesses recall.
Police eventually found out that the woman had travelled around Norway and Europe with nine different identities: Jenevive Lancia, Claudia Tjelt, Vera Schlosseneck, Claudia Nielsen, Alexia Zarna-Merchez, Vera Jarle, Finella Lorck and Elizabeth Leen Hoywfer. All of these identities were false. According to witness sightings the woman used various wigs, and in the trunk there were found several cryptic diary entries. The codes were later deciphered by police who concluded that they were coded dates and places the woman had previously visited.
The woman’s teeth were thoroughly checked during the autopsy, and the way the dental work was performed indicated that the woman had been to a dentist in Latin America.
Nine different identities
And apparently all belonging to one woman.
But still no-one knew who she was.
Her body was found on 29 November 1970, in Dodsdalen, a remote part of Isdalen Valley in the steep Ulriken mountain range that surrounds Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city.
She was naked, her body partially burnt.
Strewn around her were a dozen pink sleeping pills, an empty bottle of spirits, and two full bottles of petrol.
Each of her fingerprints had been sanded away.
In addition, police discovered a prescription for a lotion, but both the doctor’s name and date had been removed. Within the lining on one suitcase police discovered 500 German marks. Partial fingerprints were found on a few pieces of broken glass. They were insufficient for an identification, but police suspected that they belonged to the dead woman. The police were able to make composite sketches on the basis of witness descriptions and analysis made from the body; these sketches were published in the media and disseminated via INTERPOL in a number of countries.
A postcard in the case led police to an Italian photographer, who admitted he had taken the woman out to dinner, but he was unable to shed any light on her identity. He said she claimed to be an antiques dealer from South Africa. Another hotel guest confirmed that she was South African, but said she was on a tour of beautiful places in Norway. The woman apparently liked porridge with milk, smoked cigarettes
There was no clue to her identity.
An autopsy found the woman had suffered a blow to the back of the neck, and had taken several sleeping pills before she died.
Placed into a galvanized coffin and lowered into an unmarked grave, only 18 people presided over the woman’s funeral. Her procession, comprised mostly of police officers, was undoubtedly a solemn ceremony with no one whom was acquainted with the woman to say their final goodbyes. Pictures are kept in police archives, along with other information pertaining to the case, waiting to be claimed by any family relation to the woman who wishes step forward. Requests for these documents have been denied to the public, and it is unlikely that the woman’s family will ever identify her.
The police report concluded suicide. The woman was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, and there the story would have ended.
Until the woman’s suitcases were discovered, abandoned at Bergen train station.
After the woman’s suitcases were found, police sought the help of the city’s most prominent textile retailers to identify her dress. It was concluded that the woman had a somewhat challenging style, which was marked by Italian taste.
Not a single fingerprint was found on the two leather cases.
Inside one were passports in nine names, wigs and clothes.
The clothes’ labels had all been cut out. But experts identified the expensive Italian brand.
Who was this woman? With the help of Interpol, investigators produced a composite sketch. Intriguing details emerged from individuals who claimed to have interacted with the mystifying figure.
The Isdal Woman had opened accounts at hotels across Bergen, where she had a habit of changing rooms soon after checking in. Conflicting descriptions of hair colour and style suggested she wore wigs to disguise her identity.
The last sighting occurred on November 23, when she checked out of her room at Hotel Marin. The Isdal Woman paid in cash before disappearing into a taxi.
Then the trail runs cold. Police still do not know her true identity or what happened in the days leading up to her demise. They eventually ruled her death a suicide, though the decision remains highly controversial. Many are convinced the Isdal Woman was a spy and her end an execution.
And there was a diary – but even that didn’t give investigators very much information.
Scrawled in it were coordinates of famous European landmarks.
The police had composite sketches made of what they believed the woman had looked like – dark, attractive, petite, aged between 30 and 40.
And it was hoped when the picture was circulated, someone might come forward to identify her.
A brother, sister, friend, lover…
But no-one came forward except witnesses to the last days of her life.
They claimed they’d seen her around Bergen. That she’d checked into several hotels, using a false name every time. And in each hotel, she’d asked to change rooms.
Other witnesses claimed the woman spoke in French, German, and Flemish. One hotel guest had heard the woman talking to a man in German.
Sketches of the woman were spread throughout Norway but reached out in order to identify the mysterious Isdal Woman.
Then came a minor breakthrough. There was a man who authorities were able to connect to her.
The man told police he’d been on a date with the woman.
An Italian photographer – the same photographer who had taken the picture for the postcard located within the woman’s luggage – had taken her out for dinner. He didn’t offer many clues on the woman’s identity other than she had told him that she was an antiques dealer from South Africa, born just outside of Johannesburg, and was in town during a six-month tour of Europe.
She told him she was from Johannesburg, in South Africa, and was in Europe sightseeing. He said she’d smoked a Norwegian brand of cigarettes.
On 23 November 1970, she’d checked out of the Hotel Holberg, paying in cash, and a taxi took her to Bergen station, where she’d left her suitcases.
Then, nothing…until her body was found six days later.
Forty-seven years on, the woman’s identity remains unknown.
At the time, Bergen’s police chief denied any crime had taken place. He insisted the woman had committed suicide. That somehow, her injury was self-inflicted and, as she was dying, she’d set herself alight.
The retired policeman, Hans Thue, informed in the mid 70’s the press about his theory. He believed the woman could have been part of a check scams league. In 1972 , two South Americans arrested for check fraud in Bergen . They had, like the Isdal woman, also made use of false identities. The theory was ridiculed, and the press speculated that the police officer deliberately tried to mislead the public on behalf of the Norwegian secret service (POT).
The woman’s mysterious activities have led to the most famous theory has linked her to spy work in the Cold War, where information on marine activities on the military base Haakonsvern has been a common thread. That the woman had had nine passports , and that all was false, could indicate that the woman may have a very professional network in the back. The police got a tip that one of the heads of the KGB had arrived the airport Vaernes in Trondheim , just ten minutes after Isdal woman had landed. The KGB boss had mysteriously enough returned to Russia the same day, a few hours after his arrival.
The local press also speculated about the woman could be Israel defector who were taken by their own.
Chief of Police in Bergen , Oskar Hordnes, denied that any crime had occurred. He and the police denied the press speculation and concluded that the woman had committed suicide. The theory built on the woman after taking pills with narcotic side effects had somehow stumbled into the fire and died.
But many believed the police were being deliberately misleading – on the orders of Norway’s secret service.
The fake passports, wigs, coded diary, and expensive clothes…it all pointed to the woman being a spy.
During the 1970s, the world was in the grip of the Cold War – tension between the countries of the West and the Eastern Bloc.
Much of the West’s covert operations were run out of Haakonsvern, the largest naval port in Scandinavia.
And Haakonsvern is just 15km outside of Bergen. And at the time of the woman’s death, there had been suspected sightings of a wanted, Russian agent in the Norwegian city Trondheim.
But no-one knows what he was doing there.
Had the woman been after information on military activity in Haakonsvern? Had she been caught and silenced?
Or was she perhaps a defector from the East, murdered by her own?
Some 32 years later, in 2002, a Norwegian man identified himself as a witness.
He told journalists in Bergen he’d been hiking through Dodsdalen with his friends.
On 24 November, five days before the discovery of the woman, a local 26-year old man was hiking with friends around the same area. He reported to have come across a woman of foreign appearance, her face completely distorted by fear. He noted that the woman was dressed elegantly, although not appropriately for being outdoors, let alone hiking in the hills. As they passed each other she formed her mouth as if to say something but appeared intimidated by two black-coated men who followed her. The men also had a foreign appearance.
And the witness swore it was the mystery woman. He said she’d seemed frightened, and started to speak to the hikers. Then, she’d stopped herself and walked off quickly. Behind her were two men in black coats and dark sunglasses. But why had the hiker taken 32 years to come forward?
It seems he had tried before.
As soon as he’d seen the original appeal for information, he’d called the police. The next day, someone claiming to be a police officer had called him back.
‘Forget what you saw,’ he was told.
So he’d tried to do just that.
But no one can forget the woman found naked and dead in Dodsdalen.
A woman with nine names. But not a single one that belonged to her.
According to some documents signed by the woman, her profession had been listed as an antiques dealer or a travelling saleswoman.
Aside from the passports, perhaps one of the most important pieces of evidence within the luggage was a black notebook. It was written in numerical code, but seemed to have been the woman’s travel log. Some of the notebook was able to be decoded and assisted in constructing a timeline of events leading up to her death.
This is a timeline of her last known movements, based on the contents of her diary and other witness sightings.
- March 20, 1970 – travels from Geneva to Oslo.
- March 21-24, 1970 – stays at Hotel Viking in Oslo using the name “Genevieve Lancier”.
- March 24 – flies from Oslo to Stavanger, takes the boat to Bergen, stays the night at Hotel Bristol using the name “Claudia Tielt”.
- March 25 – April 1 – stays at hotel Scandia in Bergen, still as “C. Tielt”
- April 1 – travels from Bergen to Stavanger, and on to Kristiansand, Hirtshals, Hamburg and Basel, Germany.
- October 3 – travels from Stockholm, Sweden to Oslo, Norway, and on to Oppdal, Norway, a popular ski resort.
- October 22 – stays at Hotel Altona in Paris.
- October 23 – 29 – stays at Hotel de Calais in Paris, France.
- October 29 – 30 – goes from Paris to Stavanger and on to Bergen, Norway.
- October 30 – November 5 – checks in to hotel Neptune using the name “Alexia Zerner-Merches”; meets an unknown man at the hotel.
- November 6 – 9 – travels to Trondheim, Norway, and stays at the Hotel Bristol using the name “Vera Jarle”.
- November 9 – goes to Oslo and on to Stavanger; stays at Hotel St. Svitun using the name “Fenella Lorch”.
- November 18 – goes with the boat Vingtor to Bergen; stays at Hotel Rosenkrantz using the name “Elisabeth Leenhower” from Belgium.
- November 19 – 23 – stays at Hotel Hordaheimen, remains in the room and seems watchful.
- November 23 – leaves the hotel in the morning, pays in cash and goes to the railway station where she places 2 pieces of luggage in a depository box.
- November 29 – located dead in Isdalen.
There is a lot of speculation surrounding the Isdal woman, a burned passport means severing ties with your home country, if only symbolically. It is a protest against unfair conditions or corruption. There is no mention of which country’s passport this was. If there’s any truth in the espionage theory, then the relentless silence and the lack of an identification despite many specific and unusual details put Isdal woman in the same category as the Somerton man.
Persistent rumours suggest that the answers to her identity will be found in a vault in Moscow, and that she was betrayed by someone close to her.
It’s been 47 years since the discovery of the Isdal Woman and still the question remains. Who was this mysterious woman and why had she met such a grisly fate in the arctic valley of Norway? Some speculate that the most likely conclusion is that the woman had been a spy, offering a logical explanation for her various aliases, known languages, disguises, and the extreme lengths the woman went to conceal her true identity. Others speculate that she was a fugitive on the run or even an international smuggler. Whatever the case, much like the story of the Somerton Man, this is one mystery that may never be solved.
Like the Isdal Woman, he had owned a cryptic note until soon before his death. However, while the Somerton Man cryptogram has never been broken, the notes of the Isdal Woman were solved. As it turned out, they were coded dates and places the woman had previously visited.
The Taman Shud Case, also known as The case of the Somerton Man. This occured in 1948 in South Australia. A man was found dead on the beach boardwalk. No cause of death was determined and the man was never identified. A suitcase was linked to the body, found in a near by hotel. All labels had been torn out of the clothing in the suitcase, no fingerprints, no identification, nothing.
There was a small piece of paper found on the body, hidden in a small pocket in the victims trousers, it had been torn from a book. It read, “Taman Shud”. That fraze is from a poem called The Rubaiyat, and taman shud translates to “it is finished”.
An individual not related to the case later came forward with a rare copy of the Rubaiyat he had found in the back seat of his car; which was parked near to where the body was found. Someone had deposited the book through his cracked window. Inside the book, on one of the inner covers was a cypher code, which to this day has never been decoded.