The Isdal Woman of Norway
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An unidentified body can be pretty challenging for police and other officials to track down who the person is and precisely what happened to them. Many people today carry some form of identification or even a mobile phone that can be used to figure out who they are, but this wasn't always the case, and even today, bodies are found that remain a mystery. The further back in time you go, the harder it was, not only because of the lack of simple physical evidence but also because forensic scientists didn't start using DNA fingerprinting until the 1980s.
In 1970, in Bergen, Norway, a woman's body was found, a woman whose identity remains unknown today. The details of this particular case make it stand out against many others, and it shares some eerie similarities with the Tamám Shud Case (The Mystery of the Somerton Man) from 1948—making this entire thing that much stranger.
Warning: This article contains some graphic images.
A lot has been written about the case of the Isdal Woman, and investigations are ongoing. This write-up provides a high-level case briefing and links to many other more in-depth resources so you can see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
First, let's orient ourselves to Bergen, Norway.
29 November 1970
Afternoon. Foothills of Ulriken, just southwest of Bergen, Norway.
On the north face of Ulriken, in an area known as Isdalen (pronunciation of Isdalen, meaning "Ice Valley"), a man and his two young daughters were out for a hike when they noticed a strange burnt smell. One of the young girls followed the odor and stumbled across the charred remains of a woman. The group immediately returned to town and notified the police.
Bergen police went to the site and found the woman's body among scree. She was on her back, with her arms in front of her and her hands clenched—a "boxer" position that commonly occurs in burn victims.
Her body and clothes were burned, making her unrecognizable—at least on the front of her body—her back remained mostly untouched by fire. Initially, police thought she somehow accidentally caught herself on fire and threw herself back, explaining why she had been burned only on the front of her body. But, there was no trace of a campfire. Police found several burned items in the area: a matchbox, a watch, a ring, two earrings, a purse, an umbrella, nylon stockings, a fur hat with traces of petrol, a woolen jumper, rubber boots, a scarf, two plastic water bottles, a plastic passport holder, an empty bottle of liqueur, sleeping pills, and scraps of burned paper. All the items were positioned around the woman's body in a strange way that investigators described as looking ceremonial.
All items had identifying marks and labels removed. With no way to identify her, she was dubbed "The Isdal Woman."
02 December 1970
Three days after the woman's body was found by police, investigators from the National Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos) located two suitcases believed to belong to her at the Bergen railway station. In the lining of one of the suitcases, police found five 100 Deutsche Mark notes. Other items included eczema cream, shoes, various clothing, makeup, maps and timetables, non-prescription eyeglasses, sunglasses (with a partial fingerprint matching the woman's body), a notepad with writing in it, a shopping bag, and several wigs. Also found in the suitcases were currencies from Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, and Great Britain. All information that could have been used to identify any of the items had been removed—clothing tags, cosmetic labels, and the prescription patient information on the eczema cream.
The police launched a media campaign to appeal to the public for any information about the woman. They quickly learned that she'd been seen alive on 23 November 1970 at the Hotel Hordaheimen in Bergen—only about a twenty-minute drive from Ulriken. Hotel staff told police they checked her out of room 407 and that she didn't leave her room much and seemed to be on guard. The woman paid her bill and left by taxi from the hotel. What happened in the days between checking out of the hotel and when her body was discovered still remains a mystery.
The shopping bag found at the railway station was from "Oscar Rørtvedt's Footwear Store," a store located in the city of Stavanger, a few hours south of Bergen. Police followed the lead to Stavanger and talked to the owner of the store's son, who remembered the woman as well-dressed, nice looking, with dark hair and a calm and quiet expression. He said she spoke with an unusual accent and had a strange scent, likely garlic. According to him, she bought a pair of boots that matched the description of the ones she was wearing when police found her burned body. After checking in the area of the footwear store, police found the staff at the Hotel St. Svithun remembered seeing a woman fitting the Isdal Woman's description—down to the same boots from Oscar Rørtvedt's. The hotel had a record of her checking in under the name "Finella Lorck" from Belgium. The police checked hotels in Bergen and discovered that no one under the name Finella Lorck stayed at any hotel in Bergen—indicating she had to be using a different name in Bergen than she used in Stavanger.
Investigators then turned to the notepad discovered at the rail station. It turned out to be dates and places, and police believed they were a logbook of areas the woman had visited. Using her handwriting, experts were called in to compare her writing samples with ones collected from hotels and government visitor registration forms from all over the country. Police concluded, with the help of handwriting experts, that the woman had traveled around Europe with at least eight fake passports and aliases. Claudia Tielt, Genevieve Lancier, Vera Jarle, Elisabeth Leenhouwfr, Claudia Nielsen, and Alexia Zarne-Merchez, to name a few. She always listed her nationality as Belgian in her aliases, and police thought she might be an actual citizen of Belgium. Belgian authorities investigated but found no leads as to her identity. Of course, all the names she used were fake.
Police also learned the woman stayed at a handful of hotels in Bergen and often changed rooms after her initial check-in. During one hotel stay, she changed rooms three times. Hotel staff said she claimed to be a traveling saleswoman and antique dealer. One odd bit of information that came in from the public appeal by police were several accounts that she smelled strongly of garlic. Several people who recognized her also claimed she wore wigs. Composite sketches from witnesses were created and circulated via Interpol.
An autopsy was performed on the Isdal Woman. Traces of petrol were found on her, indicating that her burning wasn't a simple matter of an accident with a campfire. The conclusion from her autopsy was that the woman died from phenobarbital (sleeping pills) and poisoning by carbon monoxide. Her jawbone was removed and kept as evidence. The examiner found soot in her lungs, which indicated she was alive when burned, and also found bruises on her neck from either a fall or a blow. Blood and stomach analysis showed she'd taken over 40 Fenemal sleeping pills, which matched the 12 sleeping pills found next to her body on Ulriken. She also had quite a bit of gold-filling dental work.
Even with all the activity and clues, the Isdal Woman was never identified.
Evidence of Espionage
The Cold War was raging at the time, and some believed the Isdal Woman was a spy. One of the people who came forward—not to Bergen police but to a security officer at Ulsnes naval base in Stavanger naval defense district—recognized the woman was a fisherman who said she was observing military movements in Stavanger—130 miles (210 kilometers) from Bergen. Unknown to Bergen police, the Norwegian Intelligence Service launched their own investigation, lending more credibility to the espionage theory. A file classified as "Secret" from December 1970 that was eventually released showed that the Norwegian Armed Forces commander Onarheim remarked that the woman's movements corresponded to top secret trials of the Penguin missile. Additionally, Onarheim stated that Norwegian Defence Research Establishment personnel stayed at various hotels in Stavanger during these missile trials.
21 December 1970
With all of the strange evidence and possible links to espionage, police held a conference on 21 December 1970, stating that the woman had committed suicide by setting fire to herself. Though, decades later, some police involved in the case admitted that none of them truly believed that.
05 February 1971
The case was closed in February, and on 05 February 1971, the Isdal woman was buried using Catholic rites, as she used the names of saints on her check-in forms and was thought to perhaps be Catholic. She was placed in an unmarked grave in Møllendal cemetery in Bergen. Her funeral was attended only by the police. A zinc coffin was used to help preserve her remains in case her body needed to be disinterred in the future.
2016 — Case Reopened
Forty-five years later, the case of the Isdal Woman was reopened. The NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, as it is known in English, is the Norwegian government-owned radio and television public broadcasting company) commissioned new sketches to be created by artists in an attempt to try and appeal again to the public for any information about her. You can see all of the sketches here on NRK's website.
2017 — Stable Isotope Analysis
The Isdal Woman's jawbone, removed during her autopsy back in 1970, was used to perform a stable isotope analysis on her teeth. The study showed she'd been born around 1930 around Nuremberg, Germany, and that she'd moved to France or near France as a child. Examination of her teeth also showed that the woman had been to a dentist in East Asia, Central Europe, Southern Europe, or South America. From the same analysis, the Isdal Woman's age was placed at around 40 years old. If you're interested in more information on how a stable isotope analysis can determine all of this, here's an excellent resource to learn more: The Use of Stable Isotopes in the Study of Animal Migration.
2018 — Death in Ice Valley
The NRK and BBC World Service launched a podcast titled Death in Ice Valley, which included new interviews. Eventually, it led to DNA testing, which determined the woman's matrilineal line of descent originated in South East Europe or South West Asia.
In the same year, author Dennis Zacher Aske published a book titled Kvinnen i Isdalen that builds a case that the Isdal Woman was a sex worker and that her travels and behavior all revolved around her work. Aske proposed that the Isdal Woman's death was due to murder or assisted suicide. Unfortunately, I haven't located an English translation of the book.
2019 — A Photo Emerges
A Forbach, France resident, came forward and claimed he had a brief relationship with the woman in the summer of 1970. He said the Isdal Woman spoke several languages and had a Balkan accent. The man suspected she was a spy due to her often taking odd phone calls from abroad and that he had searched through her personal belongings one day and found wigs and clothes that may have served as disguises. He stole a photograph of the woman riding a horse.
As of 2022, no one has come up with solid evidence of the Isdal Woman's true identity, what she was doing in Bergen, and how she died. The case of the Isdal Woman remains active and unsolved.
More Reading About the Isdal Woman
The case of the Isdal Woman has gone on for decades, and there's plenty that I didn't cover. In fact, entire books have been written about it. If you'd like to dig in more, here are some great resources:
- NRK's The Isdalen Mystery in Norwegian. Modern browsers should let you easily translate this to your own language.
- BBC has Isdal Woman: The mystery death haunting Norway for 46 years and Death in Ice Valley: New clues in Isdal Woman mystery
- Sketches of the Isdal Woman on The Press and Journal at How an Inverness forensic artist could help solve a notorious 50-year-old mystery surrounding a woman's death in Norway
- Original investigator photos over at The Sun's article The enduring mystery of the Isdal Woman whose burned body was found in the woods with a suitcase of wigs, secret codes and EIGHT fake passports
- A little about the Death in Ice Valley podcast series
Relevant & Related
- Author L. Robinson released a book in 2019 titled Isdal Woman. Life and Death: Norway's Biggest Mystery
- Here is a massive timeline of events related to the Isdal Woman
- Like mysteries? Check out my write-up about the Tamám Shud Case: The Mystery of the Somerton Man—a case of an unidentified man in Australia in the 1940s with some strange similarities to the Isdal Woman.
- Another strange case of a woman known as Jennifer Fairgate, who may have been a spy
- The Death in Ice Valley podcast series is available to listen to online in its entirety on BBC's website.
- There's a Facebook group dedicated to trying to solve the mystery of the Isdal Woman.
- And TheDoeNetwork has a case file with facts and photos on the Isdal Woman.