A Victim of Many Names and Yet, No Name At All
The Isdal Woman refers to an unidentified woman who was found dead at Isdalen in Bergen, Norway on November 29, 1970. Her death was originally thought to be a suicide but speculation in the years since the discovery of her remains has led to further investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death.
The Isdal Woman’s remains were discovered by a father out hiking with his two daughters in the foothills of Bergen in an area known as Isdalen, which means “Ice Valley.” When one of the children noted an odd burning smell, she ventured toward some nearby rocky debris where she was horrified to find the charred body of a woman. The family quickly departed for the local police station to report what they’d found. An immediate investigation was launched into the matter.
The woman was found lying facing upwards with her hands clenched up by her torso. The front of her body and her clothes were burned beyond recognition. Near the body, partially burned by the fire, were the following: One empty bottle of St. Hallvard liqueur, two plastic water bottles; plastic passport container; rubber boots; wool sweater; scarf; nylon stockings; umbrella; purse; matchbox; watch; pair of earrings; ring.
There were traces of burned paper around her. Discovered beneath this was a fur hat that appeared to have been doused with petrol. All identifying marks and labels had been removed or scratched off of every item found.
Several days later, two suitcases belonging to the woman were found at the Bergen railway station. In the lining of one of them were five 100 Deutsche Marks, which would have been worth just under $140 in 1970’s America. Additionally, detectives found clothing; shoes; wigs; makeup; face cream; maps; timetables; non-prescription glasses; sunglasses; cosmetics; a notepad. Money found separately from the Deutsche Marks was 135 Norwegian kroner and a small amount of Belgian, British, and Swiss coins.
An autopsy performed at the Gades Institute concluded that the woman had been incapacitated by phenobarbital. Blood analysis and an examination of her stomach contents revealed that she had ingested around 50–70 Fenemal brand sleeping pills. Near her body, the detectives had recovered an additional dozen of the same. She had been further poisoned by carbon monoxide. There was evidence that her neck was bruised from perhaps a fall or a blow and the condition of her lungs indicated that she had been burned alive. Her teeth and jaw were removed due to the unique gold fillings in her dental work and tissue samples were taken.
Once they had learned all they could from their forensic evaluation of the scene and the body, the police turned to the public for help in identifying the woman. They revealed that she was last seen alive when she checked out of Room 407 at the Hotel Hordaheimen on November 23. The description hotel staff provided to police indicated that she was an attractive brunette, about 5 foot 4 inches tall, with small brown eyes. They noted that she had kept to herself in her room and seemed guarded. When she checked out, she paid her bill in cash and asked them to call her a taxi.
This is the last thing that is known about her movements prior to her being found in Ice Valley.
The notepad recovered contained coded entries which the police were able to decode into a list of dates and locations where the woman had visited. According to them, she had traveled around Oslo, Trondheim, and Stavanger in Norway. She had also traveled to Paris. It was determined that she had at least eight fake passports and aliases. While the details varied from one identity to the next, they all had some things in common. She always listed her nationality as Belgian and all of the forms had been filled out in either German or French.
It was further learned that she had stayed at several hotels in Bergen and in even in multiple rooms within a single hotel stay in some. She commonly told hotel staff that she was a traveling saleswoman and antiquities dealer. One man claimed to have heard her speaking German to a man in one of the hotels. Others made note of the fact that she also spoke Flemish and broken English. One even noted that she smelled of garlic. She also noticeably wore different wigs while there, according to many of the witnesses.
Based on the information gathered, the police created a composite sketch and sent it, along with the autopsy’s medical analysis, to Interpol for distribution in other countries. Despite every effort being made, no one was able to identify the woman. It was eventually concluded that she had committed suicide. Of course, many were not satisfied with this answer, feeling that she had been murdered.
On February 5, 1971, the Isdal Woman was given a Catholic burial on the assumption that her use of various saint’s names on check-in forms might be indicative of her faith. She was laid to rest in an unmarked grave located in the Mollendal graveyard located in Bergen. A zinc coffin was chosen to both preserve her remains and for ease of disinterment if her body was one day claimed. The ceremony was photographed in case relatives one day came forward. The only people in attendance were 16 members of the Bergen police force.
Both her identity and her demise have been the subject of much speculation over the years. Some believe she was a Cold War spy and involved in the top-secret trials of the Penguin missile taking place during that period of time. There is the possibility that she was tied to counter-intelligence activities by Mossad. Due to the number of passports with different identities, it isn’t a stretch to believe she may have been involved with some sort of military operation that could have led to her being murdered.
The taxi driver who picked her up at the hotel to take her to Bergen railway station has never been identified. However, in 1991, a taxi driver who asked to remain anonymous claims that he is the one to have picked her up at the hotel and that they were joined by another man at the station.
In 2005, a Bergen resident, who was 26 in 1970, told a local newspaper that after seeing the sketch circulated, he suspected that the dead woman was a woman he had seen five days before the body was found while he was hiking on the hillside at Fløyen. Surprisingly, she was dressed lightly for the city rather than a hike and was walking ahead of two men wearing heavier coats. He stated that she appeared resigned to whatever fate was about to befall her and acted as if she’d like to speak to him but didn’t dare. He further claims that he went to a friend in the police department with this info back when the case was first being investigated and was told to forget about it. There is no record of his revelation, if true.
In 2016, the case was reopened. The NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Company) commissioned American artist Stephen Missal to create six new sketches of the Isdal Woman and these were shown to people who had reported having seen her during the initial investigation.
In 2017, further forensics on the woman’s teeth and jawbone, which had been preserved in police custody rather than buried with the rest of her remains, indicated that the woman was born around 1930 in Nuremberg, Germany. Stable isotope analysis shows that she had moved into France or at least to the France-Germany border as a child. This matched an earlier handwriting analysis that suggested she was educated in France or a nearby country. It is further believed that her dental work traces back to a dentist in either East Asia, Central Europe, Southern Europe, or South America.
A 2018 podcast series called Death in Ice Valley includes interviews and eyewitnesses and forensic scientists that seem to agree with these conclusions. After the podcast was aired, the BBC announced that listeners had contacted them with what could be even more useful clues. Coleen Fitzpatrick, a geneticist with the DNA Doe Project, contacted the Death in Ice Valley team and offered her expertise to help identify the Isdal Woman.
So, after more than 50 years, the mystery of the Isdal Woman remains. While she was initially ruled a suicide, the reopening of the case and the details simply don’t seem to mesh with that conclusion. Unless homicide in this case can be firmly ruled out, she seems to be yet another femtality in search of justice.