Exactly 50 years today, November 23, a striking and cultured woman walked out of Norwegian train station having deposited two suitcases. She would never be seen alive again. Six days later, her burnt remains were found at Ice Valley in the nearby mountains. Nobody knows who she was, or what she was doing there. The discovery would trigger one of the world’s most notable unsolved cases, and for half a century, the police and public have been intrigued at the death of the so-called Isdal Woman. There have been books, podcasts, documentaries and pages of online forums dedicated to the case. While the spectre of the KGB and Cold War fears of international spy rings loom large, other theories might hold more answers. She may even have committed suicide all along, just as the police claimed. Nobody quite knows for sure just who or what was behind the death, but modern technology is hard at work trying their best to finally close the file on Norway’s biggest mystery…
Funeral in Bergen
It was on November 29, 1970, that a man and his two daughters were enjoying a hike in the foothills of Isdalen (“Ice Valley”) at Ulriken, the highest of the seven mountains that surround the city of Bergen. The peaks are famed throughout Norway and Bergen is often called “the city between the seven mountains”. The area was notorious as a suicide spot, however, with origins dating back far back as the Middle Ages. Coupled with a recent series of hiking accidents in heavy fog, the area had gained the moniker of “Death Valley”. It was on this cold morning that the nickname would become more apt than it had ever been.
Noting an unusual burning smell in the air, one of the man’s daughters came across the burned remains of a woman amongst some rocks. The body was charred beyond recognition and had assumed the “boxer pose” that is often associated with burnings, the arms retreating back toward the chest. Fearful, the girl alerted her father and the group quickly made their way back down the slopes to alert the police.
Bergen Police immediately began a significant investigation into the circumstances surrounding the unknown woman’s death. Investigators cordoned off the scene and noted the woman’s position, laying flat on her back, observing that there were no signs of a campfire that may have caused an accident. Around the body were a large number of items that some have said appeared to have been placed. However, this is likely not the case.
There was a pair of rubber boots at the victim’s knees and the remains of a bag near her thigh area. Over a stone nearby was a woollen sweater and on other rocks were the melted remains of two plastic bottles/flasks which contained water. The heat from the fire had also partially melted a plastic cup and spoon. With these objects out in the open, she may have been making a hot drink.
When the body was removed the next day, police found a steel ladies wristwatch that was marked “Solo”, it had a black imitation leather strap. This watch was located near the left knee alongside a pair of earrings and a ring. Under the buttocks of the body was a fur hat that was said to smell of petroleum. There was also burnt remains of crackers or bread and some burned paper, which could have been anything. There was an umbrella, an empty bottle of St. Hallvard liqueur, a suspected plastic passport container, and the remains of a matchbox from Beate Uhse, Europe’s first-ever sex shop. Peculiarly, the photos of the body from November 23 seem to show a ring on the left hand, and perhaps an earring near the right ear, but this is less distinct.
The crime scene seems to indicate that the woman was having either a small break or picnic, with drinking paraphernalia paced out and the remains of bread or crackers found. Many tellings of the tale don’t include this detail, leading to speculation that the body was dumped. Some involved with the case have not helped matters by describing the positioning of items in “ceremonial” terms when their location might be suggestive she’d simply stopped for crackers and a drink.
If the items were placed, it should be noted that it is known for suicide victims to often remove personal belongings before their death, particularly in cases such as drowning or immolation. Investigating the findings, police quickly realised that all labels had been removed from both her clothing and the bottles found at the scene.
After leaving the body under guard overnight, forensic teams continued to work at the site the following day and eventually the body was taken to Gade’s Institute for autopsy at Haukeland Hospital, with an autopsy being performed by pathologist Johan Christopher Giertsen. The full reports would come over the coming days, with the pathologist finding that the Isdal Woman had died from carbon monoxide inhalation. Soot found in the lungs indicated she had been alive when set alight. The woman had suffered a bruise to her neck from either a blow or a fall and had a small amount of alcohol in her system.
Alongside the alcohol was four milligrams of the sedative Fenemal which is native to Norway. Despite some belief, this is not a commonly used sleeping tablet. Fenemal is phenobarbital and is commonly used to treat ellipsey and seizures. It is also occasionally used for sleeping sickness, anxiety and drug withdrawal. The side effects associated with the drug are decreased levels of consciousness and a decreased effort to breath. In the longterm, there are concerns over dependency and increased risk of suicide. Overdose can lead to pulmonary edema and acute renal failure through shock. It can result in death.
However, the dose in the Isdal Woman’s bloodstream was not a lethal dosage and the amount would be unlikely to have made her particularly drowsy. Instead, it would have produced a calming effect. An additional 50–70 tablets were undissolved in her stomach at the time of death, and therefore their effects played no part in her death. The jaw and teeth were removed from the body for tests, having have received unique gold-filling dental work at some point in her life. Working on the case in the modern era, professor Gisle Bang would later ascertain that this work had been done in Eastern, Southern or Central Europe. Associate Professor Sigrid I. Kvaal preferred a more definitive answer of Eastern Europe.
The nature of the fire also threw up questions. Many myths also abound here, such as the presence of a large amount of petrol or the woman being on a campfire. This was never the case. Equally, claims that carbon monoxide poisoning in the open air is impossible are also false. Despite some belief, her back was also burned.
“The body turned out to be quite burned in the back, while the seat/bum region seemed to be undamaged. We noticed that the woman’s clothes were reasonably identifiable solely around the stomach- and seat region. This probably indicates that she, during the first hectic part of the fire, must have been sitting bent forward and therefore somehow have shielded the said body parts.”
Forensics Report, Bergen Police
The woman’s fur hat that was found under the body was said to smell of petroleum, yet only a fraction of a drop was retrieved from the ground below the body.
The levels of carbon monoxide in the blood and soot particles in the airways suggested that the victim was alive. While she may have hit her head, the autopsy makes no mention of this. Police lawyer Carl Halvor Aas, one of the first on the scene, said it appeared as if she “had thrown herself back” from the flames. Police would later conclude that the Isdal Woman had been surrounded by a short-lived but intense fire.
“It was out of the way — it was an unusual place to walk. [There was] a strong smell of burnt flesh. The body was burned all over the front, [including] the face and most of her hair.”
Carl Halvor Aas, a police lawyer, BBC
Ornulf Tofte, a former head of the Norwegian security services, the Politiets overvåkningstjeneste (POT), said he believed a small localised explosion might have been responsible. Speaking to the BBC for their Death in Ice Valley podcast series, he suggested that the woman was known to have a large can of hairspray, speculating that the canister exploded in her face, explaining why she appeared to have leapt back. However, any explosion would leave shrapnel and the remains of the canister. This would also apply to incendiary devices. There were no blast injuries reported to the body.
The Property of a Lady
Investigators wouldn’t have to wait long for a break in the affair. On December 2, a pair of suitcases were found in a storage box at the Bergen train station. The bags had been deposited on November 23 and hadn’t yet been picked up, despite the time paid for running out. The police opened the suitcases and quickly linked them to the dead woman in Ice Valley. Inside the case was clothing, shoes, a wig, makeup, cosmetics and eczema cream, all with the labels removed. Differing currency was found Norwegian, Belgian, British and Swiss. Inside the lining of one of the cases was a 100 Deutsche Mark note, the former West German currency. There were maps, a timetable and both sunglasses and regular glasses. On a notepad, the police discovered a “coded message” and a shopping bag for Oscar Rørtvedt’s Footwear Store in the city of Stavanger. They would both be vital.
The items in the suitcases offer us some insight into the type of person the Isdal Woman was. From just a selection, a picture develops. While most markings had been taken off, there were Italian leather shoes in a plastic bag from Rome. There was a pair of Gant Neyret gloves in imitation snakeskin, made in Paris. Both these speak of style, money and high taste. There was a nice trench coat with a possible fox fur collar and a fur hat in the Cossack style. In terms of toiletries, she possessed a herbal shampoo and a perfume by Jacques Esterel of Paris. It was a mixture of citrus and fruit, with a slight undertone of flowers. There was make-up from Paris alongside a wig in the “Napoleon” cut. One of the maps had the heights of Bergen’s mountains noted on it. A sewing kit was from Hotel Regina in Geneva. There was a religious postcard, and another that depicted a Norwegian winter scene of Santa Claus and his sleigh. There was a photo of the Madonna. She had a newspaper, Dagbladet, dated Saturday, November 21, 1970, and it is unknown if the contents held interest or it was merely the last one she had purchased. Police found another box of matches from the Beate Uhse sex shop, a link to the crime scene where the first box was found. There was a spoon from Vienna and a brown crystalised substance in a bag that looked like sugar. Police later discovered it was, in fact, sugar.
Three of the great misconceptions with the case were also born here. The so-called “coded message” was not a cypher, nor does it really has any right to be called code, instead it is merely shorthand with months and destinations reduced to initial letters. There were no “wigs” found in the suitcases, and there was only the one in the Napoleon style. This haircut would be the one that is usually depicted in the police sketches. Equally, the police never found any of the supposed eight passports that the woman had used. The only evidence they had existed was the fact that international guests were required to show this document at check-in and, with differing aliases, it stood to reason that different passports were therefore used. However, the possibility exists that a successful con-artist would have been able to circumvent this requirement. That said, to do this on eight separate occasions would be impressive. But the fact remains that the only possible indication of a passport was found at the burn site, and then only the one. What happened to any other documents remains unknown.
As police worked on cracking the “code”, progress was made on tracking the movements of the deceased. Making inquiries at Oscar Rørtvedt’s shop, police in Stavanger discovered that a person fitting the description of the Isdal Woman had bought a pair of boots matching those at the crime scene. These boots were purchased in the city and upon further investigation, police discovered she had checked into a local hotel under the name Fenella Lorck or Lorch. There was nobody by that name in either Norway or Belgium, the country of origin she had given at the hotel. Just three days later, the notepad would be cracked, and the message was found to be a comprehensive itinerary for both Norway and broader Europe. The scale of the case and potential for an international angle was now becoming apparent. It seems likely that the whispers of espionage had likely already begun. The investigation soon consumed the time of every member of Bergen PD and inquiries were made with Interpol.
Police sent inquiries to all districts and a description of what the deceased looked like was issued, based on information from Rolf Rørtvedt who served the woman at Oscar Rørtvedt’s Footwear Store. The Isdal Woman was said to have been between 25 and 40 years of age, 5 foot 4 inches in height with a small round face, brown eyes, and little ears. She had “long brownish-black hair” that she wore “in a ponytail tied with a blue and white print ribbon”. Fingerprints of the woman were sent to the Criminal Police Center in Oslo to check for a match, but police were left disappointed as nothing matched anything on record. Some claims have been made that the woman’s fingerprints had been sanded away, this is not the case, and a full set was taken from the corpse.
The Norwegian press was now awash with speculation that the dead woman was a spy, and the headlines were certainly not without backing as the police suspected likewise. The security services, the Politiets overvåkningstjeneste or Police Surveillance Agency (POT) become quietly involved, a fact that the police would deny for decades. One aspect that the POT was particularly keen to investigate were reports that the woman had been seen watching a military test of new rocket technology in the west of the country.
Meanwhile, the code allowed police to track the Isdal woman to Trondheim, Oslo, Stavanger and elsewhere. They checked forms at hotels across the locations and began to build a picture of her activities. Police discovered that she always claimed to be Belgian but used a wide variety of aliases, Genevieve Lancier at Hotel Viking (now know as Hotel Royal Christiania) in Oslo for example, Claudia Tielt in Bergen. In Paris, she was Vera Schlosseneck. They discovered her movements via speedboat between Stavanger and Bergen. They found she had been in the country before, travelling out to Basel. Handwriting analysis conclusively linked the forms to the suitcase and the fingerprints confirmed that the luggage did indeed belong to the Isdal Woman.
Passenger to Bergen
Witnesses were sought from the mystery woman’s stay at the varying hotels across the country. Most told a similar story. The woman always claimed to be Belgian and spoke poor English, but French, Flemish and German well. One eyewitness statement said they had seen her speaking in German with an unidentified man. She was golden-skinned and dark-haired. She often claimed to be a travelling saleswoman and antiquities dealer. She had an air of pride and sophistication, her style was noted. Her features, however, were less sure. Some said she looked Slavic. Others suggested she might have been from the Middle East. Others yet still thought “southern” or “oriental”. At hotels, she was noted for knowing her wine, yet also for changing her room. One member of staff even observed that she had moved a table into a wardrobe to gain more floor space and that she seemed “afraid” to open the door. Many noted that she carried an odd “spicy” smell, with some saying it was garlic. However, this might be a mistake as others had pointed out that the smell was merely strong perfume, the staff at hotels saying that it hung in the air of her room even when she wasn’t present. The perfume in her case, however, was fruity and floral.
Interestingly, the Mayo Clinic states that the apocrine glands in the body secrete an oily sweat when someone is suffering from anxiety or emotional stress. The fatty compounds produced are a breeding ground for sulfur-producing bacteria which makes a smell very similar to garlic. The Isdal Woman is noted as being watchful and potentially paranoid, and the dose of tablets that had already been digested was said to be at a level that would produce a calming effect.
The “code” meanwhile was found to utilise a very simple system and while it may appear at first glance to be a cypher, it is merely abbreviations. For example, “24 M 31 M B” is “24th March — 31st March, Bergen”. The details seem to be three sets of travel, one lasting from March 10, 1970, through April 3, 1970. The second period lasting from April 23, 1970, until July 18, 1970, and the final period lasting from October 2, 1970, until her death, the final entry marked as Bergen, November 18. No future dates were present, and the itinerary was all written with the same pen. The lack of other dates may be suggestive that the Isdal Woman never intended to leave Bergen.
Between March 20 and 24, 1970, she entered the country from Geneva, arriving in Oslo. She stayed at the Hotel Viking and used the name “Genevieve Lancier” before departing for Stavanger via aircraft. She then took the speedboat to Bergen and stayed a night at Hotel Bristol under the name “Claudia Tielt”. The next day she moved to the Hotel Scandia and kept the same name. On April 1, she travelled from Bergen to Stavanger, and on to Kristiansand, Hirtshals, Hamburg and Basel. Interestingly, this trip seems to be unmentioned on the “code” with an “H” listed where the entry for April 1 would be, presumably Hamburg. On April 3, her itinerary listed her as being in “R” with no date of departure.
European Context:March 19, 1970: The leaders of East and West Germany meet at a summit for the first time since the division of Germany. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt is greeted by a welcoming East German crowd when arriving in Erfurt with his counterpart, East German Ministerpräsident Willi Stoph.April 4, 1970: The fragments of burnt human remains believed to be those of Adolf Hitler, Eva Braun, Joseph Goebbels, Magda Goebbels and the Goebbels children are all crushed and scattered in the Biederitz river at a KGB centre in Magdeburg, East Germany.
Presuming the system remains consistent, in April she travels to an unknown “F” and then onto “R” once more, followed by an unidentified “V” and a “W”. In July she is in “N” and again “R”. Then she is at a “P”, another “A” and then again “R”. Some suggestions for these letters are Frankfurt, Venice/Vienna, Wolfsburg, Nuremberg/Nice, Paris, Amsterdam/Aarhus/Amiens. A bottle of perfume from Paris was found in her luggage, and, likely, the “code” was in French or German, which would mean non-English spellings (such as Wein) would change the outcome. “L” was almost certainly London.
Police accounts say that she was then out of Noway for six months so all Norwegian cities can be discounted. The regularity of “R” is a point of interest and may suggest a home. It is the last listed destination listed in all three of the top columns. Where this is has never been ascertained, yet speculation suggests Rome, Rotterdam or Reims. However, amongst the suitcase belongings of the mystery woman was a second shoe shopping bag besides the local one. This bag was from Nickol in Rome, a store that still exists today. Given the frequency of the “R”, the positioning at the bottom of the columns and the circumstantial evidence of the bag, Rome might well have been the base of whatever operation was underway. Also amongst the deceased’s possession was a plastic Beate Uhse matchbox sold in Germany. While we know she was in Hamburg, this was some time prior, we could therefore speculate that one of the unknown letters in the middle column is in Germany, perhaps the “F”. The matchbox was marked Flensburg where the company had its first shop and offices, though all such boxes were marked this way.
Interesting points of note are that the woman changes the dating method between the first column and the rest of the document initially placing the day first and then the month in the French, German and British fashion. She then swaps to the American style of putting the month first. This suggests the first column was written at a different time to the rest of the itinerary. Her October 3 trip from Stockholm to Oslo, and on to Oppdal is not listed, the only known trip to not be on the paper. We can presume that “H” is Hamburg. However, her journey on to Basel after April 1 is not listed, despite being a major city. This might suggest her trip to Basel was unexpected.
The final line of the “code” presumably is a footnote of something to be done on March 10 before beginning her first trip. It is not a flight reference, nor seemingly a car registration or British postcode which uses a similar style. If the line were a mixture of Latin and regular numbers, it would give us “105023 0 2000” yet this is unlikely, and the line should be taken in the context of the rest of the document as a simple abbreviation. However, ML 23 N MM contains an acronym we’ve already seen, “N”, which throughout the rest of the paper stands for November. The first column of the “code” features the standard European dating system, and this line is in that column. “23 November” is the day that the Isdal Woman dies. Being placed under the start date of her journey and with no entry beyond November 23, it could be speculated that this line refers to the end. That wouldn’t necessarily mean a predetermined suicide as, having checked out of her hotel, it seems likely it was the last day of her trip in any case. If, however, the suicide theory is to be believed, given the slight religious overtones in the woman’s life and her possible knowledge of antiques and art, “MM” might stand for “Momento Mori”, “remember that you will die”. The phrase is a reminder of mortality and is a type of classic Christian art. November remains the same in English and Latin, and taking it further, “ML” might well be “Mane Lunae”, “Monday Morning”. November 23, 1970 was a Monday.
Monday Morning, 23rd November, Remember You Will Die.
This last line seems to have been written at the same time as everything else in the first column, and if that’s the case then it’s telling she left no space for any further entries after November 23, also placing later trips in the middle column for symmetry. If anything further had been planned, placing the second set of dates (October 22 onward) into the first column would have been more likely. If November 23 has been preordained as a date of death, then suicide is obvious, and it’s likely the date held some significance.
It is not impossible that the Isdal Woman planned an extensive trip around Europe as a personal farewell, having long marked out the date of her death. However, two postcards and names linked to saints do not make somebody devout. Equally, suicide is expressly forbidden by Catholic doctrine. “Mane Lunae” would also not be grammatically correct, all be it still making sense. However, we don’t know if there was any level of proficiency or any knowledge at all. This theory therefore seems unlikely speculation, and the line remains a mystery, but it was likely something relating to a requirement before she began her journey.
European Context:May 14, 1970: In West Germany, Ulrike Meinhof assists Andreas Baader in an escape, they create the Red Army Faction which exists until 1998.June 2, 1970: Norway announces it has discovered rich oil deposits off its North Sea coast.June 15, 1970: Fifteen mostly Jewish refuseniks attempt to escape from the USSR by hijacking a plane.July 3, 1970: France detonates a 914 kiloton thermonuclear device at Mururoa Atoll.
In 2019, a new witness said he met the Isdal Woman in the French-German border town of Forbach in the summer of 1970, during this period where her movements are unknown. Wishing to remain anonymous, the man stated that he was 22 and believed she was around 26 or 27. They talked on painting and art, but she “didn’t want to talk about her life and her work.”
“I met a woman in a bar in the mining town in the summer of 1970. We saw each other for two, three weeks. She said she was passing through, a tourist, who was staying with friends… She was the one who told me where and at what time we would see each other… She had a Balkan accent.” woman whose name I, unfortunately, forgot spoke several languages. Her German was almost perfect, her French more academic.”
Witness, Le Republicain Lorrain
The witness reported that he became troubled by strange phone calls the woman would receive, listening in with curiosity at what was going on. Investigating further, the man claims that he found evidence she may be a spy — the descriptions given tally with the Isdal Woman.
“They took place in a room. She knew the time of the calls. She would put on music so that I wouldn’t hear… I heard a man’s voice speaking a language I didn’t know. It sounded to me like it was always worried during calls. She said she had several papers and passports that allowed her to cross the Berlin Wall and go to East Germany without any problem. I rummaged through her things. She had two suitcases, not very large. There were wigs inside. She was also carrying two bags with very colourful clothes in them. Sometimes she would turn into an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old. She was very good at changing her appearance. It was amazing. It was during the Cold War. For a few weeks, I wanted to go to the authorities, the police or the gendarmerie. I was afraid…”
Witness, Le Republicain Lorrain
The account is full of flavour and may be too good to be true, fitting almost perfectly with the well-known case while, of course, no name is mentioned. No passports were recovered from the Isdal Woman’s belongings and it seems unlikely that many frauds would have been good enough to get across the highly secure Berlin Wall unless expertly produced. The account also doesn’t tally with DNA analysis that makes the Isdal Woman much older. Intriguingly, however, the witness provided a photograph of the woman he says he knew, having stolen it from her as a memento. The resemblance is there.
The next officially known movements come briefly on October 3 as the deceased travelled from Stockholm to Oslo, and on to Oppdal.
European ContextSeptember 6, 1970: The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacks four aircraft on flights to New York from Brussels, Frankfurt and Zürich, flying them to a desert airstrip in Jordan, part of the events of Black September.September 22, 1970: American President Richard Nixon begins a tour of Europe, visiting Italy, Yugoslavia, Spain, Great Britain and Ireland.September 29, 1970: The Red Army Faction rob three banks in Berlin, they steal over 200,000 Deutschmarks.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Photographer
At Oppdal, the Isdal Woman has an alleged encounter with the Italian photographer Giovanni Trimboli. Trimboli owned his own company, GRAKO, and was known for his photos of Scandanavian landscapes and aircraft that adorned postcards.
He was born in Sicily on July 1, 1926, making him 44 in 1970. He entered the family tradition with his father and grandfather both being photographers. He worked on the set of Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1951) starring Ingrid Bergman and emigrated to the United States the year afterwards. There he worked as an assistant cameraman and photographer in Hollywood during the 1950s. In America, he became interested in landscape photography and published books in many countries, dividing his time between the US and Italy.
By all accounts, Trimboli was the very stereotype of an international photographer, being a fan of both women and fast cars. Given the Isdal Woman’s striking looks, it’s no surprise Trimboli is said to have struck up a conversation. The playboy is said to have had affairs with women as far apart as his native Italy and the US, plus both Norway and Sweden. He is also said to have fathered many children. One of his postcards was found in the deceased woman’s case, and after inquiries, he confirmed he had given it to her after inviting her to dinner. While the Isdal Woman is usually described as unwilling to converse and all-business, here Trimboli claims he even took her for a trip in his car. She identified herself as South African and a saleswoman specialising in antiques. She is also said to have told him she had six months to see all the exciting places in Norway.
The trip to Oppdal is unique in the known history of the Isdal woman as it doesn’t appear in her “coded” notebook. This may suggest that whatever the purpose of her trip was, it was personal.
Trimboli was seen in the presence of a woman on October 2 in Oslo. The woman sitting in his car throughout a 2-hour business meeting and the photographer told his business partner that he had just met the woman. Trimboli claimed this meeting had taken place at the office for Tourism in Norway and was giving her a lift. He told the same man that she was a wealthy Chinese student and headed for Stockholm. Later that evening, Trimboli phoned his partner claiming to be in Oerje on his way there. However, that same evening he arrived in Oppdal, 284 miles away and was alone. Here he told hotel staff that he had flown from Italy to Stockholm and come through Trondheim. The woman arrived from Oslo the day afterwards.
The woman spent most of the day in the town square waiting for somebody and, after a day working, the photographer met her in what witnesses describe as a planned meeting around 4pm. That evening the two dined with the manager of the hotel, and she claimed she was Chinese, living in South Africa. The woman said she would be going to Trondheim and Trimboli said he was going to Oslo. She slept in the same room as the photographer, and neither went where they said they were going, ending up in Loen.
In 1971, the police carried out an extensive investigation into the whereabouts of Giovanni Trimboli during 1970, discovering that descriptions of the woman he’d been with matched the Isdal Woman. During questioning, the photographer claimed to police that he met the woman by coincidence in Oppdal and that she hitchhiked with him to Oslo before departing in Stockholm. The next day his story changes and he claims he drove her directly to Sweden, saying that after arriving there they took a trip to Helsinki and back. The police acquired the name of the woman that Trimboli was with and checked with their South African counterparts. The woman was alive and seemingly not the Isdal Woman.
However, the woman in South Africa was no longer a student as Trimboli was claiming, nor did she live near Johannesburg as he had claimed. The police seemingly never asked her if she’d been in Norway at the time. The alibi, however, falls apart when you consider the postcard.
The hotel manager had given the woman he met a postcard, it was one that Trimboli had given him some months earlier as part of a bundle. The manager didn’t think it was available in shops at the time, which seems logical as it was a Christmas scene. The same postcard, with the same photographer and serial number, was one of the two found in the bag of the Isdal Woman.
European ContextOctober 6, 1970: French President Georges Pompidou visits the Soviet Union.October 21, 1970: A USAF plane makes an emergency landing near Leninakan in the Soviet Union. The USSR release the American officers unharmed, including two generals on November 10.
The Isdal Identity
On October 22 1970, the Isdal Woman was in Paris at Hotel Altona, transferring to Hotel de Calais between October 23 and 29. On that day she travelled to Stavanger and on to Bergen, arriving October 30 where she checks in at the Hotel Neptun under the name “Alexia Zerner-Merches”.
At the Hotel, she placed a table in the small hall behind the door of her room. On another occasion, she was seen with a man in the dining room. Neither spoke, but she handed him a note. Upon reading it, the man is said to have become sombre. Alvhild Rangnes, formerly of the Hotell Neptun, Bergen, observed the woman well and noted that on another occasion, she was sat beside two officers of the West German Bundesmarine (Federal Navy). However, Rangnes didn’t record any interaction.
“Back then, single women in the dining room were not a common phenomenon. But this woman came in, with a proud posture, found a table, and settled down comfortably. She was obviously a woman used to travelling on her own. I remember I whispered to my colleague that I hoped I could adopt this woman’s style as an adult. She made a lasting impression on me. She seemed so self-confident and aloof. But she was not really the type to don jogging pants and go hiking up in the Isdalen valley.”
Alvhild Rangnes, formerly of the Hotell Neptun, Bergen
Between November 6 and 9, the deceased stayed in Trondheim at Hotel Bristol using the name “Vera Jarle” She then travelled to Oslo and on to Stavanger, rooming at Hotel St. Svitun with the alias “Fenella Lorch”. She got a boat back to Bergen on November 18 and checked in at the Hotel Rosenkrantz where she would stay just one night. A maid noted that when she had entered her room to do her sheets, she had inadvertently walked in on the woman. The maid found her in the company of a man. The Isdal Woman was sat on the bed, the man on a couch. Neither spoke and the woman, dressed in black like every other description, was sombre. The two seemed almost in mourning. She left the Rosenkrantz for the Hotel Hordaheimen the day after.
The Isdal Woman would stay at her new and final hotel between November 19 and November 23, confining herself mostly to her room and being said to be anxious and watchful. Staff at the hotel would say that she moved an armchair into the hall when she was in her room, adding weight to previous reports that she had also cleared space at earlier hotel rooms. There is also a report from Bergen itself which suggests she was in the company of a man at a furniture store. The two had argued before purchasing a wall mirror. This account is likely false, with the deceased known to have been in Stavanger at that time. It stands as a warning that all such statements must be treated with caution with mistaken identity frequent. Equally, “helpful” witnesses occasionally attempt to insert themselves into cases by telling police what they believe they want to hear, influenced by reports in the press. Reasons for this include vanity, mental illness or personal vendettas.
Another witness came forward to say that they had seen her exchanging currency with a man on the morning of November 23. This was before she had checked out of her hotel, and the money was likely to settle her account. She got into a taxi and went to the railway station where she checked-in the suitcases. In 1991, the taxi driver came forward to say that they were joined by another man before reaching the station. Some witnesses suggested they had seen smoke emanating from Ice Valley just around an hour and a half after this, though it can’t be said that this was connected.
This witness statement for November 23 also poses a problem. For while it is undoubtedly most likely correct, the woman confirmed by documentation to have checked out on that day, it contradicts a statement from November 22 which might suggest the woman was already dead.
On Sunday, November 22, a man was on a trip with his wife at the Svartediksvannet Lake in the Ice Valley. Both noticed a distinct funnel of smoke. The weather was said to be grey, with the smoke dissipating soon afterwards. Given that the trip was on his day off work, the witness is unlikely to have made mistakes as to what day it happened. If this account is correct and the fire seen was the Isdal Woman, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the corpse at Isdalen was not the same woman walking around Bergen.
Indeed, this would explain several discrepancies in the case. Witnesses never described the Isdal Woman as having a gap in her teeth, yet her surviving jawbone shows this is so. Future DNA testing puts the age of the corpse at between 36 and 44, with eyewitnesses saying she looked as young as 25 and none suggesting a woman as old as 44. People described a woman with muscular thighs and wide hips, yet the photos from the crime scene don’t tell this, even accounting for damage to the body. Equally, the DNA results offer no explanation for why witnesses believed she was of an exotic appearance, DNA information linking her to Germany.
In fact, the only thing that links the body to the suitcase is the fingerprints which were found on the sunglasses which were also said to be broken. These could easily have been placed inside the suitcase. Notably, everything else inside had no fingerprints at all, even items such as the hairbrush. Suppose the woman on the mountain and the woman in Bergen are not the same, possibly as part of an attempt to fake a death. Maybe even a cover for a defection. In that case, the link between the corpse and the extensive itinerary around Europe and Norway is broken, meaning there are two mysteries to be solved. Equally, if the woman had been a spy, the body could have been swapped and repatriated in secret, all be it as a far-fetched idea.
To add weight to the theory that the timeline is questionable, another eyewitness account from midnight on November 23 places the Isdal Woman as still alive and in the company of another woman and a man. Most believe the deceased had already perished hours before this point. Interestingly, the witness stated that the man and woman were seen at Isdalen in a large car.
However, all of that is conjecture and speculation. Almost all universally accept that the two people were one and the same. Indeed, there are plenty of witnesses who say the fire was on November 23.
Tore Osland, the son of Harald Osland, the lead the investigator of the case in 1970, wrote an excellent book covering the issue in detail. The book, The Isdal Woman: Death in Ice Valley, recants many of these witness statements about November 23 alongside the one from the November 22.
A forest worker reported that he had seen smoke or fog on Monday 23, as did an army employee who definitively timed the smoke as around 12pm in the afternoon, believing it was a bonfire. A cyclist also saw the smoke and reported the same timing. Around 11:50, ten minutes earlier, a firefighter unconnected to the reported smoke saw a man exiting Ice Valley aged about 30 to 40. Assuming that the eyewitness reports of smoke on November 22 are false or a separate fire and the eyewitness report of the Isdal Woman alive at midnight on November 23 is incorrect, it seems likely time of death was around midday on Monday 23.
Despite all the witness statements and the breakthrough in tracing the woman’s movements with the notepad, the investigation would proceed little further and, despite obtaining the itinerary, nothing new would arise from subsequent studies.
The final reconstruction of her movements and aliases was as follows, and this is a direct quotation from the BBC’s excellent article on the case:
- Genevieve Lancier, from Louvain, stayed in Viking Hotel, Oslo from 21–24 March 1970
- Claudia Tielt, from Brussels, stayed in Hotel Bristol, Bergen from 24–25 March
- Claudia Tielt, from Brussels, stayed in Hotel Skandia, Bergen from 25 March to 1 April
- Claudia Nielsen, from Ghent, stayed in KNA-Hotellet, Stavanger from 29 -30 October
- Alexia Zarne-Merchez, from Ljubljana, stayed in Neptun Hotel, Bergen from 30 October to 5 November
- Vera Jarle, from Antwerp, stayed in Hotel Bristol, Trondheim, from 6–8 November
- Fenella Lorch, stayed in St Svithun Hotel, Stavanger from 9 to 18 November
- Ms Leenhouwfr, stayed in Hotel Rosenkrantz, Bergen from 18–19 November
- Elisabeth Leenhouwfr, from Ostend, stayed in Hotel Hordaheimen, Bergen from 19–23 November
Just before Christmas, 1970, Criminal Commissioner Oskar Hordnes met privately with officers at Bergen Police station, telling the team that the case would remain unsolved until the Isdal Woman was identified. On December 22, police held a press conference at the station and stated that suicide was the most probable cause of death, outright rejecting all theories that the Isdal woman had been a foreign spy. The case was shut down.
On February 5, 1971, the Isdal Woman was buried with Catholic rites at the Møllendal graveyard in Bergen. Police had made the connection to her possibly being a Catholic through the regular use of saints names in her aliases. There was also the picture of the Madonna which had been found in her suitcase. The Catholic Church considers suicide a mortal sin. They will not conduct funeral services for persons who killed themselves, and they cannot be buried in a Catholic cemetery. While the official position of police in Bergen was that the woman’s death was a likely suicide, without an official designation, it seems that such rites were allowed. Her grave was unmarked, and the funeral was attended by 18 members of the Bergen PD. They ensured she was buried in a zinc coffin to prevent decomposition should she ever need to be disinterred.
Many of those working on the case outright rejected the official findings, with Carl Halvor Aas saying that “very few thought it was suicide” in the Bergen Police Department. Speaking to the BBC, Tore Osland, said that his father “could never put this case away” and was unwilling to “accept that they had to close down the case.”
“Personally I’m totally convinced that this was a murder. She had various identities, she operated with codes, she wore wigs, she travelled from town to town and switched hotels after a few days. This is what the police call conspiratory behaviour”
Knut Haavik, a crime reporter at VG in 1970
A Legacy of Spies?
In the years since the death of the mystery woman at Isdalen, may differing theories have been proposed surrounding what actually happened. Most favour the idea that the woman had indeed been a spy. Some suggest the hand of Mossad who were at work in Norway during this period, four agents being arrested during the Lillehammer Affair of 1974. However, all those arrested during that incident denied any knowledge of the woman and later DNA testing would suggest the deceased had no Jewish heritage.
However, the Isdal Woman wasn’t the first suspicious death in Norway, with several others being tentatively linked to the events in Ice Valley.
It was Christmas, 1962, when the body of a man was discovered slumped against a tree in Bardufoss. The man was quite dead. Police noted that there were no tracks around the body except the man’s own and the skis of the soldier who had discovered him. Investigators initially suspected the man had frozen to death, his foreign appearance perhaps suggesting he was a tourist unused to the harsh Norwegian winter. However, the autopsy showed that the man had died from ingesting cyanide. The poison wasn’t found in the flask of coffee that he had with him, nor in his luggage.
The man left behind his belongings and, unlike in most spy stories, there was a clear passport and visa, being issued to Adnan Salim Maalou, born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1933. He worked as a chemical engineer at a company in Lausanne, Switzerland. Maalou had arrived in Oslo the day before he flew into Bardufoss and told a flight attendant he was visiting a friend in Tromsø, telling staff at the terminal in Bardufoss the same story. Nobody came forward to say they had been the acquaintance.
Interestingly, the man had a map in his possession with a cross marked near where he died and in the pocket of his coat was a signal lantern with red and green lights. Why a man would fly into the Norwegian wilderness to signal to somebody and then take cyanide mystified the police. However, the airport and surrounding area are some of of the most critical military regions in Norway and a base for jet fighters and helicopters.
The police were soon contacted by a doctor at Lovisenberg Hospital in Oslo. This doctor said that both he and a colleague had known the man during his studies in Switzerland. He added that he was hardworking and reliable, yet known as mentally unwell with symptoms we would today describe as bipolar disorder. He was buried in Tromsø, and some time afterwards his family in Lebanon paid for a tombstone that says simply, “tragedy or mystery?”.
“We have reason to believe that he was somewhat unbalanced and that he had attempted suicide once before. The most obvious belief is that he has committed suicide under somewhat melodramatic circumstances. But we do not know. I am happy to admit that there are special circumstances associated with Maalouf’s death.”
Anonymous detective, 1967
On July 14, 1966, two children discovered the body of a woman on the beach at Leka, an island north of Nord-Trøndelag. The deceased was laying facing the sea, half sitting and half laying against a boulder. All the labels had been removed from the woman’s clothes. This was seemingly done at the scene of her death, and the remains of these labels were found in a fire close by. Also in the fire were her identification papers, photos and a map. Discovering sleeping tablets next to the body, the police decided it was a suicide and didn’t perform an autopsy.
Investigating further, however, the police discovered a trail of false names that had been used in the Trøndelag and Helgeland area, using different British aliases and claiming to be from London. In Trondheim, she had used her own passport and was revealed as being 39-year-old Galina Bredemeijer from Amsterdam, then residing in Estonia. Speaking with her husband, a history of depression was seemingly revealed, the man stating that she had left home a month before. He never reported her missing.
On August 14, 1966, the body of a man was found in Borre without identity papers. Using a bill for a hotel in Iceland to trace the man’s movements, he appeared to be Anders Karlsson of Jönköping, in Sweden. However, fingerprints showed this was a false alias, and he was, in fact, Tommy Plath from Sävsjø in Sweden. In cases that happened after the death of the Isdal Woman, it was on August 1, 1971, that a man was run over by a train in Nordlandsbanen, not far from outside Majavatn. The man had been decapitated, and there were no identity papers. Three years later, fingerprints discovered that the man was 27-year old Andriz Berzins from Würzburg, Germany. He had told his parents he was going on holiday to Belgium and France, making his presence in Norway a complete mystery.
Perhaps the most intriguing of all was the death of a Japanese man at Bodømarka. Discovered a short distance from the top of a mountain called Skautuva on September 19, 1976, the body had decomposed and clearly been there some time. A climber having suffered an accident or succumbed to exposure seemed likely. However, police soon discovered that all identifying marks on the man’s clothes had been removed. There were no identity papers and tickets from Stockholm found in his pocket had no name either. The mountain offered excellent views of several vital military installations, and speculation began to suggest that the man was a spy. These installations included a secret radio station for NATO’s Atlantic Fleet and Defense Command Northern Norway in Skjelstad north of Bodø.
The police put out worldwide alerts for the man, including dental records. They didn’t have to wait long for a result and just over a month later police in Japan matched the descriptions to Tatsuo Hirata, a 24-year-old from Sapporo. In 1975, he had travelled to Hamburg to work in a Japanese restaurant. The job was only for a few weeks, and after it was concluded he told his father back home that he wished to travel around Europe, doing odd jobs. His itinerary took him through Denmark to Sweden, where he was last confirmed to have been seen. Nobody knows where he had been in the interim or why he was up a mountain near secret NATO installations.
These cases may directly connect to the Isdal Woman, but more likely they don’t. However, they do show one of two things, that either mysterious forces were at work in Norway, probably linked to espionage, or that mental illness can often lead to people sadly committing suicide in the strangest of fashions. Equally, accidents can often seem suspicious through coincidence. However, in the case of the Isdal Woman, those coincidences may just happen too often.
From Russia, With Death
While blaming the CIA or KGB is often the first port of call for some theorists in unsolved cases, the idea does hold weight when applied to Isdal case. Somebody had to have financed her travel around Europe, and her apparant possession of multiple passports was suggestive of a well-powered organisation. The removal of clothing tags, utilisation of fake names, and a possible disguise is evocative enough, as is the witness statement that puts the woman in the vicinity of military rocket tests. Indeed, the witness is backed by documents that have been declassified by the Norwegian Armed Forces. These papers reveal that some of the Isdal Woman’s movements correspond to top-secret trials of the then-new Penguin missile.
- On March 24, 1970, the missile boats were in Bergen. The Isdal woman was also in Bergen.
- In April, the team conducting the tests were in Stavanger. So was the Isdal Woman.
- On October 29, new tests were carried out in Stavanger. The Isdal woman was there.
- On November 9, there were further tests in Stavanger. Once again, the Isdal Woman travelled to the city.
The Penguin is an anti-ship missile that was developed in Norway with financial backing from the United States and West Germany. The rockets had been in production from the early 1960s, and US Navy test facilities had been made available for development. It was the first NATO anti-ship missile with infrared homing ability, undoubtedly making it of high interest to the USSR. The system would enter service in 1972, two years after the death of the Isdal Woman. It is still in use today.
Henry Kjell Johansen of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) was one of the leaders of the Penguin program and states that the entire operation was under close surveillance from the USSR, with the high value being placed on the experimental technology that was under development.
“When we are going to shoot, a Soviet ship always shows up. Fishing boats or cargo ships often have an “engine stop” just outside the shooting range. We receive notification of this from the Norwegian Navy, which guards the area. So it is clear that the Russians know exactly when we will start the test firing”
Henry Kjell Johansen, Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI)
In 2016, the security services released the Isdal Woman’s file to journalists, revealing new information about the case that had been kept highly classified for 46 years. The files contained no indication that spy agencies had interfered in the investigation or shut down the affair. However, on the very same day that the police held their press conference to declare a suicide, the security department in the Armed Forces High Command sent them a message which should, by all rights, have cast immense doubt on the findings that were about to be delivered to a waiting press and public.
“Woman found dead in Isdalen probably observed Tananger in November while tests with Penguin were carried out. The woman was also in Stavanger while similar tests were performed in April”
Norwegian Armed Forces High Command, December 22, 1970
The newly released files also showed that the mystery woman’s trip to Trondheim had coincided with the presence of two GRU agents in the city. The reports come from surveillance that had been placed at Trondheim airport, working on a tip that two Soviets by the name of Rubanov and Popov were about to land. The tails reported that the duo was under watch at the airport, but they could not be sure that either man hadn’t spoken with anyone during their time there. The two agents would depart for Sandnessjøen. It seems possible that these agents were Gennardi Fedorovich Popov and Aleksandr Nikolaevich Rubanov, two agents named by Viktor Suvorov in his 1982 book Inside Soviet Military Intelligence. Suvorov had served as a GRU officer inside the Soviet Union and at the United Nations Office in Geneva. He defected to the United Kingdom in 1978. Suvorov also briefly highlighted the work of GRU throughout Europe and named three names who had been working inside Norway for the Soviets. These were Valeriy Moiseevich Mesropov, Igor Ivanovich Zashchirinsky and Lt-Colonel Zagrebnev.
Mesropov had served in the navy as an engineer with a Russian firm in Drammen between 1968 and 1970, attached to the Norwegian firm Koneisto Norge A/S. He was not a diplomat and was arrested on suspicion of espionage before being expelled on September 19, 1970, just two months before the death of the Isdal Woman. Lt. Col. Vladimir Zagrebnev, meanwhile, was the Soviet Embassy assistant military attaché. He was reported to have visited a military area in the north and attempted to bribe officers and recruit agents for gathering military secrets. He was expelled in June of 1983. Most impressive, however, might be Zashchirinsky. Serving in Norway between 1974 and 1977, he was a representative at the Soviet Trade Delegation and engaged in clandestine operations to obtain information and products that were of a scientific/technical nature. This included material classified as Top Secret.
Others weren’t named by Suvorov, including Third secretary Yuriy Polyushkin and attaché Valeriy Yerofeyev, who were both attached to the Soviet Embassy in Oslo. On April 11, 1973, they identified themselves as KGB operatives. They were expelled on espionage charges. Gennadiy Titov at the Oslo embassy was removed in 1977. A. Printsipalov, the third secretary, was discharged the same year. So was an unnamed chauffeur. Later, Aleksandr Dementev, Igor Izachtirinsky, and Yevgeniy A. Klimanov, all with the Soviet Embassy commercial section, were further expelled. Norway was a hotbed of espionage for the KGB and the theories surrounding the Isdal Woman enter this atmosphere of tension, all be it, with no actual evidence beyond coincidence and suggestion. It should certainly be remembered that in this atmosphere of Cold War fears, false accusations and suspicion was commonplace.
Interestingly, in 2005, Ketil Kversoy, a sea captain who used to live in the area, came forward to say that he had seen the Isdal Woman a few days before her likely death while he was hiking at Fløyen, another of the mountains around Bergen. She was described as being dressed light, not in any way equipped for the cold mountain air and rough terrain. The witness says that he saw two men following the woman, describing them as of “southern” appearance, which seemingly would discount Popov and Rubanov. By southern, it is presumed the witness was suggesting a darker skin tone associated with the Mediterranean or the Middle East. The Isdal Woman was said to look resigned and like she was about to speak to the witness.
“I was surprised. Some people were coming up the mountain. That wasn’t normal. I’d seen nobody else, and I had been walking for a couple of hours… She was looking at me and her face, to me it looked like she was scared and she was giving up… When she looked at me, I felt that she started to say something, but she didn’t and then she looked behind her and saw these men. I’m sure she knew they were going after her… I remember her hair, dark hair, not too long. And also the men coming behind had dark hair. They didn’t look Norwegian, I was thinking southern Europe.”
Ketil Kversoy, BBC
Kversoy had also said that when he spoke to police in 1970, he was told to forget about it, yet this must be treated with caution. This account is often held up as evidence of murder and the involvement of espionage. It has a ring of being too convenient for helping the spy theory, just as with the tale of the woman being at Forbach. Retellings often omit the fact that the witness has previously claimed to have been issued a gun when on holiday to Britain following his original revelation to police. This impossible claim casts doubt on the veracity of the whole statement. British police have never at any time taken to issuing firearms to citizens.
“She could be a courier, I mean a messenger because she travelled so much…a courier for someone else. Because, let’s say you have a spy interested in the testing field for the Penguin missile: the spy would be living in that area, staying in that area, trying to gather as much as information as possible, establishing contacts with local people, with farmers or fishermen…now if she was somehow involved in espionage activities, she looks like she was a courier, passing information, let’s say, from a person who lived in that area, to the headquarters of that espionage organisation — to the handler.”
Alexander Vassiliev, historian and former KGB officer
The Nuremberg Connection
In 2016, the case was reopened, and Norwegian media commissioned six new sketches of what the woman may have looked like from witness statements and photos of the remains. Journalists at NRK also made enquiries about the location of the woman’s jaw removed for testing in 1970. After initially fearing it had been destroyed, forensic doctor Inge Morild found the remains in the archives of Haukeland University Hospital.
The Norwegian Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos) and the University of Bergen undertook isotope tests on the jaw and teeth, looking for chemical signatures that will tell them more about the Isdal Woman than could have been ascertained during the initial investigation. The investigation team, meanwhile, also recovered organ samples taken from the body and sent them off for analysis, seeking to obtain DNA samples.
The results of the analysis show that the Isdal Woman had been born around 1930 (+/- 4 years) and was European, investigators had always believed she was much younger, around the age of 30. The Isdal Woman herself gave her age as low as 28 on some of the forms she filled in at hotels and the mistake means that some women known to be missing in 1970 may have been overlooked.
“She must have looked young for age, considering that she filled out the forms like this. It may also be the reason why she used wigs and other disguises — to look younger”
Harald Skjønsfjell, Kripos
Further results revealed that the mystery woman had been born in Franconia, Germany and almost certainly in Nuremberg. She moved to France or the French-German border as a child. This confirmed handwriting analysis from the 1970s which suggested she’d had a French or Belgian education. Interestingly, Forbach, which was mentioned in the recent 2019 witness account, would be within the region highlighted. However, the Forbach claim came after the public were made aware of the DNA results.
The dating of the woman’s birth around 1930 in Germany brings the historical rise of Hitler and the Nazis into play. Between December of 1918 and June 1930, the Rhineland area between Germany, Belgium and France was occupied following the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War. In 1936, the area was remilitarised by the Nazis when 3,000 German troops marched into the Rhineland and other regions along the Rhine, violating the treaty. The Germans began the construction of the Siegfried Line, featuring more than 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps. Nuremberg meanwhile was a centre of Nazism, with the city being seen as unique by Hitler and the regime who noted its importance to the Holy Roman Empire. The famous rally of 1934 was held here, filmed by Leni Riefenstahl as a dark landmark of cinema, Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”). It was home to the propaganda newspaper Der Stürmer and an important site for military production.
Whether the Isdal Woman’s birth is closer to 1926 or 1934 is critical. If she were older, aged 7 in 1933 when Hitler was appointed chancellor, then her movements during that period as a child perhaps suggest her family fled the rise of the regime. However, had she been born as late as 1934, then it seems likely her family would have already fled if they feared persecution and she would never have been born in Nuremberg. The fact that her handwriting indicated French schooling and not German seems to suggest her parents were not Nazi loyalists who would likely have demanded a German education for their children.
While DNA results seem to exclude a Jewish genetic origin, as does her usage of Catholic saints names, other parties such as gipsies and communists were also known to have fled the Nazis. If she had been born Jewish, she would almost certainly have been Ashkenazi which, though a history of segregation, would give a unique genetic variation that would have been quite clear.
If the Isdal Woman’s family had remained in Germany and the heavily bombed Nuremberg, she would likely have been subject to being part of the Erweiterte Kinderlandverschickung program (KLV). This program was designed by the Nazis to evacuate children from the big cities, such as Nuremberg so that they might be provided with nutrition and safety while the cities remained under allied attack. The program was equally designed to indoctrinate the children into the Volksgemeinschaft, or “people’s community” and there is no way a French education would apply. Therefore it seems safe to suggest that the Isdal Woman’s family had left Germany before the war and this is unlikely to have been into the German occupied Rhineland and likely to be to the French-speaking Walloon region of Belgium or into northern France near the border.
With the woman being born in Nuremberg and being educated somewhere around the intersection of France, Germany and Belgium, it seems unlikely that the Isdal Woman was working for East Germany. However, if that was the case, it might explain why nothing was ever found in terms of records, with the Stasi destroying a great many files following the fall of the regime in 1989, at first using shredders and then by hand.
The Isdal Woman consistently gave her nationality as Belgian and while this might be a lie like so much more, its unlikely that somebody wishing to hide their identity would expose themselves to being caught-out by being unable to converse about their home country. The Walloon Region has a small German-speaking community that comprises around 1% of the population located in the east. This area is known as the Eupen-Malmédy and consists of three administrative cantons around the small cities of Eupen, Malmedy, and Sankt Vith. The region had initially been German and lost at Versailles, being reannexed in 1940.
The Cardinal and the Kremlin?
The Catholicism of the Isdal Woman is often in the background. Not only was there the photo of the Madonna and postcard, but saints names were used such as Genevieve and Vera. Also, the street names she gave as addresses were linked to religion, Rue Sainte-Walburge 18, Place Sainte-Walburge 17 (Stated as being in Brussels), 2 Rue Sainte-Walburge (Stated as being in Leuven) and Rue de la Madeleine 3 (Stated as being in Brussels). All of these addresses are in Liège, despite her identifying them as elsewhere. There is also a very famous rue de la Madeleine in Paris.
Another address used, “Philipstockstr” is seemingly a reference to Philipstockstraat, located in Brugge not Brussels. It is close to many museums and the Basilica of the Holy Blood. This basilica houses a holy relic that is purported to be the blood of Jesus, collected by Joseph of Arimathea. Both Trondheim and Oslo have Catholic cathedrals, two of only three in the country, and the likelihood that she visited Rome more than any other city has been explored. If the Isdal Woman was a Catholic and was from a devout family or community, she may have killed herself far away from home to spare them spiritual anguish. At Place Sainte-Walburge is the Church of Saint Walpurga.
Rue Sainte-Hildegarde meanwhile, given in Oslo, doesn’t exist at all and perhaps shows that she had never been to the locations in Liege, simply inventing placenames. There is a reference to Rue Sainte-Hildegarde in Marcel Proust’s immense seven-volume In Search of Lost Time and, coincidentally, the work features the “episode of the Madeleine,” which occurs early in the first volume, Swann’s Way. This is the same volume that features Rue Sainte-Hildegarde. Witnesses to the Isdal Woman noted that she was seen reading books and keeping mostly to herself. None of these books were recovered, but it’s certainly possible she read Proust. The book is an account of childhood and early adulthood experiences in late 19th century and early 20th century aristocratic France. One theme of the work is involuntary memory, with the memories of the narrator being triggered by sensory experiences such as sights, sounds and smells. However, it’s more likely that the Isdal Woman simply failed to coincidentally create a real place name on this occasion, inventing the street based on Saint Hildegard of Bingen.
Saint’s Names Used in Addresses.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen is an interesting choice as until her equivalent canonization by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, she wasn’t considered a saint by the entire Catholic Church, even though in practice she had been venerated for centuries. She is considered to be one of the founders of scientific natural history in Germany, and her shrine and relics are at Eibingen Abbey in Hesse, Germany. Her feast day is September 17. Saint Hildegard is of particular interest to feminists and the New Age Movement, having spoken on holistic and natural healing alongside her status as a mystic. She advocated a number of foods, including garlic and porridge, which the Isdal Woman regularly had for breakfast. Hildegard was also believed to have been epileptic, the true cause of her famous visions.
The French Saint Madeline was the founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart, her shrine being at St Francis Xavier’s Church in Paris. More than 100 schools were opened by the Society of the Sacred Heart around the world, and she is the Paton Saint of schoolgirls. There were such schools in places of note including Brussels, Hamburg, Rome and London.
Saint Walpurga was born in England but died at Heidenheim, in Germany. She is the Patron Saint of Antwerp and both Eichstätt and Weilburg in Germany. She is particularly notable in Northern Europe and Scandanavia through Walpurgis Night which is celebrated on the night of April 30 and the day of 1 May, her feast day. Walpurga was lauded by Christians in Germany for battling “pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft.” The day is marked by bonfires and other activities to ward off witchcraft. There is a St. Walburga Church in Antwerp.
Saint’s Names Used as Aliases
Saint Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris. Her feast is January 3. Her attribute is a candle, and it is said the Devil blew it out when she went to pray at night. A candle stump was amongst the items in the Isdal Woman’s suitcase. In the era of electricity, it seems possible this would have been for religious purposes.
The Isdal Woman used the name Claudia twice, and there are also several Saint Claudias. There are two martyrs by the name, but it is more likely this refers to the first-century saint of who little is known. The history of this figure is debated, but the popular theory is she was the British mother of Linus, the second Pope. A second view names her as Claudia Rufina, a 1st-century British woman living in Rome. Her feast day is August 7.
Saint Vera of Clermont was French and little is known of her. Her relics are enshrined in the church of Saint Artemius in Clermont, France.
There are innumerable Saint Elizabeths such as the German Elisabeth of Schönau, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and Elizabeth of Aragon. However, this is probably a reference to Elizabeth of Hungary who is the patron of the Third Order of St. Francis. She died in Hesse, Germany and is significantly associated with Franciscans. Her day is November 19, and there is a shrine in her honour at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Marburg, Germany. Elizabeth has many other patronages including hospitals, nurses, exiles, homeless people and widows.
From this list, we can see that all the saint’s used were female, with not a single one being male. While understandable in the names she was choosing as her aliases, this continued in the words she chose as street addresses. Equally, there is a strong Germanic influence here alongside French.
The bottle of Kloster liqueur is also interesting. This alcohol is brewed by monks at Ettal Abbey in Bavaria. It is not the kind of drink you might have expected to associate with somebody frequenting the fashion districts of Paris and Rome. Ettal is a Benedictine monastery and there are Benedictine themes through many of the listed saints. There is also a notable marble statue of the Madonna and Child at the abbey. It would be interesting to know where the Isdal Woman’s photo of the Madonna was taken. Was it a personal photo or a souvenir from a gift shop perhaps?
Another contender for the photo is possibly the most famous Madonna and Child, that being Michelangelo’s statue at the Church of Our Lady in Bruges. Interestingly, also in Bruges, you’ll find the Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde (“Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaerde”), a convent for Benedictine nuns. It once been a beguinage but in 1929 was turned into a regular nunnery by the then Mother Superior Geneviève de Limon Triest. Geneviève was a name used by our mystery woman. At the entrance, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary can be seen. Elizabeth was again one of the names used by the deceased. De Wijngaard is also devoted to Saint Alexius. The woman used Alexis as a name. Instead of the fictional street of Rue Sainte-Hildegarde, had the Isdal woman meant “Wijngarde”? At 44 years of age, the Isdal Woman had never given birth, unusual for the age. Could she have spent time in a convent? Or could her claims of working in antiques mean a background or expertise in theology or religious history/buildings? Perhaps she was educated in a convent school.
Police certainly believed beyond doubt that she was a Catholic through this repetitive use of religious saints, also noting the religious postcards in her suitcase and probably the candle. Her liking for fashion and style certainly doesn’t stand against her being religious. However, two images and some names she may have been familiar with from her family or wherever her home might be certainly doesn’t stand as evidence of deep-seated beliefs. The deceased wore no crucifix, had no bible and showed few other signs of religious devotion, with no known trips to places of worship.
International Woman of Mystery
Indeed, the information presented by the Isdal Woman on the hotel forms is intriguing and poses a significant problem for the prevailing theory of espionage. She gave varying professions such as Antiquitätenhändlerin and Verziererin, an antiques dealer and a decorator or ornamenter, the word applying to a specialist to adorns pottery. She told the receptionist at St. Svithun Hotel in Stavanger she was an interior decorator. It seems likely that she would have had a working knowledge of these professions for such conversations. However, the forms are also full of simple mistakes that were instantly recognisable to the trained eyes of the police. These are mistakes that would not have been made by a GRU agent. Equally, an agent would never have utilised differing passports and identities, which would make it evident as to what they were. Agents instead would have a single false identity that was as watertight as it could possibly be, making few mistakes that might prove they weren’t who they said they were.
In fact, when you remove the hyperbole about the “code” on the notepad being a cypher and see that all the Norwegian security services could find on the woman was that she had been in a few coincidental places, the spy theory begins to collapse, particularly when coupled with her unprofessional behaviour. Even the wig may have a simple enough explanation. With the scalp burned away, the possibility exists that the deceased simply suffered from alopecia and we don’t know. The woman had eczema cream in her suitcase, and it is not unusual for sufferers of atopic dermatitis and other forms of eczema to also suffer from alopecia areata. Equally, she may have simply wished to wear a wig as a fashion statement.
If not a trained intelligence agent, then the question of criminality might come into play, with organised crime groups often utilising covert methods that can seem similar. These methods, of course, not being as thorough or successful as professional spies. The itinerary of the Isdal Woman might be suggestive that she worked as a courier and her manner, said to be morose, and paranoid, may even suggest she was working against her will.
Whether a spy, criminal or otherwise, the possibility exists that the Isdal Woman was not murdered for her part in whatever was happening. She may, indeed, have committed suicide. Her location on the mountain stands as direct evidence. It is unlikely anyone would have gone to the trouble of forcing someone toward such an inaccessible spot where they may have been openly seen, or the victim had the potential to even make a getaway. Had the killing been an assassination, there will have been dozens of lower-lying spots, locations in Bergen, or even right in her own hotel. Also, while state-murder can often be carried out by poisoning, this would be through food or drink poisoned with a deadly substance such as arsenic or cyanide, not a sedative.
Indeed, the presence of Fenemal is also suggestive. Reports that the Isdal Woman seemed on edge from many witnesses has been taken as evidence she was followed, yet it’s also possible this was anxiety. Fenemal is sometimes used to treat anxiety and has a calming effect. It is possible that the woman took the entire bottle believing the dose would be fatal. However, perhaps not.
The drug is also used to treat epilepsy and seizures. Had the woman being suffering from seizures, it may explain why she stayed in her room and ensured the floor space was clear. It would also explain the significant bruise to her neck. Depressed over her condition, she may have committed suicide. There has been significant stigma attached to those with epilepsy and in the United Kingdom for example, it was considered grounds for the annulment of marriage until as late as 1971. The risk of suicide is between two and six times higher in those with the condition.
Some people can become aware of a warning “aura” such a taste or smell that allows them to know that a seizure is imminent. If this aura is a smell, some people are able to fight off the seizures by sniffing a strong odor such as roses or garlic. This aura allows the sufferer to sit or lay down so they don’t fall. If the Isdal Woman had become aware she was about to have a seizure on a dangerous mountain, it’s possible she panicked and took the entire bottle of Fenemal, believing this would help, having no intention of suicide. Accidents involving those suffering from seizures are common and, had the woman been tying to start a fire when she had the seizure, it wouldn’t be beyond possibility that it was an accident. The crime scene shows that there was bread or crackers present, and cups had been placed on rocks containing water. A conclusion that the woman had stopped for a break or a small picnic and was looking to heat something up is not unreasonable.
The eczema cream found in the Isdal Woman’s bag contained paraffin and reports from 2018 highlighted the fact that creams to treat dry and itchy skin can build up over time in fabrics and cause them to catch fire more easily. Fifty such deaths have been reported by UK fire and rescue services.
“It was previously thought the risk occurred with emollients that contained more than 50% paraffins. But evidence now points to a risk with all emollients, including paraffin-free ones.”
Patients were warned not to go near naked flames. If the eczema of the Isdal Woman were on her front, the paraffin would have collected in her clothes only in those areas, not so much on her back. This would explain the lack of gasoline found in any of the bottles. If, as speculated, she was using this cream on her head, hence the wig, it would explain why the fur hat allegedly smelled of gasoline. The smell, was, in fact, the eczema cream. The forensics report stated: “Smell indicated that it contained remains of petroleum or something similar”.
A picture then develops of a woman more rounded than the femme fatale of the spy theories. A woman who is dignified and beautiful, yet suffering from seizures, excema and alopecia, perhaps anxiety too. She removes furniture as she fears banging her head on it in her hotel room. She hurts her neck during one such seizure and carries garlic to help avert them. Perhaps she seeks solace in religion, perhaps she thinks Lake Geneva or the Bergen mountain air may help her. Hotel Regina is only eight minutes away from Lake Geneva after all. Calm relaxing places. Men approach her, of course. Such is life as a single woman travelling through hotels. One gives her matches perhaps when he lights her cigarette. Perhaps she is divorced or widowed, having the money to explore. She has fun at times, the photographer and his fast car. Yet, she is also often depressed and doesn’t want to talk. This is a journey for herself.
Having already marked the heights of the mountains, she decided to take the air at Ulriken. She takes some Fenemal and sets out on her journey. The woman stops for a rest at Isdalen and, to go with crackers, she decides to take a drink. She places her tartan shawl on the ground as a blanket. She was known to smoke and none were found in her suitcase, it seems likely they had been in her pocket and incinerated with her clothing. Lighting a cigarette on a break would be a normal thing to do. However, the woman knows a seizure is coming and takes a lot more Fenemal in a panic, worried about the dangerous terrain. She sits down as she knows how to do, and feeing better or seeking a calming effect, she lights a cigarette. As she’s puffing away, the seizure happens and she drops the lit cigarette into her coat. It smoulders in her clothing and soon finds the paraffin of the eczema cream. Seconds later her clothes burst into flame with just enough paraffin to fuel a short and intense fire. The fire or the seizure sends her backward, hitting her head on the rock. This she would likely have survived.
In February 1991, two hikers in Oregan discovered the burning body of a murdered woman. The deceased had been stabbed and set on fire. The flames consumed the soft tissue of the body. Meanwhile, the area between the mid-chest and knees was destroyed, and the pelvis and spine were not recoverable by forensics teams. If you examine the crime scene photos from Isdalen, you will note the majority of the worst damage to the Isdal Woman is the same region between the chest and knees. The combined conditions of a well-oxygenated outdoor environment, accelerant and an immobile clothed body created what is known as “the wick effect”. This is where the fat of the human body melts into the clothing, continuing to fuel the fire. This effect would mean that little accelerant was needed and the body itself fed the flames. Indeed, at the bottom of the scree, Bergen police found large amounts of a yellowish, fat-like material alongside heavily blackened stones, which shows the fire was present here at the bottom. The dripping fat was initially aflame.
The infamous 1951 Mary Reeser “spontaneous human combustion” case was, in reality, caused by the wick effect. Forensics teams found melted fat and that nearby plastic objects had melted and lost their shape. In 2006, a man in Geneva was near incinerated from a single cigarette that he dropped on himself after a heart attack. The flammability of the cream is probably not even an issue. If the woman had suffered a seizure and hit her head then a lit cigarette and the wick effect would have been enough to kill an unconscious woman. In short, no gasoline was ever needed to burn the Isdal Woman.
Indeed, the forensics team believed that the body had been on fire twice. This would be the initial fire from the cigarette and then the fire fuelled by the body.
“Extensive damage at the knees of the body, calfs and lower thighs suggests however that a subsequent fire of a more prolonged nature has arisen here.”
Forensics report, Bergen police
While that theory may sound good, it fails to explain why labels were removed from her clothes, shoes and from bottles, and why she would lie about who she was. Equally, is it likely that somebody intelligent would have panicked and taken so many pills? Like all ideas, it doesn’t tie all the ends together. While this theory tells the end of the Isdal Woman’s story, it fails to tell the beginning.
If, however, the line on the Isdal Woman’s code did mean “Mane Lunae 23 November Momento Mori” (“Monday Morning, 23rd November, Remember You Will Die”) then the death of the Isdal Woman can not have been anything but suicide. The tale becomes one of great sadness, of a woman who planned her death nine months before events at Isdalen. Her travels around Europe are perhaps a farewell tour of sorts, blazing through the money she knows she’ll never need. The use of Latin would add some weight to an idea she had once been a part of religious orders, never having children and devoting herself to God. Perhaps she lost her faith, hence no crucifix or Bible, wishing to experience life before death with fashion and Italian photographers. Maybe anxiety or epilepsy caused issues, the church did once describe it as “holy madness” after all. With her family and friends perhaps knowing of her troubles, they would undoubtedly worry. Once she vanished, she needed to ensure they’d never find her and stop her plans, maybe also wishing to save them the shame associated with suicide in Catholicism. So she had to become “Fenella Lorch”, “Claudia Tielt” and all the others. Just as planned, on Monday morning, November 23, she climbs into Ice Valley and takes her tablets. Whether she starts the fire herself or it happens accidentally, the predetermined result is the same.
Some have speculated that the Isdal Woman may have been a terrorist, possibly from a left-wing group such as the Red Army Faction (RAF) aka the Baader-Meinhof Group. The RAF had been formed in West Germany in 1970. There is little evidence for this. The crime writer Gunnar Staalesen has said that his personal theory “is that she was hunting for Nazi war criminals… Israel and Norway had a very friendly connection, so if the secret services knew that was what she was doing here, they would keep that a secret. But it’s only a theory.”
Others suggest she may have been a high-class escort, travelling to meet wealthy clients across Europe. The evidence for this is that the matchbox found by the body was only sold through sex shops. The author Dennis Zacher Aske suggests in his book The Woman in Isdalen Valley that the woman was killed by an individual he names as “an Italian photographer” and they had been travelling together for some time. Many of the sightings of the Isdal Woman with a man had been the photographer. Her sullen behaviour, therefore, may have been the result of an abusive relationship, this “Italian photographer” apparently having been previously charged with rape, threatening behaviour and acts of violence. What was a simple case of a domestic killing became sensationalised by the tabloid press, pushing the security services to investigate something that was essentially nothing more than coincidence. Indeed, if one of the woman’s clients had been in the Norwegian military, her movements may have coincided with some of the Penguin missile tests. Her involvement in prostitution meant that it was unlikely anyone would be willing to come forward and admit to being a client. Perhaps, wanting a way out, she decided to end her life or make a grand statement that went wrong. The man argued with her, resulting in the blow to the neck. Perhaps he forced her to take the tablets. Whether by design or accident, she was set on fire.
However, while the ideas are certainly plausible, it fails to account for the level of secrecy involved. While prostitution was undoubtedly illegal, would the Isdal Woman really have needed to cut the labels from her clothes? The police dismissed the theory that the Isdal Woman was a prostitute in 1970. All the hotels in which she stayed were strict in their policies regarding prostitution, and she could easily have stayed elsewhere. She never brought anyone into the hotels and was noted for being alone most of the time. Equally, the use of holy names and religious images, including the Madonna, suggest she was a practising Catholic. If the theory is rejected, the question as to where she got the Beate Uhse matchbox remains.
The suggestion that the matchbox indicates sex work comes perhaps from a misunderstanding of Beate Uhse shops. While the image of a sex shop is of a seedy and boarded up hovel with a pervert behind the counter, Beate Uhse is a chain more comparable to Britain’s Ann Summers. They are well lit and inviting, selling lingerie alongside the likes of sex toys. The matchbox, equally, could have been obtained as a corporate gift from a trade fair or an event sponsored by the company. During the late 1960s and 1970s, Beate Uhse was trying to change the image of the sex shop and make the business mainstream. For example, on September 6, 1970, they sponsored the Love and Peace Festival on the German isle of Fehmarn. This open-air event would be the last festival appearance of Jimi Hendrix before his death.
Another interesting theory came from former Chief of the Bergen Police Asbjørn Bryhn who suggested in 1976 that the Isdal Woman had been involved in a check fraud scheme. The press were derisory in response, wanting tales of spies and femme fatales. Yet, the idea is certainly not as absurd as they made out.
This scheme involved money being paid into bank accounts in Malmö, Sweden. Checks associated with the account were then copied and cashed at banks in the Netherlands and Norway. They used fake passports while doing this and travelled extensively. An individual by the name of “Fellin” received the stolen money and escaped Sweden.
In 1972, four arrests were made in Norway, two in Bergen and two in Oslo. This gang comprised of an international selection of suspects: Marco Campas aka Pedro Carbajal Rojas from Peru, Vera Maria Caldas Lima from Brasil, Hernandez Alcalde, from Spain and Mary Eanswide Sulamit Almeida from London. How long the gang were working is unknown, but Interpol was alerted in the summer of 1971, around six months after the Isdal affair. One of the gang was arrested in Düsseldorf, seemingly not part of the four in Norway. This man had 148 fake checks and claimed that the money had been handed up the chain to a Greek.
The four were found guilty on a staggering 60 counts of check fraud in July of 1974. Campas/Rojas and Alcalde were sentenced to four and a half years each for their part in the affair, Sulamit got four years and Caldas received a sentence of two and half years for pleading guilty. Police, however, suspected they were just one part of a much more extensive criminal network with the leaders based in Italy. The suspects had all been given their checks by a man known only as “Albert” in Rome. They were all said to be in fear of the man. It is worth remembering that the most used letter in the woman’s notebook as a destination was “R”, believed to possibly be Rome.
Organised crime groups active in Rome at the time include the Pesciaroli and a little later the Banda della Magliana. Further afield in the Campania region, the likes of the Camorra have extensive links to South America and in particular Peru. The ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria has developed extensive links throughout South America thanks to the drug trade but restricted their Italian operations to their home region until the mid-1970s. However, they were famed for the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III in 1973, the event taking place in Rome. The scale and scope of the most infamous Italian criminal network, the Cosa Nostra, needs no introduction. The Mafia has a long history of being involved in both smuggling and money scams with the group investing capital and offering protection to gangs, locally and internationally. The Mafia themselves rarely get directly involved, which would tie with the belief of Asbjørn Bryhn.
However, another clan may be more interesting. Coincidentally founded in 1970, the Casamonica Clan is lately central to organised crime in Rome. They have their origins with the Romani Sinti tribe and are closely related to the Manouche Romani of France. They speak their own language, which exhibits a strong German influence, and the major Sinti communities are primarily based in Germany. On November 26, 1935, the Nazis declared that the Nuremberg laws applied to gipsies as well as jews and they lost their rights to citizenship.
Interestingly, the Isdal Woman was always noted to be darker-skinned with an exotic appearance that made her stand out in Norway, not to mention Roman Catholic. However, as with Jewish communities, the Sinti were insular, and their strain of Northwestern Indian DNA is therefore usually unquestionably recognised, likely ruling out such a link. Equally, during the war, there were arrests and deportations in Belgium and France of all those deemed undesirable. There is also no evidence any of Rome’s organised crime families were at work in Scandinavia during this period and the four arrested for check fraud in 1974 all had Hispanic origins which the Isdal Woman did not. However, prior to the Nazis, there was a large Sinti community around Nuremberg.
There is also the possibility that the Isdal Woman’s work was nothing criminal or nefarious at all and that she used aliases as perhaps she feared an abusive husband or wished to disappear for other personal reasons. There are many such jobs which would require extensive travel, occupying hotels and living out of a suitcase. The striking good looks of the Isdal Women and liking for the fashion of Paris and Rome may suggest fashion work, with models frequently living nomadic lifestyles and called across borders at a moment’s notice. While at 5 foot 4 or 5 and 124lbs she’s a little shorter and heavier than the models of the 1960s, not all models work on the runway, with photographer’s models and booth work being typical. However, if she was older than always believed, this may not be realistic, yet the fashion industry is far broader than merely the models. Perhaps also she may have been an artist or a travel writer, any notes or drawings possibly incinerated close to the body.
However, likely, the truth may not be far from the lies. The Isdal Woman spoke German, English, Belgian and French and claimed to be Belgian. We know she grew up in that region and if she’d lived there since she was a child, she probably considered herself to be from that country. That doesn’t mean she lived in Belgium at the time of her death, yet there is a basis in reality. Using an alias, she needed to at least carry it off when challenged and having told several witnesses she worked in antiques, it seems likely this was an area she knew well. Perhaps she worked as an agent for an individual or company, representing them at auctions across Europe, for example. The likes of Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London have regular auctions of antiques and fine art, and there are noted auction houses in all the major cities such as Paris and Rome.
However, if the Isdal Woman had a regular job, nobody ever came forward to say they had worked with her as a client or colleague, despite the massive press the story generated across Norway. Instead, it seems likely her business was something nobody wanted to talk about, work that involved only a few people, or her travels were never work-related at all. Nothing related to any profession was found in her suitcases. While she may have had a job of work normally, there’s also the possibility that she had taken time off for her trips around Europe.
The Woman Who Went into the Cold
Many years ago it may have seemed that the Isdal Woman was destined to forever lay in her unmarked grave at Bergen, with the possibility of identification remote. However, the advance of modern technology has brought new insight to the origins of the deceased, if not any new answers as to what happened that fateful November day in Ice Valley. While the theories of spies and the KGB held enough weight for Norwegian intelligence to take an interest, when stepping out of the world of Cold War thrillers, the likelihood of her working for GRU or the Stasi seems remote. She made too many mistakes for that and, despite the ongoing mystery, was too conspicuous. Yet, the fact remains that the deceased did travel all across Europe at somebody’s expense, seemingly with a very distinct purpose. It seems logical, therefore, that a sizeable number of people know exactly who she was and why she died. None of them have ever come forward.
We don’t know who was behind the woman’s work, nor what it was. Indeed, she may have been independently wealthy and not working at all. The passports, and attempts to conceal her identity might suggest it was far from a pleasure trip, indicating something criminal. Yet, that too may even have an innocent explanation, and a mental break or accident has to be considered. While the manner of her death suggests murder, suicide can’t be discounted and, in all probability, seems more likely. However, it might be suggested that a tragic mishap fits many of the facts even more than suicide does. The location was an unlikely place to take a captive for execution. Equally, the method used is overtly complicated when a swift bullet to the head would serve any intelligence agency or criminal gang much better. While the KGB used poisons, these are more familiarly cyanide or ricin, not unsuitable sedatives.
Just because the Isdal Woman may have lived a criminal life, that doesn’t mean she died an unlawful death, and we must consider the possibility that there is nothing more profound than our own imaginations.
As mentioned, there is little real evidence of espionage, nor sex work, or even any other criminality. Nor that she was suffering from any mental illness beyond reported anxiety. All of these theories are built around preconceived notions of an attractive woman travelling around Europe alone being suspicious. They are made on unverified claims of false passports and the “odd” presence of wigs, when in truth there was only one. These phantom wigs are presumed to be disguises when the likelihood exists she may have worn a wig for medical reasons. Equally, the drugs she was carrying were likely for the aforementioned anxiety but equally there is circumstantial evidence this was actually for seizures.
These notions are built on the belief that a single woman talking to random men at hotels must be a prostitute or working for the Soviet Union when this is likely to be an everyday experience for many women. That meaning as a single and attractive woman she was probably the focus of unwanted attention. Is it any wonder many witnesses described her as not wanting to talk? The theories are built on tropes rather than facts, many witness statements clearly false. Yet, the peculiarity of the case cannot be denied, nor the obvious questions surrounding the manner of her death. Labels being removed from clothing could simply be more evidence of skin irritation, yet that doesn’t explain labels rubbed off bottles. The lack of the eight passports may suggest they didn’t really exist, yet is it likely that hotel staff were lax eight times?
When all is said and done, nobody truly knows the truth of the Isdal Woman, and there are questions and speculation at every turn. Facts have become interspersed with myth, and the authentic death of a woman has even become fodder for television drama. Something drove her to travel through Europe, there was a purpose there. There was a purpose to her hiding her identity. For somebody, there may have been a purpose to her death. Fifty years on from that death, the Isdal Woman remains as intriguing as ever, with only a little more known than the day she was buried in an unmarked grave at Bergen. However, modern techniques look to be moving the balance of probability in favour of being able to identify the woman and, with only fifty years of history in-between, there may even be suspects still alive if murder is truly the case.
No matter who the Isdal Woman was, be it an escort, a terrorist, international criminal or even a KGB agent, like all human beings, she deserves better than being left in the cold unknown with nobody to mourn her passing. To the world, she is the mysterious “Isdal Woman”, to others she is a sister, friend or lover who vanished long ago. They deserve the truth, and the woman of Ice Valley deserves to finally be given a name.
Readers who recognise the Isdal Woman or have information about the case can contact the NRK investigative team via their website.