The Mystery Of The Isdal Woman
On November 29, 1970, a body was found on the side of a mountain near Bergen, Norway. She has never been identified. Known only as The Isdal Woman, the trail she left behind and weird clues to her life have left investigators and the public searching for answers for 50 years. Who was this enigmatic woman, and what led to her bizarre death?
Bergen, Ulriken, and IsdalenBergen, Ulriken, and Isdalen
Bergen, Norway is surrounded by mountains. How many mountains depends who you ask.
Seven is the popular number, probably because there were Seven Hills of Rome.
Though, there seems to be disagreement on which mountains make up the seven. Every list is a little different, but every list includes Ulriken (over footage)Its snow-caped peak tops out at 643 meters above sea level, and it’s visited by thousands of hikers every year. Some take the long way around the mountain, others ride the cable car to the top, where waiting for them is one of the most amazing views in all of Norway— other sources say Ulriken is tallest, but hikers report at least two higher points
But those who really want to rough it head to the north face of Ulriken – the face away from the city. It’s a rugged and picturesque landscape that’s not for the casual hiker. Though it’s relatively safe… in the summers. In the winters, things get a bit more dangerous.
After all this valley is named Isladen – Ice Valley. Many hikers have died on this face of the mountain, and there’s a particular section of it that has a reputation as a popular suicide spot. This led the locals to call this section of the mountain by a different name – Dødsdalen, Valley of Death.
And it was in this valley where on November 29th, 1970, a middle-aged professor and his two young daughters were taking a hike. It was cold and wet that morning, and as they entered a dense forested area of black spruce trees, one of the girls saw something that made her stop in her tracks.
It was the badly charred body of a woman sprawled amongst the rocks. By the way, if you think that’s the kind of thing that might scar a child for life.. You would not be wrong. The two girls refuse to talk about that day even now as adults.
According to the police reports the woman’s right arm hugged her chest, and her left was extended, as if to ward off a blow.
This is what’s known as a “boxer pose” or a “pugilistic stance”, it happens because of contraction in muscles that dehydrate as the tissue burns.
I suppose I should do a content warning. I don’t normally do those but there’s some graphic stuff to talk about here.
The body was naked, though police thought she was clothed when she caught fire. Her skin was red and charred and sooty, and her face was unrecognizable.
So the police turned to her belongings to figure out who she was and what happened. And this… was not helpful.
At the Scene
The complete list of items found at the scene include:
- Cuffs on the arms of synthetic material
- The blackened remains of textiles on stomach, crotch, hips and left knee
- The remains of dark blue stretch trousers and a stocking on the right foot
- Matching left stocking nearby One rubber boot, of the type known as seilerstøvel, or “sailor boot”
- Outline of a rubber sole on the right knee
- Plastic remains of a bag or purse
- Wool from a sweater
- Skeleton of a blue nylon lady’s umbrella
- Mostly empty bottle of Klosterlikør liquer
- Two bottles with carabiner hooks, one partially melted, found to contain water
- One partially melted plastic white cup Shapeless remains of a plastic spoon
- One partially burnt, round, plastic lid One green, checked, woolen scarf with burnt end
- quoted nearly verbatim from translated Kripos report
- A wristwatch found under her knee whose plastic cover had melted, freezing the hands at 12:32. And the remains of a matchbox, Burnt bread or crackers, And a fur hat that smelled of petroleum.
But that was the only evidence for any fuel for the fire, there was no wood, no charcoal, no container of flammable liquid. But there was a container missing.
The partially melted plastic white cup I mentioned earlier was the type that comes with a thermos. Which was not found nearby. A 1970 thermos would have been made of plastic or metal, with an inner layer of glass, so if it was full of gasoline, it might have melted completely.
Or… Her killer took it away. So police set out to figure out who this person was, and whether her death was suicide, an accident of some kind, or murder.
The Forensic Examiner concluded that the body had been dead for about 6 days before it was found, which corresponded to eyewitness accounts of smoke in that area at 12:05 on the 23rd.
But the rest of the report from the forensic examiner’s office… was not helpful.
Cause of Death
Because the cause of death was a combination of carbon monoxide poisoning, which is expected with a fire, and 50 to 70 sleeping pills.
It was a drug called Fenemal. It was a barbiturate that was often prescribed for epilepsy, insomnia, and anxiety. It was also, unfortunately, a popular pill for people use to commit suicide at the time. It’s recommended dose is 30 to 320mg per day. The pills she took were 60 milligrams each, at 50 to 70 of those would have been 3000 to 4200 milligrams.
That’s more. Twelve pills were undigested in her stomach, which means she took them close to her death. She probably took the first handful a couple hours before.
So, did she take all those pills at the hotel and then head out there? Chances are she would have had a lot of trouble walking at that point, especially on the rough terrain.
Unless… Someone was helping her.
There were no cable cars until later that afternoon so she couldn’t have taken one of those. And there are roads on the mountain, but even if she was driven partway, she had to descend a considerable distance to where she ended up.
It’s kind-of hard to imagine after taking that many sleeping pills that she would be coherent enough to get to that spot, much less to set herself on fire once she got there. And why would someone take that many sleeping pills, easily enough to kill you, and then set themselves on fire. Sounds like overkill to me.
The police struggled to find an answer, but then three days after the discovery of the body, they caught a break. A coin operated storage locker at the Bergen train station had expired, and the station attendants had found two suitcases inside.
This got the police’s attention because the bags had been put in there on the morning of the 23rd, just a few hours before the woman died.
In one of the suitcases was a pair of glasses that had a very clear fingerprint. These prints matched the Isdal woman.
So these were her bags, this was a huge clue. And what they found in the bags… Was not helpful.
The listed items found in the suitcases include…
- 500 German deutschemarks
- Several pairs of shoes and boots
- Two bags from different shoe stores
- A number of clothing items, with the labels cut out
- One steel soup spoon with engraving One bottle of perfume
- One package of a clay-like substance
- One scalpel-like knife
- One map of Southern Scandanavia
- Three detailed road maps of Norway, all marked “16/6” in pen, one with a list of train stations in pencil
- Multiple hats, including a Cossack hat of beige sheepskin A wig, made in France, described as “mahogany brown”
- Prescription exema cream with all the identifying information scratched away.
- And two notebooks, one blank but with some pictures stuffed inside including: A picture of the Madonna with child Postcard of religious scene Postcard of a horse-drawn sleigh.
The second notebook though… It was very much not blank.
On one page of the notebook were four tables of numbers in a sort of code.
Full code sheet, with fingerprints
Nobody knew what this code meant, it didn’t have an obvious cypher to it, and the entries were too brief to find any patterns. The cops were stumped. So they called in the experts. A specialist in the Norwegian Military Intelligence Service looked it over and figured it out pretty quickly. Turns out it was barely a code at all. The codebreaker said it was some sort of travel record. The numbers are dates, the first letter after each number a month, and letters at the end of a column stand for cities.
For example when you look at the first column, second entry, you see the code “11 M 16 M L” According to the codebreaker, this means that from March 11 to 16, the writer stayed at a city whose name begins with “L”
This combined with the items in the suitcases, let investigators start to piece together this woman’s movements. Remember the shoe shop bags I mentioned earlier? One was from Rome, Italy, the other from a shop in Norway Police interviewed employees and got a description of the woman who bought a pair of “sailor boots”
From the interviews, police learned that the woman was a foreigner, though there were different ideas about where she came from.
One described her as a young American tourist, one said she was French, others described her as Jewish, Slavic, or Asian. So not super helpful.
At least two hairstyles were mentioned by witnesses, one of which matched the wig in the suitcase, the other might have been her natural hair. this was what police used in 1970 — the colored pencil sketch on BBC pages is recent
Her teeth were distinctive, with several gold crowns and a gap in the front. And she was described as slim, with wide hips.
A taxi driver went so far as to call her sexy.
Using these descriptions and the coded notebook, they were able to track her signature to hotels in at least five Norwegian cities. And while the coded travel record matched her movements closely, it wasn’t perfect.
There are discrepancies between the recorded dates and some of the known arrivals and departures in some of these cities. But, was it a diary, written down after the fact, or an itinerary, written in advance? We don’t know.
The code is mostly deciphered but there’s still some that haven’t been figured out. Rome seems to have been an important spot for her because she went back there often.– undecoded cities: L, G, R, F, V, W, N, A, M
But all in all, they found nine hotel registries and four travel forms showing ten different names in her handwriting. All the names were checked by investigators, along with past addresses and passport numbers. All of it was made up.
Whoever this woman was, between the secret codes and disguises and fake names, it seems she had done everything possible to hide her identity. Combine that with the mysterious and unexplained way she died and you’re bound to get a ton of wild theories. So let’s consider those.
Theory #1: She was a spy.
You probably saw this coming a mile away. Makes sense, considering all the secret identities and codes and whatnot and also, this was the height of the Cold War, and Norway was pretty close to the Soviet Union.
Well, on the podcast Death in Ice Valley, which is a great series all about this one story, they interviewed Norway’s most famous spycatcher, Ørnulf Tofte (EARN-uff Tuff-tuh), and he didn’t think this was a spy situation.
He had actually investigated this story back in 1970 and felt that it wasn’t consistent with other murders of known spies, his theory was that a can of hairspray exploded, though no can was found nearby. Death in Ice Valley also consulted former KGB officer and current British journalist Alexander Vassiliev. And he saw inconsistencies as well.
He said that a Soviet spy would only have 1 or 2 fake identities, each of which backed by a wealth of fake documents establishing a “legend” for that persona. That wasn’t the case for The Isdal Woman – she went by 10 different names, but had no documents or “legend” for any of them, besides some fake passports.
But even those are spurious. Only one hotel manager claimed to have seen a passport, and even that one may have only seen the cover, not the inside.
Vassiliev also made the point that a Soviet spy would also have done everything possible to avoid attention. And the Isdal Woman didn’t really do that… As investigators tracked her movements and talked to hotel managers, they started to see a pattern of very strange behavior on her part.
She had a habit of switching hotel rooms, and of moving the hotel furniture around, sometimes putting them out in the hallway. (Maybe because she was worried the furniture was bugged?)
It seems like whatever hotel she was in she was, “that guest”, the one you have to deal with, so she stood out to the hotel staff, which made them notice other things about her.
Like the fact that she spoke little to no Norwegian, instead usually speaking in German, English, or French.
And then there was the smell.
Witnesses at the shoe store and hotel reported an odor around the woman, something like garlic and BO, some witnesses described it as nauseating. The KGB expert said a female spy from Russia would have smelled like Chanel N°5, and concluded she was probably not a spy from a major Cold War country, though she might have been a spy for a smaller country with an unconventional intelligence service.
By the way, if you’re hearing all this and thinking why would a spy be hanging out in Bergen Norway, like if that feels like a random thing to assume, it’s actually not.
Bergen was kind-of an espionage hotbed in 1970, specifically because of missile testing nearby.
A guided missile known as Penguin was developed in Norway from the early 1960s to 1972. It’s actually still in use by several countries, including the United States.
)But yeah, the area they were doing this testing was near Bergen, so it wasn’t unusual at all to hear about spies around the area.
And there’s one eyewitness account that may corroborate that she was there to get missile intelligence.
In December 1970, police heard the story of a fisherman who thought he saw the Isdal Woman near a Penguin testing site. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penguin_(missile)
He apparently saw her talking for some time with a naval officer.
WHERE THE FUCKING BATTERIES RAN OUT
Now, if this was really her, that still brings up a lot of questions, could that officer have been an embedded foreign agent? And would this make her a courier, a spy who mostly carries messages from other spies?
There’s a lot of twists and turns here but the question of whether or not she was a spy is still up for debate.
Theory #2: She was a sex worker.
There is the possibility that the Isdal woman was a high-end prostitute and the coded travels could have been an itinerary from her… employer. (a beat) Are they still pimps at that level?
Or a log sheet, like that was how she reported back to her employer.
What she was doing was illegal, that would make sense that she would avoid getting caught and use different identities, maybe the wig was in case the clients wanted a brunette?
There were some eyewitness reports of men visiting her in the rooms, others were seen eating with her or shopping with her.
None of this of course tells us anything about who killed her or why.
Theory #3: There Were Multiple Women
The American Woman
When you have so many threads around one person, at some point you have to consider the possibility that it’s not just one person. It’s possible that some of the reports and eyewitness accounts the investigators tracked down were about more than one woman.
That’s the theory of another author who has looked into the case, a criminologist named David Morgan. He wrote a book called Isdal Woman: A New Perspective, I’ll put the amazon link in the description, but he was kind enough to respond to our emails on this.
So in David’s investigation, he focused on a young American woman that was sought by police. Early witness reports made her seem like a good fit for the Isdal Woman, but there were some issues with her. For example, one employee at the shoe shop described her differently than others.
The customer described is a bit taller than usual, and no mention is made of her teeth.
And she carried a bag with “California” printed in large letters, which appeared in other descriptions, she also had the apparently noteworthy BO. Police at the time ruled out the American woman because some friends of hers received a card postmarked two days before the body was found, which would have been at least three days after the woman died.
But… someone else could have sent that postcard.
Bottom line is, as if this case couldn’t get more complicated, there may be multiple suspects thought to be the Isdal Woman.
Theory #4: The Serial Killer Theory
Serial Killer Theory
2 years after the Isdal Woman was found, in September of 1972, something else happened in Bergun. Another young woman, similar in age and general physical appearance, was found murdered. But at least in this case we know who she was.
Her name was Mariann Thunestvedt, and her death also went unsolved. Her murderer was never found.
Some have suggested that this could have been the same killer who took out the Isdal Woman, and that there may be others out there that he’s killed that we don’t know about yet.
There is a tiny amount of connective tissue between Mariann and the Isdal woman. Mariann’s mother Edith was a maid at the last hotel the Isdal woman had stayed in and had given detailed descriptions of her to the police.
Could it have been another guest in the hotel who came back through town and stayed at the same place? Or, as Edith had wondered, could it have been some kind of revenge against her for all the information she gave the police?
Perhaps this guy had murdered multiple women, but the Isdal Woman just happened to be weird enough to draw a lot of attention. This theory is very much up for debate.
Why We Try
The story of the Isdal Woman is so convoluted and has been around for so long that we’ll probably never know the truth. Not that that stops us from trying. And we try because… well, we all love a good mystery, but as we get so wrapped up in trying to solve it, it’s important to remember that this was person.
Tourist, spy, or prostitute, the woman found on that cold November morning was a human being. And her death was tragic. And horrific.
Even though she had taken so many sleeping pills, we know she was alive when she caught fire.
Soot was found in her lungs meaning she literally choked on smoke from her own burning flesh. This was someone’s daughter, maybe sister, or friend. Someone out there is seeking closure after all these years.
Death in Ice Valley And maybe they could still have that closure.
Podcasts like the Death in Ice Valley podcast I mentioned before are still researching this story and finding new clues that they couldn’t have found back in the 70s. For instance, tests on the Isdal Woman’s teeth detected chemicals that suggest she came from an area near Nuremberg, Germany.
Other tests say she was older than she claimed on forms, maybe 40 or 45, which would actually contradict most of the witness testimony that put her in her 20s or 30s.
Maybe she used a lot of moisturizer? Or maybe the tests were wrong. Some argue that the teeth had been washed with a substance that removes DNA and invalidated the age test. And that the chemicals that tied it to Nuremberg can be found in lots of places.
Just like everything else in this story, there are multiple explanations.
Another group that’s looking into this is the DNA Doe Project.
DNA Doe has identified numerous John and Jane Does since the group formed in 2017.
The most famous is a formally unknown victim of the Killer Clown, John Wayne Gacy.
As of June 2019, Colleen Fitzpatrick of the DNA Doe Project was starting legal proceedings to request access. Here’s hoping that this will be another of the Project’s success stories.
On February 5, 1971, the Isdal Women was buried at the Møllendal cemetery in Bergen. Based on items found in the suitcases, they chose to have the service conducted by a Catholic priest.
It was attended by a handful of police officers including the Chief Detective. And she was laid to rest in a zinc coffin. This is common for unidentified people, because they can be hermetically sealed to preserve the body.
The hope, in 1971, was that relatives of the deceased would come forward and claim the body and relocate it to her homeland. So far this has not happened. And so she remains in Bergen, waiting for someone to figure out exactly what happened that morning in Ice Valley.