The Curious Case of the Isdal Woman

The following is an article from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader

Sometimes the most intriguing whodunits aren’t found in mystery novels, they’re found in real life. Take this curious case, which has puzzled investigators for more than 40 years.

COLD CASE

One chilly afternoon in November 1970, a father and his two daughters were hiking up a remote, rocky hillside overlooking the Isdalen valley near Bergen, a port city on the southwest coast of Norway. The man’s 12-year-old daughter came upon it first: the badly burned body of a woman lying between two large rocks. As soon as the father realized what they were looking at, he turned his daughters around and they headed back down the hill to report their grisly discovery to the police.

When the police arrived, they discovered that many of the woman’s possessions had been burned as well: an umbrella, some plastic bottles, what appeared to be the plastic cover for a passport (though it was too badly damaged to know for sure), and other items. Also found on the scene was an empty liquor bottle. That caused police to wonder if alcohol had played a role in the woman’s death. Had she gotten drunk, perhaps tripped on some rocks, and fallen into the fire by accident?

THE PLOT THICKENS

After the police removed the body and the other evidence from the scene and examined it more thoroughly in the crime lab, the mystery of who the “Isdal woman” was and how she’d died deepened. Not only did the woman have no identification on her, but the labels on the articles of clothing not destroyed in the fire were all cut out. The same was true of the other articles recovered from the scene: any identifying marks that might have shed light on who the woman was or where she was from—even the labels on the bottoms of the plastic bottles—had been removed.

Three days later, another major clue surfaced when two large suitcases in the “left luggage” office of the Bergen railway station were traced back to the woman. Police established the link when a fingerprint lifted from a pair of sunglasses in one of the suitcases matched a fingerprint taken from the body. But if the investigators hoped that the contents of the suitcase would solve the mystery of who the woman was, they were soon disappointed. There were passports in eight different names in one of the suitcases, and just as with the articles recovered from the crime scene, all labels had been removed from the clothing. Even the brand names and other identifying marks on the woman’s comb and hairbrush had been rubbed away.

There were several wigs in the suitcases—not that unusual for a woman in the early 1970s—but along with the wigs, investigators found several pairs of eyeglasses with ordinary, nonprescription lenses. That led police to suspect that the woman was using the wigs and glasses to disguise her appearance.

Another mysterious item found in the suitcase: a writing pad with three columns of what appeared to be an alphanumeric code on the top sheet of paper. Nothing else was written on the pad.

BAG LADY

The best clue—and a peculiar one, considering how much effort the woman put into removing identifying marks from all of her possessions—was a shopping bag with the name “Oscar Rørtvedt’s Footwear Store” printed on the outside. That was a store in the city of Stavanger, about 100 miles to the south.

An investigator was dispatched to the shop and there a clerk remembered selling a pair of blue rubber boots to a woman three weeks earlier. The woman was between the ages of 30 and 40, with long dark hair, brown eyes, a round face, and “slightly plump, almost chubby curves, with pretty legs.” She spoke poor English and smelled of garlic, which was unusual in Norway at the time.

A pair of the same brand of blue rubber boots had been found next to the dead woman, so the investigators were satisfied that this was the same woman they were looking for. Next, the investigators began visiting hotels in the area to see if anyone matching the description had stayed there around the time the woman bought her boots. At the Hotel St. Svithun, within walking distance from the shoe store, a clerk remembered a woman who registered under the name Finella Lorck, from Belgium, and had stayed in the hotel for several days. One of the hotel maids remembered seeing her wearing the blue rubber boots.

CHARACTER STUDY

A search of hotel registers in Bergen for a Finella Lorck found no one by that name staying in any of the city’s hotels in the days leading up to the discovery of the woman’s body. So investigators turned to the “Alien Registration Form” that all foreign visitors had to fill out when checking in. Hotels all across the country were asked to scour their records for all Alien Registration Forms filled out by women in their 30s or 40s over the previous 12 months and send them in to the police.

As the forms began arriving in the mail, the investigators compared the handwriting with samples collected from the coded notes on the pad found in the suitcase, and from the Alien Registration Form that “Finella Lorck” had filled out at the Hotel St. Svithun.

Some forms that were found to have matching handwriting had been filled out by a woman calling herself Finella Lorck. But others with the same handwriting had been filled out under the names of Vera Jarle, Genevieve Lancier, Elisabeth Leenhouwfr, Claudia Nielsen, Claudia Tielt, and Alexia Zarna-Merchez. In most cases the woman claimed to be from Belgium, as Finella Lorck had. The forms required the registrants to list their passport numbers, but when the police checked with the Belgian authorities, they found that none of the passports, and none of the identities, were real.

THE TRAVELER

The dates given on the Alien Registration Forms made it possible for the investigators to retrace the woman’s movements around the country. And when the police cracked the code on the notepad found in the suitcase, they discovered that it was a list of the dates that the woman had spent in each location. She had been traveling around Norway for the past several months, visiting places like Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger, and Trondheim. Often she would check out of one hotel using one fake passport, then check into the next hotel using a different alias, presumably after changing wigs and eyeglasses to alter her appearance. On her last trip she traveled from Paris to Stavanger, Bergen, and Trondheim, then back to Stavanger and Bergen, where she died.

The investigators were at a loss to understand why the woman traveled so much and used so many fake identities and disguises. It’s possible that she was a private citizen who was hiding from someone she knew. Another possibility was that she was mentally ill and fleeing from someone or something that existed only in her mind. Or perhaps she was a foreign agent.

The Cold War was still raging, after all. That would have explained the fake passports, and also how the woman was able to pay for so many train tickets and hotel rooms: if she was a spy, a foreign government may have been providing her with financial support. But with no hard evidence to go on, all the police could do was speculate.

GOLD STANDARD

Another piece of evidence that the police had to work with was the dead woman’s dental work. X-rays of her mouth revealed that ten of her teeth had premade gold crowns, a type not used in Norway. But they were used in Asia and parts of central and southern Europe. That removed any remaining doubt that the woman may have been Norwegian, and it provided a clue as to what part of the world the woman might be from. But only a clue, nothing definitive.

WHAT HAVE YOU GOT?

After all of the evidence had been processed, the Norwegian investigators forwarded the woman’s aliases, dental records, and other information to Interpol and to police agencies in North Africa and the Middle East, along with a request that these agencies check their records for any matches.

Each of the agencies gave the same response: no matches were found in their records. The mystery woman was a ghost.

The woman’s dental records were even published in dental journals, along with a write-up of the case, in the hope that the information might jog the memory of the woman’s dentist and prompt them to come forward. But to date no dentist has.

CAUSE(S) OF DEATH

Even the autopsy results failed to answer as many questions as the investigators hoped. The cause of death, the medical examiner found, was “assumed to be a combination of poisoning from the sedative-hypnotic drug Fenemal [a barbiturate] and carbon monoxide. The injuries inflicted by fire may have been a contributing cause.”

In addition to the dissolved Fenemal in the woman’s bloodstream, the medical examiner found undigested Fenemal pills in the woman’s stomach, indicating that she took more than one dose of the drug in the hours leading up to her death. That seemed to point toward suicide, and in the end that was what Bergen chief of police Asbjørn Bryhn concluded. One possible scenario was that the woman hiked up to the remote site, drank the liquor she had with her, then started the fire and began burning her belongings, including one or more of her passports. At some point she took her last dose of Fenemal. Then as the drug and the alcohol took effect, and before she lost consciousness entirely, she threw herself into the fire in a last, desperate attempt to conceal her identity from the world.

That’s what the chief of police concluded, but others who investigated the case disagreed. They believed the Isdal woman was murdered. Was it suicide or murder? She may be the only person who knew for sure.

STILL COLD

And there the trail goes cold. More than 40 years later, the woman’s identity and her nationality are still unknown. If she was indeed a spy, as some suspect, the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s offered the prospect that when the secret archives of the former Soviet Union and its allies (East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia) were opened, the identity of the Isdal woman might finally become known. But that was more than 25 years ago, and the woman’s identity is still a mystery. A sample of the woman’s DNA was taken from one of her teeth in 2016, but to date that, too, has failed to yield any results.

FAREWELL…FOR NOW

In February 1971, four months after the Isdal woman’s body was discovered, she was given a Catholic funeral mass and laid to rest in Bergen’s Møllendal cemetery. Eighteen members of the Bergen police department were present at the funeral; they were the only mourners. The funeral mass and the graveside service were photographed by the department’s crime scene photographer, while another officer took careful notes and used them to prepare a written report describing the services in detail.

The photos and the report were filed away at the Bergen police department in 1971, and they remain there to this day—not as part of the death investigation, but rather as a gesture of condolence to the Isdal woman’s family. If her identity ever becomes known and her next of kin are located, they will be presented with the photographs of the funeral and the written description of the funeral services as a memento of their loved one.

And because the Isdal woman was buried in a special zinc coffin instead of one made of wood, if her family decides to have her reburied in the country of her birth, that will still be possible even many decades from now. The zinc coffin will not decompose in the soil.

The only thing missing from the grave site in Møllendal cemetery is a headstone: since the woman’s identity and date of birth are not known, all that can be written on the headstone is the date on which she met her end. The hope is that one day her identity will be discovered and she will be given a proper headstone, so that people will finally know her name.

This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s OLD FAITHFUL 30th Anniversary Bathroom Reader. Uncle John and the Bathroom Readers’ Institute! Every year for the past three decades, Uncle John and his team of tireless researchers have delivered an epic tome packed with thousands of fascinating factoids. And now this extra-special 30th anniversary edition has everything you’ve come to expect from the BRI, and more! It’s stuffed with 512 pages of all-new articles sure to please everyone, from our longtime readers to newbies alike. You’ll get the scoop on the latest “scientific” studies, weird world news, surprising history, and obscure facts.

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