Spy, Murder Victim, Or Something Else? The Mystery Of The Isdal Woman

Published April 23, 2018

Inside the Isdal woman's luggage, police found wigs, money, and fake passports with different aliases.

Isdalen Valley Norway

Wikimedia CommonsThe Isdalen Valley where the Isdal woman was found

The Isdalen Valley near the city of Bergen is known as “death valley” to locals not just because hikers occasionally perish in the mountains, but because in the Middle Ages the treacherous slopes were a popular location for suicides. On Nov. 29, 1970, the nickname again became darkly relevant as one family out for a stroll made a gruesome discovery.

The first officers to arrive at the scene noticed there was an unmistakable stench of burning flesh in the valley. The source of the smell was the body of a woman wedged between several large rocks. She was so badly charred that she was completely unrecognizable, although her back had remained mysteriously unburned.

Isdal Corpse

Bergen State ArchivesThe body of the Isdal woman, shortly after she was discovered.

The autopsy would later reveal that the woman had been alive when she started to burn, despite the over 50 sleeping pills that were also found in her stomach. There were several other odd elements to the crime scene: although the woman’s clothes were also heavily burned, the investigators noted that the labels had been strategically cut out. Her belongings – including jewelry and a watch- had been removed and placed specifically around the body, which to one investigator looked as though it were “some kind of ceremony.”

The puzzled police made no strides in identifying the unfortunate lady who had become known as “the Isdal Woman” after the valley in which she had been found. There was a break in the case when her fingerprints matched some luggage found at the Bergen train station. However, rather than shed light on the woman’s name and origins, the contents of the luggage only further confounded the police.

Clothing, prescription lotion, a diary, and a postcard were found. However, anything that could have identified the woman had again been purposefully cut out, scraped off, or otherwise removed so that even the brands were a mystery.

The postcard led police back to the Italian photographer who had given it to her. He told the investigators that he had had dinner with the woman once and did not really know her. In the end, he was unable to provide the police with any useful info.

When the police went through the diary, they found some coded entries. Around this time, there were reports that the woman had been seen taking notes during a military test of new rockets in western Norway. However, this aspect of the investigation led nowhere.

In addition to mundane items any traveler would carry, the cases also contained several wigs and currencies from various countries. The police were eventually able to trace the origins of some of the items in the luggage and question the shop-owners and other witnesses who had interacted with the Isdal woman.

Isdal Woman Sketch

Wikimedia CommonsA sketch of the Isdal woman.

The witnesses interviewed by the police recall an elegant and well-dressed brunette woman who spoke English well, but with an accent of some kind. The trail eventually ended at the hotel she had last checked into (albeit under a false name).

Here, investigators were able to determine that the nameless woman had traveled all over Norway and Europe. She used different aliases and fake passports to check into hotels and that the codes in the diary connected to the places the woman had visited. Unfortunately, this is where the investigation dried up.

Without any further leads, the police wound up declaring the Isdal Woman’s death a suicide (because of the sleeping pills found during the autopsy), although there was no clear explanation for the deliberate burning of the body or the remoteness of the location in which it was found. She was given a Catholic funeral in 1971, and the case was considered closed, despite the many unanswered questions.

Isdal Woman Funeral

Bergen State ArchivesThe Isdal Woman’s funeral attended to by police officers.

Decades later, the mysterious death of the Isdal Woman is being investigated again, thanks to the tremendous leaps made in forensic science since the 1970s (including DNA testing and isotope analysis). The burned woman’s jaw was not buried along with the rest of her in 1971; it was left in police archives for potential future analysis. Modern investigators were able to determine that the woman had moved from Eastern or Central Europe (possible France or Germany) right before or during World War II.

Her origins, combined with the fact that witnesses recalling she spoke several languages, have led to the popular theory that the Isdal Woman was a spy. Norway was a hotbed for espionage during the Cold War, since it was right on the front lines between Russia and the West. However the Isdal Woman met her end, someone took great care to ensure she would never be identified. While this might mean her full story may never be truly known, researchers hope that they might at least be able to track down her relatives, so she can finally be put to rest.

Next, read about seven chilling cold cases where the murderer and victim were both unknown. Then learn about Noor Khan, the noble Indian princess turned British spy.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.