Who was the mysterious Isdal Woman, and who killed her?

The burial of the mysterious Isdal Woman, a murder never solved.
The funeral for the mysterious Isdal Woman, a murder never solved.

AH, ISDAL WOMAN. How could I have forgotten about this strange cold case, this strange unsolved mystery that I had run across many times in reading about the weird, the unexplained?

As I sat in not far away from my blue flame heater on a chilly, rainy evening, I examined the images that came up on my laptop for Isdal Woman.   I was astounded at all the variations in her appearance. They were all artists’ renderings—there were no photos.

One very often-used image, looked like a fifth-grader did it with a Prang water color tray and a cheap brush. This one also had some of the elements of a Picasso—his period of unlevel eyes, profiles fused to frontal views. There was one that looked like a drawing of a villainess from a Steve Canyon comic strip.

In one of the better executed images, another artist’s rendering, she appeared pleasingly plump, with short, curvy hair, but with similar facial features to the others, a slightly upturned nose. I recognized another image that someone had labeled as Isdal woman but I knew enough to know that is wasn’t her at all. It was a death mask of the Woman of the Seine. I was very familiar with it, and had done an article on it.

Their deaths had occurred at least seventy years apart, Seine Woman, Isdal Woman. Why was the mask of the Woman of the Seine labeled as Isdal Woman on several internet sites? Another unbelievable mystery had been tossed before me.

An artist sketch of the Isdal Woman.
An artist sketch of the Isdal Woman.

My friend, Gregor, had arrived for an evening of PBS, cinnamon rolls and cocoa. “Who does this look like to you?” I had printed off one of the Isdal Woman images and was showing it to him.           .

“It looks very familiar. Wait….. I am getting it. Natasha! It looks uncannily like Natasha of Boris and Natasha. Remember them?”

“You mean from Rocky and Bullwinkle?” We were both baby boomers. “Yes, I remember them and I loved them—loved their accents, their diabolical cunning. You are right it does resemble Natasha.”   I reminisced about how I always thought Natasha looked quite a bit like my old Barbie Doll, the brunette version.

My mind wandered. How could all of these images, most of them looking like comic strips and cartoon characters be of the same woman? I read some more about Isdal Woman, and many of the people who had actually seen her agreed that she tried to change her appearance, often, probably by the use of wigs and clothing. That could explain the discrepancies.

Supposedly, she walked a lot, even walking from country to country, it is said. I am thinking they must mean the Scandinavian countries—how else could she be walking all over, crossing borders, and seen everywhere by the residents of Nordic villages? Those who saw her commented that she was a trim, medium-tall woman in her thirties or forties, with high cheekbones and small eyes. She was always well-dressed. They all agreed that she was beautiful.

When they found her, her fingerprints had been sanded off. Hmmm. Had she done that herself, in life, or was that done, post mortem by another party? There is only one reason to remove fingerprints, to my mind. It is to hide one’s identity—either from being tied to a recent local or regional crime—or to prevent them matching anything in a data base, of past criminal involvement or shady activity.

To this very day, no one knows who she was or what she was doing. They found a diary, or log, that had been written in code. They did crack the code and it was a list of the many places she had visited and the dates she was there. Suitcases found in a train station locker in Bergen, Norway, were tied to her and she was using them and their contents, but still, no one has been able to learn the actual name of the lady who owned the suitcases.

“Who is the Natasha lady, if you don’t mind my asking? I am curious now. Don’t leave me hanging,” Gregor asked.

I handed my friend a print-out to read. “She is a cold case from way back in 1970. Not only is she a cold case, she is an unsolved mystery of great magnitude. Forensic science is so much better now. Too bad they didn’t do a facial reconstruction with clay. I don’t think there were any post mortem photos released. She was badly burned.

“You find all the good cases,” Gregor said. After a few minutes of reading the print-out he began to speak. “This is unbelievable. Her fingerprints were sanded off, the tags were cut out of all of her clothing. German money was found sewn into the lining of one of the suitcases. At autopsy, her dental work appeared to be done by South American dentists.”

I had to add, “Yes, and as far as her clothing goes, tailors and designers were called in and it seems she had a fondness for Italian designs. Even though the tags were removed, they were identifiable as a type of style that Italian designers of the era created.”

“She walked, took taxis, and stayed in hotels. When she stayed in hotels she moved rooms frequently and always requested a room with a balcony.”

“Adding further to the intrigue,” Gregor commented, then he added, “…and the death scene was more than bizarre. She was found on November 29, 1970 by a college professor and his daughters who were hiking through Isdalen Valley near Bergen, Norway.

“What they came upon was shocking. It was the partially charred remains of a nude woman, back in a rocky area, off of the hiking trail. With the woman were pink prescription sleeping pills scattered about. The name of the doctor and pharmacy had been removed from the label. There was a packed lunch, and empty quart bottle of liqueur, and two plastic bottles that had gasoline residue in them. It became a criminal case, but after the autopsy, the cause of death was listed as suicide.”

“Yes, that is a very controversial ruling, not impossible to kill oneself that way, but highly improbable.”

“The autopsy said that she had died of burns and carbon monoxide poisoning, but she also had a bad bruise on her neck—it was described as having occurred as result of a blow.”

“Yes, and did she give such a blow to herself? It happened before death or it would not have bruised like it did.”

“Her body contained fifty of the sleeping pills. When the Bergen police turned it into a comprehensive investigation, they found that she had traveled about Scandinavia and Europe using nine different names, none her own real name, which was not ever determined. There was a burned up passport found at the death scene—no information could be extracted—it was too far gone. They did discover an Italian photographer, a man, who had become a casual friend to her after giving her a lift and treating her to a dinner. She told him that she was South African, from a small village north of Johannesburg, and that she only had six months to see the most beautiful places in Norway.”

“Yes, and what was that cryptic statement about? Did it have anything to do with anything at all, or was she throwing out red herrings to his Italian guy? Nothing came of this information. It had no use in the investigation, and as for befriending the Italian man, you may wonder how she could even converse, well it was learned from interviewed people that had come into contact with Isdal Woman, that she was able to get by in Italian, but, get this—she was fluent in English, Dutch, French and German.

“Good grief. And then there are two more mysterious tales: Hotel staff in Norway had heard her call to a man staying across the hall from her, ‘Ich komme bald.’ This is German for ‘I am coming soon.’ This was so unusual because the staff of hotels claimed she was always very guarded and kept to herself. In another strange story, a man that was hiking saw the woman elaborately dressed—too well-dressed for hiking—jewelry, high heels and such—hiking in the same hills.

“She had a look of stark terror on her face and began to mouth a silent message to him, but she was frightened by two men in black coats that seemed to be following her. This was five days before her body was discovered and when the hiker tried to tell police about the incident, a policeman told him, ‘Forget about her, she was dispatched. The case will never be solved.’ He sat on his story for 32 years.”

I thought about what was going on in my own life the day Isdal Woman died, by her own hand or someone else’s. I had gone back to college after a year of staying out and was in my sophomore year. It was not long after the Thanksgiving holiday and I am sure I went home for a few days during that. Some of the big songs that were getting a lot of play on the radio at that time were: We’ve Only Just Begun, by the Carpenters, Fire and Rain, by James Taylor, Indiana Wants Me, a one-hit wonder, Montego Bay, Green-Eyed Lady, by Sugar Loaf and one of my all time favorites, Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Isdal woman is interred at Mollendal cemetery. The case is still a big mystery, a very cold, cold case. Maybe some day in the future, forensic science will be such, that Isdal Woman could be disinterred for more clues, or a possible facial reconstruction. Maybe there is even some evidence on file that could be gleaned from the woman’s DNA. It might tell where she came from. No one has stepped forward to claim her. “Spy!” seems to scream out from all directions but we may never know.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Dark Continent Continental. 

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