THE ISDAL WOMAN
Posted February 24, 2015on:
I’ve said on this blog before that I am particularly fascinated by cases where people have vanished into thin air. Sometimes though, even when they are found again, they leave us with an apparently unsolvable mystery, and the sinister case of the Isdal Woman is a perfect example of this. This case has had armchair detectives scratching their heads for over 40 years now.
Lunchtime on 29 November 1970, and a university professor and his two daughters decided to go for a hike in the hills of the Isdalen valley, Norway, in an area known locally as “dodsdalen”, or “death valley”. They were to make a gruesome discovery. Buried amongst some rocks was the partially burnt corpse of a woman. Surrounding her was a burnt passport, a dozen pink sleeping pills, a packed lunch, an empty bottle of liqueur, and two empty plastic bottles which reeked of petrol.
A full police investigation ensued, which was to throw up one of the most puzzling cases of the 20th century. It was established that she had died from a combination of burns, and carbon monoxide poisoning. She had 50 sleeping pills in her body, and her neck bore a bruise, as though she had been dealt a felling blow there.
She was connected with two suitcases found left at a Bergen train station. All the labels on her clothes had been removed, the fingerprints sanded off, and a prescription bottle of moisturiser had had the doctor’s name and date removed. Five hundred deutsche marks were found sewn into the lining of one of the cases.
Gradually an identikit of her final movements were put together. She was about 30-40 years old, good-looking, with wide hips and small eyes. She had a style of dress described as “Italian” and “provocative”, certainly she had liked high fashion. Witnesses also claimed she had a “wiggling walk”. She had stayed in several hotels in Bergen, constantly moving around, and frequently changing rooms because she insisted she wanted one with a balcony. She was fluent in several European languages, smoked Norwegian cigarettes, and had a particular liking for porridge with lots of milk. She told hoteliers she was a travelling saleswoman, specialising in antiques.
Reports came in from all over Europe from people claiming to have seen her. It was established that she had had 9 different identities (all false), had several passports, and wore a variety of wigs. A diary found amongst her possessions, which was written in a sort of code, seemed to be a list of places she had been, and the dates she had been there. An Italian photographer was interviewed by police, after he was found to have dined with her one evening. He said she told him she came from a small town near Johannesburg, South Africa, and that she had 6 months in which to see all the beautiful places in Norway.
In one hotel she was heard talking across the foyer to a man in German and saying “Ich komme bald” (“I am coming soon”). On the day of her death she checked out of the Hotel Holberg in Bergen, paying her bill in cash, before departing in a taxi. The case was to take another strange turn though.
A hiker recognised her from the police identikit picture, and contacted them to say he had met her whilst walking in the hills on the 24th November. He had particularly noticed her because she was elegantly dressed, which didn’t seem terribly appropriate for walking in the wilds of Norway in the depths of winter. He said her face was “contorted with fear”, and she seemed to be trying to work her mouth, as though to say something to him, but she was approached by two “foreign-looking” men in black coats.
On contacting the police with his story though, he was told “forget her, she was dispatched The case will never be solved”. Unsettling words indeed.
The general consensus seems to be that she was a spy, and as this was still the height of the Cold War that could very well have been likely, and certainly the details of her death have all the hallmarks of a professional assassination job. The lady herself was buried in an unmarked grave on 5 February 1971, leaving us with a tantalising mystery as to who she was, and what she was doing in Norway at the end of November 1970.
ADDENDUM: As Graham64 points out below, there are strong similarities with the Tamam Shud case, often regarded as one of Australia’s strangest mysteries. The victim – found on Somerton beach, Glenelg, nr Adelaide, on 1 December 1945 – in that case was a white male in his mid-40s. On a scrap of paper in his trouser pocket were the words tamam shud (Persian for “ended” or “finished”), torn from the final page of Ruibyat of Omar Khayyam. The pathologist’s report stated that he was a man in peak physical fitness, with the kind of muscular legs and feet often associated with ballet dancers or long-distance runners. Like the Isdal lady, all identification had been removed from his clothing. His suitcase was found at Adelaide railway station, with, once again, all traces of identification removed. It was concluded that he had been poisoned with a barbiturate or a hypnotic (thought to be Digoxin). A telephone number written inside the book was traced to a nurse who lived very nearby. She said she had once owned a copy of that book, but had given it to a soldier she had met when she was working as a hospital nurse during World War 2. The man’s name had been Lieutenant Boxall. When shown a model recreation of the dead man’s face, the nurse had looked so shocked it was feared she would pass out, but she insisted she didn’t recognise him. Was it Lieutenant Boxall then? It would appear not. He was found to be a bus mechanic, who was still very much alive, and said he still had the book the nurse had given him, with all it’s pages intact. The nurse passed away in 2007, but her daughter, interviewed on TV in 2013, said her mother had confided that the mystery man “was known to those higher up than the police”, and speculated that her mother and the Tamam Shud man may have both been spies.
ADDENDUM 2: In his book Murder Tales: Unsolved H N Lloyd describes the suspicious death, 3 years earlier, of a 34-year-old Singaporean called Joseph George Saul Haim Marshall, who was found dead with barbiturate poisoning in the Mosman suburb of Sydney, on 3 June 1945, less than a mile from where the mystery nurse mentioned above lived. A first edition copy of the Ruibyat of Omar Khayyam was found open next to him. Marshall had been the younger brother of the future Chief Minister of Singapore, David Saul Marshall. A hasty inquest ruled it as suicide. On 27 August 1945, the only witness to the death, Gwenneth Dorothy Graham (25), was found drowned in a half-filled bath, her wrists slashed.
He also adds that during the police investigation into the Tamam Shud case, a receptionist at the Strathmore Hotel, opposite Adelaide Railway Station, said that she remembered a man checking in on 30 November 1948. He was carrying a medical bag which, when opened, contained hypodermic syringes. The mystery man was never traced.