The Isdal Woman: The Coldest Case Of The Cold War

By Grace Taylor

Isdalen, where the woman was discovered. (Reinhardheydt/Wikimedia Commons)

On the sunny afternoon of November 29, 1970, a young Norwegian family was out on a hike when suddenly, one of the daughters smelled the unique scent of burning flesh. Upon inspection, the girl was horrified to find the charred remains of a young woman lying behind a large rock and quickly ran with her family back to the nearby town of Bergen to report the body. The disturbing discovery led to one of the most mysterious cases in Norway's history, the case of the Isdal Woman.

Officers arriving on the scene noted that her face was burned beyond all recognition, but interestingly, the back of her body was untouched, and there was no clear evidence of a fire around the area where she was found. Lying beside her was a burned bottle of liquor, an empty passport container, rubber boots, an umbrella, and several articles of clothing and jewelry. Strangely, all the labels in her clothing had been removed.

Reconstruction of the face of an unidentified murder victim found in Norway in 1970. (Stephen Missal/Wikimedia Commons)

A few days later, what should have been a break in the case only led to more questions after police located two suitcases likely belonging to the woman that were abandoned at the local train station. They matched her fingerprints to those on a pair of packed sunglasses, but the suitcases contained no information about her identity—apparently by design. They were stuffed with things like wigs, fake eyeglasses, foreign currency, makeup, and train time schedules. One of them contained a notepad whose contents appeared to be written in code, which the Norwegian authorities determined was a record of her travels.

Using the handwriting from the code, they found several hotels where she stayed, including the location where she was last seen alive—the Hotel Hordaheimen, six days before her body was found—but because she paid in cash, the staff didn't know her name. At least once, she checked into a hotel under the name Fellena Lorch, but she swapped aliases frequently and likely traveled with as many as eight fake passports in and around Norway. She moved around often and reportedly spoke German, Belgian, and English as well as Norwegian.

Firing of an AGM-119 Penguin anti-ship missile from an SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter, during aircrew weapon certifications. (U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

If you're thinking, "Wow, this lady sounds like a spy," you're in good company, as all of these oddities together led many at the time to believe the Isdal Woman was an undercover agent, especially given the high tensions of the Cold War. Norway was no stranger to such plotting, being home to the Lillehammer affair, in which Israeli Mossad agents killed Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchikhi after mistaking him for Black September leader Ali Salameh, who had recently orchestrated the 1972 Olympics Munich massacre. The Isdal Woman's strange death was taken seriously enough to be investigated by the Norwegian Intelligence Service; they have never publicly disclosed whether they uncovered her identity, but declassified records have since shown that the Isdal Woman's movements shadow the top secret development of the powerful Norwegian Penguin missile.

The Isdal Woman's cause of death is nearly as mysterious as her identity. Indications of carbon monoxide poisoning and soot in her lungs seemed to point to the fire, but over 50 sleeping pills were also found in her stomach. The presence of such a large volume of drugs led authorities to rule the death a suicide, but they never explained exactly how a person could set themselves on fire without scorching the surrounding area. Many today theorize that she was murdered, probably for being a spy, but with so few clues, the Norwegian authorities were happy enough to close the case. In 2018, her dental remains were retested, and forensic scientists concluded that she was born around 1930 and originally hailed from Germany, near the French border, adding fuel to the espionage fire.

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Grace Taylor