Most of you have probably heard about the the Somerton man before – a corpse discovered propped up against a stone wall at Somerton beach on 1 December 1948 with no identification and the tags on his clothing removed. But did you know there was an eerily similar case in the 1970s?
With a burned body, a glamorous woman, multiple identities and mysterious men in black, the Isdal Woman mystery goes beyond most people’s understanding.
On November 29, 1970, a man and his two young daughters came across the charred remains of a naked woman, hidden among rocks on a remote hiking trail of Norway’s Isdalen Valley. What remained of the woman’s neck was bruised from some sort of blunt force trauma. Near the body were a handful of pink sleeping pills, a packed lunch, an empty bottle of liqueur and two plastic bottles that had held gasoline.
Police called to the scene later found a burned out passport in the area. The autopsy showed that she had died from a combination of burns and carbon monoxide poisoning, while traces of at least 50 sleeping pills remained in her body. Her fingerprints were also found to have been sanded away.
22 years after the Somerton Man was found dead in South Australia, this case in Norway seemed to repeat those strange happenings all over again. In an odd reflection of the earlier event, two suitcases belonging to the woman were found checked in to a train station in Bergen. When searching through the possessions inside, police found that the labels had also been removed from every piece of clothing she owned. Also inside was a prescription for a lotion, on which the doctor’s name and date had been removed.
In the trunk was a small notebook in which the woman had jotted down several coded entries, though there was no key to the code. When police eventually cracked her code, it was found to detail dates and places of the woman’s previous travels.
Investigators were able to find out much more about the Isdal Woman than has ever been evident about the Somerton Man. She had dental work that was distinctive to Latin America. She spoke French, German, English and Dutch. She was fond of porridge and milk. She often changed rooms after checking in at various hotels. She had a provocative style of dress.
She wore a number of different wigs, and one was found in her possessions along with several pairs of non-prescription glasses. She called herself an antiques collector from South Africa. She went by nine different identities when travelling around Europe: Jenevive Lancia, Claudia Tjelt, Vera Schlosseneck, Claudia Nielsen, Alexia Zarna-Merchez, Vera Jarle, Finella Lorck and Elizabeth Leen Hoywfer. None of them were her own.
The various sketches of her that exist are evocative – conjuring the perfect image of a glamorous Bond girl or Hollywood spy – though it should be noted that one photograph commonly connected with the Isdal Woman is actually that of another unknown decedent, the Ophelia of the Seine.
An account of her last days comes from the Doe Network:
- March 20, 1970 – she travels from Geneva to Oslo
- March 21-24, 1970 – she lives at Hotel Viking in Oslo using the name “Genevieve Lancier”.
- March 24 – flies from Oslo to Stavanger, takes the boat to Bergen, stays the night at Hotel Bristol using the name “Claudia Tielt”.
- March 25 – April 1- stays at hotel Scandia in Bergen, still as “C. Tielt”
- April 1 – travels from Bergen to Stavanger, and on to Kristiansand, Hirtshals, Hamburg and Basel. Thats the last trace of her in Norway until she returns six months later.
- October 3 – travels from Stockholm to Oslo, and on to Oppdal, stays the night at the hotel there together with Italian photographer Giovanni Trimboli
- stays at hotel Altona in Paris
- October 23 – 29 – stays at Hotel de Calais in Paris
- October 29 – 30 – goes from Paris to Stavanger and on to Bergen
- October 30 – November 5 – checks in to hotel Neptun using the name “Alexia Zerner-Merches”; she meets an unknown man at the hotel.
- November 6 – 9 – she travels to Trondheim, lives at hotel Bristol using the name “Vera Jarle”.
- November 9 – goes to Oslo and on to Stavanger where she stays at Hotel St. Svitun using the name “Fenella Lorch”.
- November 18 – goes with the boat Vingtor to Bergen where she stays at hotel Rosenkrantz using the name “Elisabeth Leenhower” from Belgium.
- November 19- 23 – stays at hotel Hordaheimen, stays in the room a lot and seems watchful.
- November 23 – leaves the hotel in the morning, pays in cash and goes to the railway station where she places 2 pieces of luggage in a depository box.
- November 29 – she is located dead in Isdalen.
The Italian photographer she had met up with was tracked down through a postcard she had of one of his photos. He had given her a lift and had dinner with her some time before her death. He told police that she had told him she was from South Africa, and that she had six months to see the most beautiful places in Norway. Ultimately, this line of investigation didn’t turn up any new information as to the woman’s identity or mysterious demise.
Other witnesses came forward with their testimony, with one woman claiming that she had overheard the woman talking to a man in a hotel in Bergen. The woman had allegedly said to him “Ich komme bald” – “I am coming soon” in German.
On November 23, the Isdal Woman was seen for the last time as she checked out of her hotel. She paid in cash, then asked for a taxi to be called for her. While at the hotel, staff said she seemed like she was on guard all the time. The taxi took her to the railway station, where she left two pieces of luggage – and the trail ends there.
Further information was revealed only a few years ago in the early 2000s, when a hiker came forward to reveal that he had encountered the woman on a hike on November 24, 1970 – five days before her body was found. It was nearing dusk when he saw the woman hurrying along the trail towards him, dressed for the town rather than the mountains. Her face was distorted by fear, and she seemed to want to say something to the hiker, though appeared intimidated by two black-coated men who followed. He described the two men as being of foreign appearance.
As soon as the hiker heard of the body that was found in the mountains, he contacted police to tell what he had seen, though was met with a puzzling response. The policeman he talked to told him: “Forget her, she was dispatched. The case will never be solved”. The man kept his silence for 32 years, only recently speaking out about what he had seen.
The police eventually ruled the death a suicide, but in light of the evidence that’s been unearthed, that conclusion has always been highly controversial.