It was a most unusual letter, making requests of a peculiarly specific nature about a mysterious substance, discovered within an abandoned suitcase.
“Dear Mrs. S. Lengaingne,” it began.
“Please find enclosed a photo of a to us unknown cosmetique brand.”
“As we are urgently interested to know what brand it might be and in what country it is manufactured, eventually also the name of the manufacturer, we ask you kindly to see whether you know it and inform us accordingly.”
The suitcase containing this mystery substance–a variety of eczema cream– had been found with the Bergen railway station luggage department. Accompanying the cream had also been various clothing, a number of different wigs, currency of Norwegian, German, British, Belgian, and Swiss origin, combs, brushes, cosmetics, and a small, curious assortment of teaspoons.
All the labels on the clothing and other items, including the eczema cream, had been removed or rubbed off.
It seemed very much the likes of something from a novel of spies and espionage… hence the reason authorities had penned the inquisitive letter, with such interest in identifying the contents in this abandoned suitcase. And yet, these weren’t even the most unusual aspects of the unfolding mystery; the suitcase had become an interest for homicide investigators because fingerprints, discovered upon the belongings inside, were a match for those of a badly burned corpse, discovered in Norway’s Isdalen valley.
The gruesome discovery of the “Isdal Woman”, as she became known, remains one of the most grisly, and perpelxing unexplained deaths in the history of Norway.
The strange affair began in November, 1970, where on the morning of the 29th a hiker and his two daughters came upon a most unsettling discovery: the remains of an individual, presumably a woman, whose badly burned remains were stiff and contorted, the arms drawn up into a characteristic “boxing position” typical of death by burning.
Authorities were notified, and upon examination of the remains, all of the clothing that remained on the body had been removed of any tags or identifying markings. Additionally, grouped in small assemblages around the body had been jewelry, small containers, and other items which investigators likened to having a ceremonial appearance, lending to speculation as to whether the victim was involved in some kind of ritual killing.
With the subsequent discovery of the suitcase at Bergen, the fingerprints within matching “Isdal Woman’s” remains, and the similarity between items in both instances with all the tags or labeling removed, it seemed that answers to this strange death would be forthcoming shortly.
However, days passed, then weeks, and on into months and years, yet no conclusive determination as to what had happened ever came to light.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t a number of leads that turned up, each adding to the strangeness of the emerging narrative. A pair of boots found near the remains were traced back to a store in Stavanger, upon discovery of a bag from the Oscar Rørtvedt’s Footwear Store within the mystery suitcase. A salesman there recalled having sold a pair of boots similar to those found during the investigation to an English speaking woman, though she spoke with a foreign accent, and carried a strong scent that he likened to garlic. The mysterious woman, whom he described as well dressed and attractive, took an unusually long time to select the boots before making her purchase.
The description given by the shoe salesman was later used to trace the woman to a hotel where she stayed, booking a room under the name of Fanella Lorch. However, similar leads began to indicate that “Fanella Lorch” had stayed at a number of hotels in the country, though using different names at each. This further seemed to indicate that she would have had to use fake identification on several occasions, in order to register at the hotels she visited.
At some of the hotels where she stayed, the woman had asked to change rooms; on at least one occasion, she did so three separate times during a single stay. Hotel staff that served or interacted with the mystery woman recalled that she used English, as well as some German, when she spoke.
Due to the air of espionage that the story evoked, Norway’s intelligence services quietly began investigating the case also, without public disclosure of their interest in the case. Though perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the entire affair had been a coded note which the mystery woman carried in her luggage; portions of this note were later decrypted by investigators, who discerned that it made references to locations where she had stayed during her travels.
Another perplexing aspect to the “Isdal Woman” mystery had been the results of her autopsy. It was presumed, based on the condition of her teeth, that the woman had been attended by a dentist perhaps in Central or Southern Europe, or possibly South America. Results of the autopsy also revealed the cause of death to be poisoning from Fenemal carbon-monoxide. In addition to the burns, the presence of petrol indicated this as being the substance used to ignite the fire which caused them. Finally, she was found to have consumed as many as seventy sleeping pills, some of which had not been fully absorbed into her bloodstream at the time of her death.
It seemed evident that the deceased woman had been of an age somewhere between her twenties and forties, though for a woman of such youth, possessed an unusual amount of dental fillings, bridges, and gold crowns. It was long believed that this portion of the lower jaw of the mystery woman had been lost, but following an investigation by Norway’s national broadcasting company NRK, a new lead could have emerged in the case which some investigators hope will shed light on the woman’s strange death.
Specifically, the supposedly “missing” lower jaw was recently recovered from the Norwegian forensic archives, which allows modern technologies to be employed in the ongoing effort to understand who, precisely, the “Isdal Woman” had been.
BBC News reported on the current studies, which involve studies aimed at determining chemical signatures from samples of the deceased woman’s teeth, which may reveal details as specific as where she was born, and where she traveled throughout her life:
Because the isotope analysis tracks compounds absorbed at specific stages of tooth development, the researchers now think the Isdal woman moved from eastern or central Europe further west between childhood and adolescence.
And while the age of the woman at the time her death was unknown, some of the indicators in the teeth suggest she may have moved just before or during World War II, NRK reports.
Was she a spy, as so many have speculated, based on her unusual behavior, and penchant for costumes without identifying tags or labels? Whatever the truth of her origins is revealed to be, after 46 years of investigation–and intrigue–we may be closing in on the final answers to the riddle of the Isdal Woman.