Elisabeth Leenhower — also known by at least eight other aliases according to the multiple passports found within her bags including Jenevive Lancia, Claudia Tjelt, Vera Schlosseneck, Alexia Zarna-Merchez, Claudia Nielsen, Vera Jarle, Elizabeth Leen Hoywfer, and Finella Lorck — but perhaps more familiarly known as “the Isdal Woman,” has remained a complete enigma for 45 years. None of her nine known aliases could ever be substantiated as her true identity and what is known about her only leads to more questions on who this person really was.
Her story began on November 29, 1970. A woman with her two daughters were hiking through the Isdalen valley, near Bergen, Norway. The women stopped for a little rest in the Isdalen Valley, also known by locals as “Death Valley” – a name that came about after a number of skiers had met their end there. The women began to walk again and stumbled upon a ghastly scene.
They were in what seemed to have been someone’s camp site. In the middle of a smoldering campfire laid the body of a woman with pink sleeping pills littered around her body. Located within the camp was an empty bottle of liquor, a silver spoon with the monogram filed off, a packed lunch, and 2 water bottles smelling of gasoline. Even stranger was that the woman’s clothing and shoes had the makers’ tags cut off, with the exception of a Swiss “Solo” watch found on her wrist.
An autopsy revealed that the woman had died from a combination of burns from the fire and carbon monoxide poisoning. Over 50 sleeping pills were still present within her system and she had a noticeable bruise on her neck. Additionally, her teeth showed evidence that she had undergone dental work in South America at some point, based on the techniques used. Perhaps the most perplexing detail is that the woman’s fingerprints had been completely removed, either by sanding or some other means. Her death had been quickly ruled a suicide.
A hiker, possibly one of the last people to see the woman alive, claimed that he had passed her in the Isdalen Valley area that day. He reported that he distinctly remembered seeing her because she had been dressed like she was getting ready to leave town, rather than someone going on a hike. She was being tailed by two men, Mediterranean in appearance, and recalls that she appeared to be distressed. The hiker further recollects that it seemed as if she wanted to say something to him, perhaps cry out for help, but both she and the hiker, feeling intimidated by the two men following behind her, instead parted ways. The unidentified hiker said that he phoned police the moment the woman’s body was discovered in order to report what he had seen. His story was cut short by the officer on the other end. The hiker was advised to forget about the incident and the pessimistic officer assured him that the case would never be solved.
Bergan police interviewed nearly 100 people during their investigation. They learn that the woman had visited Bergan three times between March and November of 1970. Her last visit would be on November 18 of that year. The first day she stayed at the Hotel Rosenkrantz, checking in under the name Elisabeth Leenhower. On her second day she moved to the Hotel Hordaheimen, where she stayed until November 23, mostly keeping to herself and appearing “watchful”, as witnesses recall. One guest reported seeing the woman using a payphone in the hotel lobby and told the person on the other line “Ich komme bald”, which translates from German as “I am coming soon”.
On November 23 she checked out of the Hotel Hordaheimen, paying in cash, and had asked the clerk to call a taxi for her. She was later seen that day at the train station. She placed two suitcases into a storage locker. Inside the suitcases, the woman’s 9 passports were discovered, along with clothing – again with the makers’ tags removed, a postcard from an Italian photographer, wigs, non-prescription eyeglasses, and silver spoons similar to those found at the camp. Sewn into the lining of on of the bags were 500 German marks and 130 Norwegian crowns. A bottle of prescription lotion was also found, but the label had been removed, and all items located within the suitcases had been wiped clean of fingerprints.
Aside from the passports, perhaps one of the most important pieces of evidence within the luggage was a black notebook. It was written in numerical code but seemed to have been the woman’s travel log. Some of the notebook was able to be decoded and assisted in constructing a timeline of events leading up to her death.
- March 20, 1970 – travels from Geneva to Oslo.
- March 21-24, 1970 – stays 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, Germany.
- October 3 – travels from Stockholm, Sweden to Oslo, Norway, and on to Oppdal, Norway, a popular ski resort.
- October 22 – stays at Hotel Altona in Paris.
- October 23 – 29 – stays at Hotel de Calais in Paris, France.
- October 29 – 30 – goes from Paris to Stavanger and on to Bergen, Norway.
- October 30 – November 5 – checks in to hotel Neptune using the name “Alexia Zerner-Merches”; meets an unknown man at the hotel.
- November 6 – 9 – travels to Trondheim, Norway, and stays at the Hotel Bristol using the name “Vera Jarle”.
- November 9 – goes to Oslo and on to Stavanger; stays at Hotel St. Svitun using the name “Fenella Lorch”.
- November 18 – goes with the boat Vingtor to Bergen; stays at Hotel Rosenkrantz using the name “Elisabeth Leenhower” from Belgium.
- November 19 – 23 – stays at Hotel Hordaheimen, remains in the room 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 – located dead in Isdalen.
Following what few leads they had to go on, investigators learned that the woman spoke at least four languages including English, German, Flemish (Belgian Dutch), and French, all of which she spoke with an indistinct accent. According to some documents signed by the woman, her profession had been listed as an antiques dealer or a traveling saleswoman. Hotel staff at some of the places the woman had stayed in said she often ordered porridge with milk. An analysis of the woman’s clothing material revealed that they were similar to the style of clothing popular in Italy at the time.
Sketches of the woman were spread throughout Norway but reached out in order to identify the mysterious Isdal Woman. There was only one man who authorities were able to connect to her. An Italian photographer – the same photographer who had taken the picture for the postcard located within the woman’s luggage – had taken her out for dinner. He didn’t offer many clues on the woman’s identity other than she had told him that she was an antiques dealer from South Africa, born just outside of Johannesburg, and was in town during a six-month tour of Europe.
Placed into a galvanized coffin and lowered into an unmarked grave, only 18 people presided over the woman’s funeral. Her procession, comprised mostly of police officers, was undoubtedly a solemn ceremony with no one who was acquainted with the woman to say their final goodbyes. Pictures are kept in police archives, along with other information pertaining to the case, waiting to be claimed by any family relation to the woman who wishes step forward. Requests for these documents have been denied to the public, and it is unlikely that the woman’s family will ever identify her.
It’s been 45 years since the discovery of the Isdal Woman and still the question remains. Who was this mysterious woman and why had she met such a grisly fate in the arctic valley of Norway? Some speculate that the most likely conclusion is that the woman had been a spy, offering a logical explanation for her various aliases, known languages, disguises, and the extreme lengths the woman went to conceal her true identity. Others speculate that she was a fugitive on the run or even an international smuggler. Whatever the case, much like the story of the Somerton Man, this is one mystery that may never be solved.