The Search for Thor

Spycraft

Photo: Randi Millman-Brown
The tobacco pipe pistol is an iconic spy gadget.

Photo: private
Thor, with bowtie and pipe, ca. 1940.

RANDI MILLMAN-BROWN
Ithaca, N.Y.

Spycraft: Was Thor a spy? Was he engaged to a spy? Was he murdered for being a spy?

These are all questions I‘ve had since starting to research my book about my great-uncle Thor Einar Jensen several years ago. His mysterious death, every conceivable record being unavailable or missing, the impulsive engagement to someone he didn’t really know—all have led to the idea that something secret was going on – spying of some kind must have been involved.

Even before I started my research and writing, I had always been fascinated by spies, spying, the CIA, and espionage in general.  Ask my family. I have a large collection of books on spying. Favorite book? SOE Manual: How to be an Agent in Occupied Europe, the SOE, Special Operations Executive, was a secret British World War II organization founded in 1940. Favorite movie? Any James Bond or Mission Impossible movie, but my ultimate favorite is Spy with Melissa McCarthy. I guess I have always not so secretly wanted to be a spy.

The world’s first spy museum opened in Tampere, Finland, in 1998 (vakoilumuseo.fi/spy-museum). When the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., opened in 2002, I immediately added it to my bucket list and visited the following year, writing an article for our local paper. Over the last few years I, luckily, have been able to visit four major spy museums:

Photo: Randi Millman-Brown
During World War II, spies had ingenious ways to hide things, as Randi Millman-Brown learned at this exhibit at the Norwegian Resistance Museum.

The International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C., spymuseum.org

Spyscape, New York, spyscape.com

Norway’s Resistance Museum, Oslo (not technically a spy museum, but they have a large collection of spy paraphernalia), forsvaretsmuseer.no/Hjemmefrontmuseet/Information-in-English

German Spy Museum, Berlin, Germany, www.deutsches-spionagemuseum.de

When I began my research, I had no idea I would be diving headfirst into the idea that my great-uncle might have been involved in the resistance. The Resistance Museum in Oslo has quite a large collection of objects from the spy trade. Since Thor was a banker and an amateur painter and photographer, I was intrigued by many of the objects that I thought he might have used. He was also an avid letter writer, so using invisible ink was certainly one of the methods I consider viable.

Another gadget that seems likely he might have used is a spy camera hidden in a pocket watch. If you have read my previous articles, you know that I now am in possession of Thor’s pocket watch. He used it daily, and it wouldn’t have been unusual (I think) for him to have an alternate watch that was used while working at Norges Bank. There were also ingenious ways to hide film in a loaf of bread (see example in photo below).

One device that Thor also could have used is a necktie that could conceal a code printed on the silk, a code used to distribute sensitive information to the Norwegian resistance.  I have photographs of Thor wearing a necktie (bowtie). Thor would have also used a briefcase or attaché case on a daily basis, and the SOE created an incendiary briefcase to store concealed papers (I am thinking Thor might have used this to deliver classified bank documents). If you opened the case incorrectly, potassium nitrate would destroy the documents.

At the German Spy Museum in Berlin, where I visited last Christmas, there were many objects on display that were used by German and Allied spies. One of the first objects that caught my eye in the espionage collection was the tobacco pipe pistol.  In addition to photographs of Thor wearing a bowtie, both he and my grandfather smoked a pipe daily. In Thor’s diary from his summer ’41 hiking trip in Finnmark, he describes in detail his love of smoking, “…had some sandwiches and a good smoke which soon improved my mood…” and the efforts he went to purchase a new pipe. 

When his pipe was lost over the railing of the ferry he was on at the start of his trip, he found one for sale for NOK 2,30 ($0.25) in small bookstore in Bossekop, Alta. The owner, Mr. Kjelsvik, opened his store for Thor on a Sunday so he could purchase a new one. (Interesting side note: there is currently a Narvesen bookstore in perhaps the same location). Whether or not an artistic, quiet banker would have used a pipe pistol, it is intriguing to consider, especially with the inherent danger of working with the resistance. (And as far as spy gadgets his fiancé might have used, there was the infamous lipstick case with microfilm secret compartment.) 

I might never find out the real circumstances surrounding Thor’s untimely death at the age of 41, but I do believe that some level of spy craft was within the boundaries of possibilities. 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Randi Millman-Brown

Randi Millman-Brown

Randi Millman-Brown is an art historian, photographer, part-time genealogist, and writer living in Ithaca, N.Y. She can be contacted at rmillmanbrown@gmail.com.

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