Floreana History – Post 1900’s
I’m surprised Floreana, The Movie, hasn’t been made yet. It would make a fascinating film. Enchanted Pacific islands, passion, promiscious women, pioneers, high drama, ‘royalty’, cruelty, murder, mystery and mayhem…it has it all and in one of the most famous places in the world…the Galapagos!
Between Floreana’s year round artisian spring and the worldwide press the Galapagos generated, it captivated the attention of many and the fantasy of a few. In 1929, Dr. Friedrich Ritter, a 43 year-old German dentist, left his wife and brought a patient of his with a limp, Dore Strauch when he decided to leave the world behind and go live a paradisical, isolated, experimental life on Floreana. According to his ‘nature philosophy’, Dr. Ritter thought Floreana was the perfect place for a reclusive, nudist vegetarian to live off the land, away from mankind and that by doing so, one could live to be 150. Being a dentist and anticipating the worst in advance, Dr. Ritter had pulled all of his teeth and replaced them with wooden dentures for daily wear and a special stainless set for events that required more. Indeed, years after arriving, Dore would have to have hers removed with primitive instruments, without anesthesia and with no pain killers of any sort.
They arrived, staked out a farm they named “Frido” (which still exists on Floreana today) about 500 feet above sea level and planted fruit and vegetables. For months after their arrival, they were the topic of newspapers and magazines much like coverage of celebrities today. One very interesting account of meeting Dr. Ritter and Dore is by JF Schimpff in 1932 when, draw by press coverage of Dr. Ritter, he decided to follow suit.
Dr. Ritter and Dore Strauch managed to live in their preferred isolation, apart from visitors, for 2 years until the arrival of The Wittmers, another German family, in 1932. Heinz Wittmer had been fascinated by published stories of Dr. Ritter and Dore’s journey to and life in the Galapagos. He was equally absorbed (as was much of the world) by William Beebe’s book, “Galapagos, End of the World”. Shortly after marrying Margret in 1931, he announced that they were moving to the Galapagos. He was convinced it would serve as a sanatorium for his chronically ailing son, Harry, who had been delicate since birth. Since they could not afford to place Harry in a sanatorium for a long period of time, Heinz decided that “by leaving the unhealthy conditions of city life, the social and economic insecurity then prevailing in Germany and giving Harry the peace of an ‘enchanted island,” his son would be able to recuperate.
Margret Wittmer was five months pregnant when they immigrated to the unwelcoming desolation of Floreana. As many had said upon landing in the Galapagos before her, Margret Wittmer wrote of their arrival on Floreana that ” Surely no more lonely, forlorn and ‘dead’ place could be imagined than this island with the lovely name like a flower in bloom.” She went on to say that “The books and press reports we had read in Germany had not warned us adequately that it would be a herculean task to make a living in our new self-chosen home.” Floreana’s first native resident was born in January 1933, a son named Rolf. Because the Wittmers were building their home during that time, Rolf was born in one of the pirate’s caves in the Floreana Highlands.
To say Dr. Ritter and Dore Strauch were none too pleased to have traversed the world only to have their isolation end is an understatement. They both had the deserved reputation of being rudely unpleasant, unhelpful and lived up to their reputations by being downright unneighborly towards the Wittmers. No shared food, no assistance…upon the Wittmer’s arrival, the message was clear, “Leave us alone!”
Only 3 months after the Floreana arrival of the Wittmers, a slim, Austrian woman of 40 arrived accompanied by two men. She presented herself as the Baroness Eloisa von Wagner Bosquet-Philipson, one of the men as her German husband, Monsieur Robert Philipson, (a man very much her junior) and the other as her gentleman-in-waiting, Herr Lorenz. The 3rd man accompanying her was Ecuadorian, Valdivieso, who had been a common laborer before managing to find his way to Europe where the Baroness met him in Paris and decided he would be quite helpful in her Ecuadorian agenda. With her dismissive manners, self-absorbed airs and condescending ways, the arrogant ‘Baroness’ turned to out be quite the unwelcome resident. From the island’s population of 5 to various ship captain’s, no one quite knew what to make of the Baroness and rumours ran amuck fueled by her gentleman-in-waiting, Lorenz, who gossiped that she was not only not a Baroness, but she was not married to Philipson either. According to Lorenz, the Baroness was still married to a Frenchman named Bousquet who was an airman in the war and later a businessman. Lorenz went on to say Bousquet had met her in Constantinople where she was a dancer. He added that he had heard that, before the war, she was a spy.
Upon her arrival, the Baroness first used a deserted hut in Post Office Bay previously built by Norwegians who had attempted to settle. There, she would open letters or steal supplies left for the 5 Floreana residents. Her presence actually inspired a bond between Dr. Ritter and Dore Strauch with the Wittmers, something the ‘new age’ couple had previously been completely resistant to. But no one wanted nor liked the Baroness’ presence on Floreana.
Supposition about the Baroness ran rampant and consistently so. Most to this day assume both men were lovers, though one more favored than the other. Years later, in Dore Strauch’s book, “Satan Comes to Eden“, she recalls a conversation where the Baroness openly discussed her Parisian preference of multiple lovers and admitted to easily tiring of a lover. Over the years the one thing everyone did seem to agree on was how she held some sinister power over the men she surrounded herself with, as if they were slaves to her.
The Baroness had come to pioneer a luxury resort since many of the world’s most powerful and wealthiest people were inevitably drawn to the magic of the enchanted Galapagos after reading about the islands in various newspapers or magazines. Upon arrival to Post Office Bay one day, Heinz Wittmer found the following note attached to the hut the Baroness had been using with her now questionable entourage. The note said:
“Friends, whoever you are! Two hours from here lies the Hacienda Paradiso, a lovely spot where the weary traveller can rejoice to find refreshing peace and tranquility on his way through life. Life is such a tiny fragment of eternity, shackled to a clock –let us be happy in it the short time we can. In Paradiso you have only one name: Friend. We will share with you the salt of the sea, the produce of our garden and the fruits of our trees, the cool sping water that trickles from the rocks, and all the good things friends have brought us when they passed.
We would have you spend with us a few moments of this restless live, we would bestow on you the peace with which God endowed our hearts and minds when we left the turbulence of great cities for the tranquility of centuries which has thrown its cloak over the lonely, romantic, miraculous Galapagos.”
Soon after her arrival, newspapers from major cities around the world ran headlines announcing, “Revolution on Pacific Island…Woman Proclaims Herself Empress…Local Opposition Imprisoned.” Headlines like this only made the curious more curious and drew those wealthy enough to see for themselves. Since there was no luxury hotel on a hacienda as the press report, the Floreana locals surmised this was the Baroness’ doing and that she had designs on Hollywood. As Heinz Wittmer once said, “Empress of Floreana in sensational new picture…I can see the poster already, in her imagination anyhow!” There is at least one known film of the Baroness on Floreana.
After all the press, the Baroness had become a celebrity, but news of this had not yet reached Ecuador. So when the Governor of the Galapagos Islands set out for Floreana bringing along a Dane by the name of Knud Arenz to translate, it was to investigate complaints Ritter had lodged against the Baroness. However, he ended up being so charmed by the Baroness he granted her title to four square miles of land on Floreana for her hotel. He granted Ritter and the Wittmers title to 50 acres each on the same trip. Ritter was furious about the outcome. To make matters even worse, the Governor invited the Baroness to return with him to Chatham (today San Cristobal ) for a few week’s holiday. When the Baroness returned to Floreana, it was with the Knud Arenz (the interpretor for the ‘court of inquiry’) in tow as her newly hired gamekeeper. In “Satan Comes to Eden”, Dore Strauch says Arenz and the Baroness were lovers and that jealous eruptions from Philipson would result in horrible fights between the pair.
Two months later, yet another German showed up on Floreana, a journalist by the name of Werner Boeckmann to call on the Baroness. It was only and afternoon visit, but immediately mysterious nocturnal activities resounded throughout Floreana from the Baroness’ Hacienda. The activities ceased the very day Herr Boeckmann returned to Floreana accompanied by his supposed future brother-in-law, Herr Linde. Outraged that the pair opted to stay with Ritter rather than at her Paradiso, the Baroness nevertheless invited the party to go out hunting on the pampas (flatlands) the following day rendering it impossible for them to refuse without being outright rude. It is said that the Baroness had her sights set on the handsome Herr Linde, but he was one of the rare men who could resist her.
Long story short, Knud Arenz was ‘accidentally’ shot in the stomach by the Baroness and Herr Linde suspected the nature of the events was such that the bullet was meant for his leg as a response to his rejection of the Baroness’ hospitality. Giving credence to this scenario was something the Baroness herself had said to Linde before the shoot, “You know, I’ve got a terrible habit. I prefer to shoot animals int he leg, then I catch them and nurse them till they’re right again, the poor creatures.” Only Ritter dared voice the accusation out loud accompanied by yet another complaint about the Baroness to the Governor. Dore Strauch would later recall in her book a very similar account of the Baroness telling her about this unnatural ‘habit’ of hers when she tried unsuccessfully to tame a wild dog. She shot the dog, nursed it and it remained true for the rest of its life. Knud Arenz recovered in Guayaquil and never returned to Floreana.
Things got stranger from there. The Baroness began to plea with yachts to remove her but was consistently rejected. Lorenz began to complain loudly to both the Wittmers and Dr. Ritter and Dore Strauch about the inhumane treatment he was receiving from the Baroness and Philipson. He recounted tales of being savagely beaten along with other abuses. Finally, he left Paradiso and lived for awhile with the Wittmers, though still at the Baroness’ beck and call. Shortly thereafter, according to Margret Wittmer’s account of the story, the Baroness came to find Lorenz, who was out, and announced that she was leaving Floreana, but that Lorenz should care for her belongings. Then she and her ‘husband’ disappeared, never to be seen from or heard of again.
Most accounts agree no boat came or someone else would have been aware of it. Dore Strauch recounts in her book of hearing a bone-chilling scream in the night and of seeing the Baroness’ luggage, as cherished photos of Philipson’s mother and other things they surely would have taken if they indeed had departed, left behind in Paradiso. Most lean towards the theory that Lorenz killed the Baroness and Philipson as his behavior was by all accounts, quite squirrley following the Baroness’ disappearance and almost developed a panic about getting off of the island. Of course, many speculated about Dr. Rittmer because of his persistant hatred of the Baroness. Accounts vary widely, so putting together the mystery of Floreana is virtually impossible, thus remaining a mystery to this day.
Months passed after the Baroness’ disappearance before a ship arrived on Floreana and then it was a small vessel captained by a frequent Floreana visitor, a Norwegian named Nuggerud, who had brought yet another journalist to Floreana. So now the world would know of the Baroness’ disappearance and finally, Lorenz could leave Floreana having raised enough money to pay for a voyage by selling the Baroness’ belongings to Dr. Ritter and the Wittmers. The journalist made it to Santa Cruz, but apparently, Lorenz convinced (and paid) Nuggerud to take him on to San Cristobal in order to catch a ship that was bound for Guayaquil. They never made it.
In November 1934, Dore Strauch inadvertently poisoned her chickens by feeding them pork that had gone bad. Hoping to preserve meat before they all died, Dr. Ritter killed and boiled the remaining chickens, convinced boiling them would be sufficient to destroy any toxins and make them safe to eat. He and Dora had their last dinner together of the meat, but Ritter awoke deathly ill and died a few days later of food poisoning.
In December 1934, the bodies of Lorenz and Nuggerud were found mummified on a beach on Marchena Island next to their ship’s lifeboat. (insert photo) A week after they were discovered, they were photographed by the Hancock Expedition who had been making haste to reach the Galapagos after receiving letters from Ritter asking him urgently to come due to the suspicious activity levels on the island. By the time he arrived, Ritter was dead.
Granted, there was no love lost between Dore Strauch and Margret Wittmer as the two women deftly managed to mostly avoid each other on Floreana, however, their accounts of Ritter’s passing could not be more different from each other:
Dore Strauch: Suddenly he opened his great blue eyes and stretched his arms towards me. His glance was joyously tranquil. He seemed actually to say to me: “I go; but promise you will not forget what we have lived for.” It seemed to be as if he would draw me with him. Then he sank back, and I began to caress his forehead tenderly. He became quite still, and that was death.
Margret Wittmer: Whenever she came near him, he would make feedble movements as if to hit or kick her. He looked up at Dore, his eyes gleaming with hate. [He] wrote his last sentence: “I curse you with my dying breath.” His eyes filled with a wild feverish flame. Dore shrieked, and drew back in horror. Then he collapsed soundlessly, falling back on the pillows. He had gone.
Additional eyewitness accounts of the era included:
Walter Finsen, an Icelander living on Isla Santa Cruz
Leon and Carola Mandel visiting Galápagos on the yacht Carola in 1941
JF Schimpff who experimented on Floreana for awhile by living in a pirate’s cave
Research for this article was greatly aided by reading:
Margret Wittmer’s “Floreana, A Woman’s Pilgramage to the Galapagos” and “What Happened on Galapagos?”
Dore Strauch’s “Satan Comes to Eden”
And especially John Woram’s (author of “Charles Darwin Slept Here”) fantastic Galapagos history site.