The last place most would expect to discover an unsolved international murder mystery would be in the Galapagos Islands. The islands are better known for their unique and wondrous creatures and as an inspiration for Charles Darwin’s monumental work The Origin of Species, but newspaper readers in the 1930’s were riveted by events happening on the Galapagos islet of Floreana.
Ill-fated from the start, the island was burnt flat by the helmsman of the Nantucket whaling vessel Essex in 1819. The captain of the vessel swore retribution on the culprit. However, the ship was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale the following year, prompting Herman Melville to pen his vengeance epic Moby Dick.
Subsequently Floreana became a brutal prison colony whose warden used vicious attack dogs to subdue his charges, eventually resulting in rebellion and the prison’s closure. A Norwegian attempt at colonization in the 1920’s was abandoned after only a few years.
In 1929 German physician Dr. Friedrich Ritter and his mistress Dore Strauch left their respective marriages (thoughtfully setting up their abandoned spouses with one another before departing) and moved to Floreana. They had their teeth extracted and purchased a pair of stainless steel dentures to share between them in preparation for their stay.
Strauch had been enthralled by Ritter’s Nietzschean philosophical principles and his advocacy of a natural life, a vegetarian diet and an idyllic Pacific Island existence. The reality was that his behavior often marked him as a bully and a hypocrite. He was rude to visitors, abused Dore and while refusing her simple pleasures such as coffee on the basis of his philosophical principles, was not averse to having a good beefsteak or ham hock from time to time despite his avowed vegetarianism.
They called their utopia “Friedo.”
Ritter was less than delighted when three years later Heinz Wittmer and his pregnant wife Margret, a pair of practical German burghers, settled on the island. Accompanying them was Harry, Heinz’s son by a previous marriage, whose fragile health had prompted them to seek sunshine and fresh air in the tropics.
Shortly afterwards, Ritter was even less impressed when the self-proclaimed Baroness Wagner de Bosquet arrived with two lovers and an Ecuadorean laborer in tow. A dramatic, flamboyant and often ill-tempered woman, she totally dominated her two lovers, handsome though weak-willed young men who seemed terrified of her. Her stated intention was to open a luxury hotel on the island for American millionaires, to be called Hacienda Paradiso.
The grandiose Baroness soon acclaimed herself Empress of Floreana and appeared not averse to appropriating property of the other island residents as well as opening their mail. She sported a riding crop and an ivory handled pistol which she was fond of pointing at people who displeased her. She soon had the Wittmers as well as Friedrich and Dore very nervous of her and her armed entourage.
The Baroness could be very charming and became something of an international celebrity, much to Ritter’s distress as he had previously had the press limelight as the “Robinson Crusoe” of Floreana. Wealthy yacht owners would call and often leave gifts for her and the other residents, though these gifts, including several cases of canned milk destined for the Wittmer’s new baby, Rolf, seemed to have been diverted to the Baroness’s use.
Subsequently the governor of the Galapagos paid an official visit to Floriana. Even he proved susceptible to the Baroness’s charms, granting her four square miles of territory for her proposed hotel, but only 50 acres each to the Wittmers and to Ritter and Dore. The Baroness later spent several weeks as the governor’s guest at his home on Chatham Island.
The Baroness appears to have suffered from what we would now call a borderline personality disorder with strong sociopathic tendencies. By her own admission she liked to shoot animals in the legs so that she could have the pleasure of nursing them back to health. An advocate of free love she often added more male admirers to her harem. She eventually overstepped her bounds and ended up shooting her current favorite in the stomach while trying to “accidentally” wound a new prospective lover named Boeckmann in the leg, apparently hoping her favored technique would work on human beings as well as animals. In this case the quarry escaped.
In keeping with a borderline personality disorder, the Baroness could turn from charming to vicious over any real or imagined slight. Her former favorite Rudolf Lorenz, who became literally her slave and whipping boy, and who used to do all the difficult labor at Hacienda Paradiso, was barely fed enough to survive. One of her current favorites, Phillippson, beat Lorenz regularly.
The island’s other residents, in the meantime, had become even more terrified of the Baroness and Lorenz was absolutely desperate. John Treherne, in his book The Galapagos Affair, describes how Lorenz fled to live with the Wittmers and believes the Baroness attempted to lure him into a trap by telling Margret Wittmer that she and Phillippson would be leaving the island aboard a visiting yacht bound for Tahiti. No record of any such yacht was ever discovered but the Baroness and Phillippson nevertheless disappeared in March, 1934. Left behind were their luggage and most precious possessions.
No bodies were ever found and their ultimate fate has never been determined. Treherne explored various possibilities and the evidence suggests that Lorenz, with Ritter’s assistance, poisoned or shot the Baroness and Phillippson, then hid their remains.
It should be noted that Ritter had earlier shot a huge feral pig he dubbed “the satanic boar,” which had been ravaging his garden. The canned meat from the animal was found to have spoiled and was fed to his chickens, which all died. Ritter canned the chickens and advised that they would be safe to eat if thoroughly boiled, which was the correct way to kill Botulinum spores, the cause of the usually fatal botulism type food poisoning (and possibly providing the murder weapon used on the Baroness and her lover).
By now Dore, while still professing to admire Ritter’s philosophical expertise, thoroughly loathed the man. On subsequently consuming chicken prepared by Dore, Ritter fell ill with the classical botulism symptoms of paralysis and increasing difficulty breathing. Suspiciously, she did not summon help until he was no longer able to speak and his illness progressed with increasing respiratory difficulty. It would seem that Dore forgot to boil Ritter’s portion of chicken.
Ritter’s last spoken words were that, “it would be ironic if a vegetarian would die of food poisoning.” Though subsequently unable to speak, he continued to be able to scrawl messages and Ritter’s last written message, directed to Dore, was “I curse you with my dying breath.” Thus perished the ubermensch.
Postscript: Dore left the island the following year aboard the yacht of Captain Hancock. Lorenz departed the island aboard a fishing vessel belonging to a Norwegian named Nuggerud. Their vessel disappeared and later the mummified corpses of the two men were found on a beach on the island of Marchena, well north of Floreana, dead of dehydration.
While all the others perished, departed or both, the resilient and resourceful Wittmers continued to flourish. They still populate the island, with matriarch Margret Wittmer only passing away in the year 2000 at the age of 95, surrounded by her descendants and still refusing to divulge any additional secrets that might shed further light on the Galapagos Affair.
If You Go…
The Galapagos Affair by John Traherne, Random House 1983
Dr. Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch – Galapagos History
Baroness Wagner de Bosquet – Smithsonian Institution Archives
Mummified corpse – from the book The Galapagos Affair by John Traherne, Random House 1983