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
Christian Gilbert says
The documentary paints a trouble painting of 7 very different conflicted adults, all inaccurate reporters and unsympathetic at times. At times, Dore’s details of a scream, a tablecloth on Mrs Wittner’s table, and the “Baroness”‘s favorite book I find especially damning: Lorenz is obviously the most elegant suspect: he was eager to sell possesions to leave, but actually turned down a Mr Howell’s offer- possibly because his familiarity with the Baroness. Mr. Wittner DID express the need unusual rage to do something AND took the Baroness’ tin roof, but his distance from his wife makes it possible that he knew nothing, while she colluded the story for Lorenz. But Dr Ritter is unlikely: he turned down Lorenz ‘ plea for asylum.
As Mrs Wittner colluded the Tahiti story, Dore’s account, though biased by religious predestination, is more credible. But the Ritters were also less adaptive than the Wittners: (who feeds chickens pork?!): thus, she may well have eaten a less poisoned portion of boiled chicken than Friedrich.
It goes to show how the invisible effects of civilization may restrain our anti-social extremism.
George Burden says
I guess we will have to blame the extra “the” on a senior’s moment ( ;
Gil Namur says
I resemble that remark 😛
Fascinating, but it always worries me when a writer…and a journalist, to boot!–doesn’t bother to make sure that he has the correct title of a monumental work like Darwin’s, “On the Origin of Species.” This kind of sloppiness makes the whole work suspect.
Gil Namur says
Thanks for chiming in. Perhaps … do your homework …
For the sixth edition of 1872, the short title was changed to ‘The Origin of Species’. Just sayin …
Thanks, Gil, I did not know that. However, there was still–and never has been, no matter what the edition– a “the” before “species.” rest of the article is good though!
Gil Namur says
I was focused on the wrong ‘the’!
I stand corrected 🙂
no harm, no foul, Gil! and the quality of the rest of your article redeems you 🙂
Gil Namur says
Thanks for that. I am sure George Burden (author of the post) will be very pleased with your words 🙂
Now wait a minute….
I kid. But, I kinda,sorta take issue with casting the faux-baroness as psychopathic. I submit that she was “before her time.”
I know, I know….but, here me out.
Yes, she was overtly sexual. So. Men are allowed to be overtly sexual, why not women? Lorenz and Phlipppson willingly came with her. knowing it was a manage de trois situation. From what I’ve read – yes, there was some kinky S&M going down at Hacienda Paradiso. Fine. And the Baroness was a PR sensationalist, looking to gin up some funding for her hotel. (Please, I’m pretty sure that Kris Kardashian is the reincarnated spirit of the Baroness….)
So, in short, yes, the Baroness was unconventional. But Psychopathic? Eghhhhhhh……I’m not so sure.
And if you read accounts, it’s the Ritters and Wittmers took everything very seriously, whereas visiting yachts never had anything bad to say about the baroness. Yes, they admitted she liked to tell tall tales, but it seemed evident to all that she wove a yarn to attract dollars. They all doubted the terrible tales they had heard of her.
But both the Ritters and Wittmers wanted her gone. So they made these tales seem true.
As for Lorenz living with the Wittmers? My theory? He was jealous that she preferred Philoppson, and thus dramatized things to make his life at “HP” sound worse than it was. And the Ritters and Wittmers were more than willing to believe his tall tales, because they wanted the baroness gone. Or, at least, Dore and Margaret wanted her gone. (If you ask me, Dr. R slept with the Baroness……)
Either way. This story. It’s a doozie, eh!? (And, um, am I the only one who sees parallels to LOST?)
George Burden says
Interesting comments but anyone who shoots and wounds animals to they will be grateful when she nurses them back to health is psychopathic. The fact that she had influential relatives among the Nazis might give us a clue as well.
I would agree with Susan. Ritter and Dore would be unlikely to be complicit in the disappeance of the Baroness and Phillppson. Margret Wittmer is the one that always held onto the flimsy story of the Baroness’ story about the yacht taking them to Tahiti. It is Dore who corroborates tales that they were murdered–something she would be unlikely to do if she and Ritter and murdered them.
As for the poisoned chicken story. She is likely telling the truth. If she were lying about the chicken, she would have more than likely stated that she did not eat the chicken or didn’t eat as much. Very plausible since they held themselves out as vegetarians. However, she stated that she ate more than Ritter and that she even ate the chicken again when she believed she was dying so that she could join him in death. Doubtful she would make those statements if she had actually poisoned the chicken as it would add suspicion. The accusations about Ritter cursing Dore come from Margret Wittmer and after Dore had written her book implying that Wittmer and Margret were complicit in the disappearance.
As for why Dore did not go for help, the only thing close to a doctor on the island was Ritter. The Wittmers could not have done and did not do anything that prevented Ritter’s death. Dore had a lame leg and when she finally did seek the Wittmer’s help, it took her three hours to get to the Wittmer’s camp. Further, if Dore had actually poisoned Ritter, it is doubtful that Dore would have gone and gotten the Wittmer’s at all. Especially, if you believe Margret’s story that Ritter was writing notes accusing her of murdering him. More than likely, Dore’s version of events is more accurate. Ritter was not cursing Dore nor accusing her of murder.
Last, something else that leads me to believe that the Wittmer’s would be more likely to be involved in the disappearance of the Baroness and Philippson is that the Wittmers and the Baroness lived very close. Originally, the Wittmers controlled the spring and ownership was transferred to the Baroness via the Governor. The island had been suffering a severe draught and the spring was the water supply for the Baroness and the Wittmers. The Baroness had already been trying to keep what little water was being produced for herself. Combined with Lorenz living with the Wittmers, it is more likely that the Wittmers were the ones involved and not Ritter and Dore. Whether Lorenz killed them on his own and got the Wittmers to help him cover up his crime or whether all three were involved are the two most likely scenarios.
George Burden says
More interesting “food for thought”. Keep the comments coming as I am interested in any new thoughts, information or theories.
I agree with Jack and Susan regarding the Wittmers and Lorenz as the likely involved parties in the disappearance of the “Baroness” and her lover Phillippson – they had MOTIVE. While the children of the Wittmers have claimed that their mother, up to her death, never said anything more about it than what she published, I imagine Margret wouldn’t have wanted the family name sullied by her and her husband Heinz’s potential involvement (or knowledge via Lorenz) regarding the disappearance. While Dore and Ritter had written previously, Mrs. Wittmer was a “bourgeois hausfrau” and not an intellectual…she may have outsmarted everyone in the end, since much of the island is still largely owned and operated by the Wittmer descendants to this day.
I read somewhere that Ritter may’ve died due to complications from stroke, but the coincidence of a stroke befalling him around the same time he consumed the infected boiled chicken seems a bit too convenient. It was likely food poisoning, purposeful or not. While the likely murdered couple may’ve been cremated with burning acacia wood, it would be intriguing if someone found their remains (even bone fragments) on the island. That would instantly acknowledge the Wittmers/Lorenz’s involvement, since they claimed they saw the “Baroness” off, as she boarded the supposed yacht with her favored lover.
Hasty typer today. 😛 To clarify a grammatical issue, I meant: “While Dore and Ritter had previously written that Mrs. Wittmer was a “bourgeois hausfrau” and not an intellectual, she may have outsmarted everyone in the end…”
George, I appreciate your article after having just watched the 2013 documentary “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden”.
George Burden says
Tina, thanks for comments. It would seem the Wittmers may have been a bit more involved in the disappearance of the Baroness than I initially suspected. I can’t say that I would blame them given her obvious psychopathology. She was one dangerous lady and the authorities certainly weren’t going to curtail her madness.
It’s a great story, but the version above has been told out of chronological order, and is missing some important bits to try to sell the idea of Dr. Ritter and Dore as the main bad guys. The fact is, the potted pork was found to be bad and fed to the chickens (who then died) MONTHS after the Baroness and Phillippson went missing. Also, the Wittmers were witnesses to Dr. Ritter boiling the chicken himself to rid it of the toxins – and in fact they smartly refused his offer to share it the day before he died – so the evidence doesn’t support that Dore purposefully fouled (fowled?) it as claimed here. The only question here is whether or not Dore actually ate any (she claimed to everyone that she ate quite a lot, but that seems highly unlikely UNLESS the Doctor was actually made ill by a poisoning of another kid – which has been suggested by armchair detectives though there’s no proof).
So, let’s back up to the Baroness. Lorenz was certainly involved in her disappearance, I think everyone agrees with that. But Dr. Ritter as his co-conspirator is unlikely, given that Lorenz was basically living with the Wittmers at the time and Mr. Wittmer had voiced the need to do something about the Baroness as the Governor had been no help. Also, while Mrs. Wittmer does nothing but repeat her Tahiti cover story, which no facts corroborate, Dore reports having heard a woman’s awful scream in the distance on a day of the week that Mr. Wittmer typically arrived at their home for a visit – but that day he did not come by.
George Burden says
Interesting comments. I wish I had had more time when I finally got to Floreana to dig into the incident further. It would seem that firm proof of the actual events may never be found though discovering and autopsying the bodies of the Baroness and her lover might help shed some light.
George Burden says
Should be an awesome trip. Quite a coincidence as Robert Bateman and I are both members of the Canadian chapter of the Explorers Club. Joe Frey, another LAAH author is also the past president of the Canadian chapter of the EC and a past international VP for the organization as well. Bateman should get some good fodder for his paint brush in the Galapagos.
Great story! We’re taking a group to Galapagos in November with the local Canadian artist Robert Bateman. Maybe we should plan a murder mystery excursion for some fun exploring local history.