Sex, Murder, and Mystery on the Island of Floreana

How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude;
But grant me still a friend in my retreat,
To whom I may whisper - solitude is sweet.
William Cowper, "Retirement"

Dore Strauch was a teacher who was convinced she was meant for greater things than a life as the wife of a cruel man and working beneath a headmaster who was twice her age. Dr. Friedrich Ritter, a dentist, desired to map the human brain and felt civilization had nothing more to offer him. As fortune would have it, Dore met Friedrich when she came to him for some dental work and in 1929, they left their spouses and ran away to Floreana, a remote, lonely island in the Galapagos, a place where the authority of the state ended and the law of necessity reigned. When the pair came ashore, the island was deserted, having successfully resisted several attempts at colonization. There simply wasn't enough fresh water to support a colony of people.

Dore and Friedrich
Before leaving, to prevent dental problems, Friedrich pulled all his teeth and made a set of metal false teeth. Some reports state Dore also had her teeth removed and the two shared the one set of false teeth, but no proof of that has been found. Once they arrived on Floreana, they immediately removed all of their clothing and lived from then on as nudist, only putting clothes on when visitors sometimes came to their island. They soon built a hut of corrugated iron in the green crater of an extinct volcano and cultivated an acre of land, successfully raising a nice garden from which they harvested almost all of their food sustaining them as vegetarians.
Friedrich and Dore at home on Floreana
The press got word of this modern-day Adam and Eve, the rugged doctor and his lover, living naked and alone on a far off island. They became international celebrities, exactly the opposite of what they had wanted. For several years, people would come to visit them, arriving every few weeks. The couple complained bitterly about how often people would come and thus, how often they would have to wear clothes. Occasionally a few of the visitors came with the intention of staying on the island, but invariably, the harsh conditions of the island and the hard work it took to survive shattered their dreams of idyllic living on a tropical isle and they all left when the next boat stopped by.

Margret, Heinz and a pet cat at their home on Floreana
In 1932, Heinz Wittmer arrived on the island with his pregnant wife Margret and their teenage son. Heinz was seeking a place far away from post-war Germany which was in the midst of a severe depression with 30% unemployment, rioting in the streets, and the rise of the Nazi Party. Unlike the others though, the Wittmer family were knowledgable, independent, and determined and willing to endure the hardships. They stayed on the other side of the island away from Friedrich and Dore, making their home for a while in a cave. The families visited each other occasionally, but the women didn't like each other so they mostly stayed to themselves and that's the way they both preferred. When their son Rolf was born in the cave house, it was the first birth ever recorded on Floreana Island.

The Baroness, Philippson and Lorrenz
The next year brought unfortunate changes. A party of four people arrived and declared their intention to stay. They were led by "Baroness" Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, an attractive young Austrian. The other 3 people were her two lovers, Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorrenz, and Manuel Valdvieso, a handyman who had been hired to do all of the work. Manuel built a hut on the beach for them to live in which the Baroness called "Hacienda Paradise." She began to call herself the "Empress of Floreana" and announced plans to build a grand hotel which would be built and operated for her rich friends and other millionaires. She managed to get her plans announced by the international media and soon there were many more yachts anchoring in the little bay. The Baroness began inviting yacht captains and select male passengers into her bed and eventually seduced the Governor of Galapagos. Yachts began to go out of their way to visit the island of Floreana. With the Baroness' scandalous living arrangements and rumors of her seemingly insatiable sexual appetite, everyone sailing the Pacific wanted to be able to boast of an encounter with her.

Cover of a magazine story about the Baroness and her life on Floreana
The Wittmer family, who by now had managed to build a house and were actually doing rather well given the difficult conditions, lived on the other end of the island and didn't associate much with the Baroness and her entourage. Friedrich though made no effort to conceal his hatred of the Baroness and her friends and "visitors" and plans for a grand hotel. He blamed her for totally upsetting the lifestyle he and Dore had worked so hard to establish.

Eventually, Rudolf Lorrenz, one of the Baroness' original lovers, evidently grew tired of his lady's penchant to bed others and heated arguments began taking place in their camp. Lorrenz began visiting the Wittmer family, sometimes staying for days until the Baroness herself would come to fetch him back. A drought occurred making fresh water extremely scarce and the pressure apparently drove Friedrich and Dore into bitter arguments between themselves. The Wittmer family, Friedrich and Dore became even more upset with the Baroness and her friends when she started badmouthing them to the international press which published every word whether true or not. For some unknown reason, Philippson stole the Ritter's donkey one night and turned it lose in the Wittmer's garden where it proceeded to destroy a good portion of it. When Heinz found it the next morning, he thought it was a feral donkey and shot it.

The Baroness and Philippson on Floreana
On March 27, 1934, the Baroness and her lover Philippson disappeared, never to be seen again. When questioned later, Margret Wittmer said the Baroness had come to their home one morning and said some friends had arrived in their yacht and were going to take her and Philippson to Tahiti that very day. She also told Margret that whatever they were not taking with them was being left to Lorrenz. But neither the Baroness or Philippson ever appeared in Tahiti or anywhere else. Lorrenz claimed to know nothing about it and neither he, the handy-man Valdvieso, nor Friedrich or Dore saw any kind of boat in the harbor the whole week in question. Almost every possession of the Baroness and Philippson were left behind, including luggage and other items of a personal nature that the Baroness would have taken with her even for a short trip. Relations between the Wittmer's and Friedrich and Dore became even more strained when they told people of their belief that Lorrenz killed the Baroness and Philippson, burned their bodies and the Wittmer's helped him cover it up. The Wittmer's talked of Friedrich's dislike of the Baroness and claimed Lorrenz and he had suspiciously split the items left behind by the disappeared couple.

The handy-man Valdvieso convinced the very next boat that stopped to take him off the island. It is assumed he apparently escaped back to wherever the Baroness had found him.

The bodies of Lorrenz and Nuggerud
Soon thereafter, Lorrenz convinced a Norwegian fisherman named Nuggerud to take him to Santa Cruz and then to San Cristobal where he could catch the ferry to Guayaquil. They landed in Santa Cruz, bought supplies, set sail for San Cristobal and then vanished. A number of months later, the mummified, desiccated bodies of both men were found on Marchena Island, a parcel of land in the northern part of the Archipelago which is not on the route to or anywhere near Santa Cruz or San Cristobal.  There is still no clue as to how they got there.

In November of that same year, Friedrich Ritter died. The official reason was listed as food poisoning from eating a badly preserved chicken. What makes this interesting is the fact that Friedrich was an avowed vegetarian who had not been seen to eat meat of any kind for years. Plus, he was by then an experienced veteran of island living and perfectly capable of knowing when meat had gone bad. Margret Wittmer claimed that Dore had poisoned him as his treatment of her had become worse during the last year. Both women claimed to have been by his side when Friedrich died, but their accounts could not be any different.
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 feeble 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.
Three dead and two missing in the space of a few months on a barely populated island captured even more world-wide attention than the Baroness' antics. The "Galapagos Affair" as it became called, has confounded historians, police, and armchair detectives since 1934. The Baroness and Philippson have never been found. The mummified bodies of Lorrenz and Nuggerud ending up on Marchena Island is still a complete mystery. Friedrich's death is still officially listed as an accidental food poisoning despite all the raised eyebrows and questions. The Wittmers remained on Floreana and became wealthy years later when the Galapagos became a tourist destination. Until she died in 2000, still living on Floreana Island at the age of 96, Margret never changed her story that the Baroness and Philippson left for Tahiti on a yacht. She often hinted she knew more than she was telling, but no one knows whether she really did or was just having fun with the tourists and interviewers. Dore eventually put on clothes and returned to Germany where she wrote a book about the whole affair. It wasn't a big success and it didn't settle any of the mysteries, but it proved interesting due to the stories of the hardships she and Friedrich endured and for details of the sordid goings-on that took place after the Baroness took up residence on the island. In the book she was adamant that Lorrenz killed the Baroness and Philippson, but she offered no proof other than her "gut feelings." 

No one is alive today who actually have knowledge of all that happened. Some mysteries, it seems, are destined to never be solved. And isn't that what makes the world just a bit more interesting?

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