In 1929 a German doctor named Friedrich Ritter and his former patient Dore Strauch landed on Floreana, a then-uninhabited island in the Galapagos archipelago off the coast of Ecuador. Having both left their spouses they’d set out to create paradise, far from their despised bourgeois milieu back in Germany. Friedrich arrived on the island toothless: he had removed his teeth before the trip because he wanted to see if his gums would toughen in the wilderness. At dinner time he would wear a pair of steel false teeth, made before the trip, that he would soon have to share with Dore, whose teeth quickly rotted and, for lack of dentistry tools, had to be pulled out with gardening implements. Yes, there was definitely an unconventional side to the couple. But then they also loved to quote Nietzsche and Lao-Tse, then as now a very bourgeois thing to do.
Friedrich’s gums never toughened, of course, but he and Dore did. They worked hard to make their homestead—clearing the land, building a house from scratch, raising chickens and cattle, planting a garden. To deal with the heat, the heavy rains, and the thorny vegetation upon the sharp volcanic rocks, they quickly learned it was best to wear nothing but knee-high boots. The few visitors that passed by their homestead, often wealthy travelers who had read about them in the international press, would be greeted by a sign prompting them to ring the bell and wait, so Friedrich and Dore could get dressed. Their nudism added to their allure: the rugged doctor and his mistress, naked, creating their own Garden of Eden on a far-off island.
As more stories about Friedrich and Dore started to appear in the press—partly based on letters from Friedrich that had leaked to journalists, partly fed by exaggerated witness accounts from occasional visitors—more aspiring settlers started to arrive on the island. Most of them would eventually be driven off by the hard life on Floreana, but not Heinz and Margret Wittmer, another German couple, who arrived in 1932 with their 13-year-old son Harry. Margret was pregnant, and they had moved to Floreana with the hope that the famous doctor would help her deliver their second baby, which he would, though begrudgingly, and possibly become their friend. Friedrich and Dore, however, kept their distance from the more conventional newcomers, who didn’t even read Nietzsche.
Later that year, just as the two small Floreana factions were figuring out a workable way to co-exist, another group of homesteaders arrived, led by Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrhorn, an Austrian who called herself “The Baroness.” She had three men in tow: her lovers Alfred Lorenz and Robert Phillipson, both German, and an Ecuadorian servant named Manuel Valdivieso. The Baroness had not come to Floreana to connect with nature, immediately announcing plans to build a grand hotel; she quickly had her crew set up a make-shift homestead that she called Hacienda Paradise. Things were about to change in Eden.
I first set foot on Floreana in April of this year, 90 years after Friedrich and Dore, and barely by choice. The visit was part of a weeklong trip through the Galapagos Islands by cruise ship—definitely a bourgeois thing to do—with a fixed itinerary. Most of the 97 passengers, myself, my wife Rachael and our seven-year-old son Alex among them, went swimming in one of Floreana’s small bays, where we hoped to spot green sea turtles and swim among sea lions, followed by a walk past flamingos, pintails and shorebirds.
The final destination of our stroll was Post Office Bay, where in the 19th century whalers set up a wooden mail barrel so passing ships could pick up post and deliver it to its destination. People still place postcards and letters in the barrel without any postage, hoping that the next visitors will deliver them by hand. Alex was going to drop a note for one of his friends back in Brooklyn, in which he claimed to have seen several snakes, something that hadn’t actually happened but that he was desperately hoping for. We let him mail his little lie—after all, being able to make stuff up is one of the great ways we humans stand out in the natural world.
To deal with the heat, the heavy rains, and the thorny vegetation upon the sharp volcanic rocks, they quickly learned it was best to wear nothing but knee-high boots.
Later that day, back on the ship, I listened to a talk about the “human history of the Galapagos” by one of the naturalists who’d accompanied us on our trip. Floreana, small as it is at 67 square miles, turned out to be no footnote.
In the 16th century pirates used the caves on the island to hide from the Spanish Armada, which was on a mission to retrieve the silver and gold the conquistadors themselves had stolen from the Aztecs. The pirates brought more than their ill-gotten treasure: introducing non-endemic animals to the island, which accounts for the scores of feral dogs that roam Floreana, along with the by-now husbanded cattle (the ancestors of which Charles Darwin would have seen when he stopped by on the HMS Beagle in 1835). But the part of the talk that stuck most with me was the truly bizarre sequence of events that would unfold in the years following the arrival of Dore and Friedrich, of whom I had not heard until then—including a birth in a pirate cave, possibly poisoned boiled chicken, and a series of deaths and disappearances that look a lot like murder.
For the remaining four days of the trip I volunteered to stay with Alex in our cabin after he had fallen asleep. While Rachael and most of the other passengers would be on the upper deck, enjoying drinks and watching large Galapagos sharks circle the anchored ship, I would use the satellite internet connection to learn more about what had happened on Floreana between 1929 and 1934. There was no lack of sources.
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Both Dore (Satan Came to Eden) and Margret (Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos) published memoirs. A researcher at the Smithsonian Institute reconstructed the events based on the logs of Captain Allan Hancock, a wealthy American explorer who visited Floreana regularly during those years. A not-so brilliant documentary from 2013, The Galapagos Affair, tried to do something similar. And all of it was at least partially accessible online.
The Baroness, wearing only a brassiere and shorts, refused them aid and forced them out to sea again by threatening them with a pistol.
The two memoirs turned out to be the most gratifying, but not so much because of the juicy stories of sex and murder I had logged on for—although there is some of that in them as well. Both women write extensively about the hardship and happiness that come with making a home on an uninhabited volcanic island. Margret’s book is especially worth reading because of the many details she reveals of her small family’s daily life. One has to admire how, under often gruesome circumstances, they manage three decent meals a day plus afternoon tea with pastries. To maintain such a routine, long days of building, hunting and working the land had to be prolonged by the “night watch” (Nachtwache), which entailed laying in the bushes with a rifle to protect the garden from feral hogs and bulls on the run. Thirteen-year-old Harry wasn’t excluded from this duty. While building their stone house, they lived in a former pirate cave, in which Margret would give birth to their son Rolf, with some help from doctor Friedrich.
Dore’s hardships didn’t just concern the battle with nature: their marriage was far from harmonious. Friedrich, 15 years her senior, was domineering and willful: when she was still his patient he told her she could overcome the ailments stemming from her multiple sclerosis through sheer willpower, and she believed him. As the physical labor on Floreana got harder for her—at some point she could only walk with the support of a cane—Friedrich stopped hiding his disdain, to the point where he’d refuse to speak to her for days. Still she loved and admired him, or so she claims in the book.
Dore and Margret clearly didn’t like each other, although their animosity did soften a bit upon the arrival of the Baroness: they were equally horrified by her. “If this was a mere Baroness, she certainly behaved as though she were at least a queen,” Dore wrote, while describing the three men in her company as “servile gigolos.”
The Baroness’s arrival also marks the moment that their stories—and those from other sources—start to contradict one another, in ways big and small. Take the descriptions of the Baroness: in one account she was “gorgeous,” in another “not very attractive, but willing enough to have two husbands.” These inconsistencies can at least be mediated by a simple look at the existing footage, as shown in The Galapagos Affair: I think the Baroness was attractive! In a short movie titled The Empress of Floreana, filmed by the camera person who was part of Hancock’s expedition, she appears playful and charming, and doesn’t take herself too seriously—an adventurer.
Other stories of the Baroness weren’t backed up by witnesses: she seduced the governor of the Galapagos; she shot a visitor on a hunting trip, though by accident; she and her men stole provisions from their neighbors. When a honeymoon couple cast adrift in a small boat from another island landed on Floreana, the Baroness, wearing only a brassiere and shorts, refused them aid and forced them out to sea again by threatening them with a pistol. She was also rumored to shoot animals and then nurse them back to health.
While building their stone house, they lived in a former pirate cave, in which Margret would give birth to their son Rolf.
Maybe. We do know that Friedrich and Dore, and to a lesser extend the Wittmers, relied on generous gifts from passing boats to keep their homesteads running—ranging from agricultural tools to provisions and household items they would have had easy access to had they not ditched modern society. When the more glamorous Baroness made her entrance, she stole a lot of their novelty thunder—which meant fewer gifts from the outside world.
Within the Baroness’s little group, Lorenz fell out of favor. He would regularly show up at the other settlers’ homesteads, complaining about the treatment he received from the Baroness and Phillipson. Several times the Wittmers gave Lorenz shelter, though Margret could barely hide her contempt for his dependence on others, which she didn’t consider very “German.”
And then suddenly, on March 27, 1934, the Baroness and Phillipson vanished. Margret wrote that the Baroness had told her that some of her millionaire friends were taking her and Phillipson on their yacht to Tahiti. But no one saw a yacht in the bay that day, nor were they ever seen on Tahiti. Dore insinuated that Lorenz murdered the Baroness and Phillipson, and that the Wittmers helped him cover it up. She even claimed she heard a gunshot and a woman screaming, which could only have been the Baroness.
Valdivieso, the Baroness’s servant, boarded the very next boat that visited Floreana and returned to mainland Ecuador. Soon thereafter Lorenz convinced a Norwegian fisherman to take him to San Cristóbal, from where he too would sail to the mainland. Months later both their mummified bodies were found on the beach of Marchena, an island without a freshwater source. Captain Hancock, whose crew found them, concluded they had died of thirst.
In November of the same year, Friedrich died of food poisoning from eating spoiled chicken. According to Dore, a severe drought on the island had led to vegetable scarcity, so she and Friedrich boiled some dead chickens they had found, even though they were vegetarians. Margret found it suspicious that he was dying while Dore was perfectly fine.
Both Dore and Margret were at Friedrich’s bedside when he died. Their accounts of his last moments differ wildly. Dore described a loving exchange of tenderness, but according to Margret he looked at Dore with hatred. Unable to speak, he grabbed a piece of paper, on which he wrote right before he died, “I curse you with my dying breath.”
After Friedrich’s death Dore left the island and returned to Germany, where she died in 1943. The Wittmers became the only remaining settlers. Harry lost his life in a drowning accident a few years later, but his younger brother Rolf still lives on Floreana, running a Galapagos yachting company. Margret stayed on the island until she died in 2000, almost 40 years after Heinz. She never changed her story. The Baroness and her remaining lover were never heard of again.
As for my Galapagos experience, we spent our last day visiting the island Genovesa, where we were greeted on the beach by playful sea lions. Sleepy marine iguanas sunbathed on hot lava rocks along the bay. Socrates, that day’s naturalist, took us on a hilly walk over the brushy island, past lava lizards, red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, storm petrels, and tropicbirds. It was as peaceful as life can be: the animals unfazed by our presence, us humans walking by in quiet awe.
We came to a stop at a plateau overlooking a rocky ocean bay, where we split our attention between the huge waves breaking on the volcanic rocks and the frantic bird activity in the sky above the ocean. Here Socrates explained why frigate birds are nicknamed “the pirates of the air.” Apparently, the frigate bird’s feathers aren’t resistant to saltwater, which makes it hard for them to catch fish from the ocean. So they steel food from other birds by catching them mid-flight. We witnessed how these air pirates work, often by teaming up: one would catch a booby or seagull that had just caught a fish from the ocean, another one, “the shaker,” would literally shake their victim until it would spit out its prey, which a third frigate would snap away. Alex, no longer asking after the whereabouts of snakes, sat silently on a rock, mesmerized by the endless air show above us.
On our walk back to the beach, from where the zodiacs would return us to the cruise ship for the last time, we passed a grassy field filled with male frigate birds, sitting about five feet apart from each other. It was courting time, so they were all showing off their bright red leather-like pouches below their beaks as they sat next to their messy, make-do nests—a sign of their willingness to start a family. Suddenly the males started to make loud, high-pitched guttural drumming sounds. We looked up to see the reason for the consternation on the ground. It was a single female, who, after circling a few times above the noisy field, landed next to a male with a large pouch. The lovebirds pressed their bodies and wings against each other, and started moving their beaks back and forth, as if they were rubbing noses in affection. It was like watching the happy ending of a Lifetime movie, until, after a minute or ten, the female seemed to lose interest. Then she just flew away.