Posted on: September 20, 2015

The shenanigans of the inhabitants of Floreana Island in the early 1930s would be worthy of a soap opera, a particularly dark and gothic one, but a soap opera all the same.  Most small communities have their bizarre moments, but this one really does take the biscuit.

Floreana is part of the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador.  In 1929 a German dentist, Friedrich Ritter, ran away to the island to start a new life, bringing with him one of his patients, Dore Strauch.  The couple seem to have had a sado-masochistic relationship, with Dore bearing the brunt of it.  Ritter was a devote of the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche, and absorbed his teachings that the human race is divided into two types of people: supermen, and lesser mortals.  Naturally Ritter believed himself to be a superman.  The couple were also keen nudists, and were said to share one pair of metal dentures between them, for chewing food with.

At first the world was quite fascinated by this eccentric couple, as they worked hard to establish a life for themselves on this remote, uncivilised outcrop.  Followers going to join them though soon left again, put off by the strain of the hard lifestyle in such an isolated place.  In 1931 Heinz and Margret Wittmer arrived, believing that the island would be good for their teenage son, Harry, who suffered from a heart condition.  Margret was pregnant, and her baby son Rolf would become the first person to be born on the island.

For a while things genuinely worked out well in the community.  The Ritters and the Wittmers were cordial with each other, but kept to their own space.   Everyone was happy.   All that was to change with the arrival on the island of an exhausting Austrian, who went by the name of Baroness (this was thought to have been self-bestowed) Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet.  This larger-than-life character, who had previously run a dress-shop in Paris, descended on the island with her partner, Rudolf Lorenz, her German lover Robert Phillipson, and her Ecuadorian manservant, Manuel Valdeviesio.  She rapidly became the neighbour from hell.

The Baroness was a loud-mouthed braggart, with distinct delusions of grandeur.  She called her simple home the ‘Hacienda Paradiso’, strode around brandishing a whip, and also carried a gun.  She had big dreams to open a hotel on the island, something which would have appalled her neighbours who had come there for peace and quiet, not to have hordes of tourists descending on them.   She styled herself “the Queen of Floreana”, which can’t have gone down a bundle with Ritter and his belief that he was a superman.  The Baroness was a sexual sadist, who ganged up with her  lover Phillipson to thrash poor old Rudolf Lorenz, and effectively turn him into an unpaid slave.

Her bullying wasn’t just confined to the homestead.  She tried to control the lives of her neighbours as well.  The islanders had a system whereby a barrel was left out on a beach called Post Office Bay, and passing ships would leave any mail there for them.  Through the sheer force of her personality, plus her gun and her whip, the Baroness managed to contrive it so that they couldn’t go and fetch their mail without her say-so.  The woman was appalling.

In secret, the other islanders got a message to the Governor of Ecuador to come and look into the Baroness’s behaviour.  He duly obliged with a visit to the island.  What they didn’t bargain for was that the Baroness would give him the night of his life.  By the time he left the next day, he was ready to concede her anything she wanted.  The other islanders were well and truly stuffed.

Poor old Lorenz tried to escape to the Wittmers’ house, only to have the Baroness come and fetch him, as if he was a dog who had wandered off.   Frankly, by this stage it would have been a miracle if something drastic HADN’T happened.  It is thought that the catalyst was Mr Wittmer discovering the selfish Baroness bathing in the island’s only source of fresh drinking-water.  In a rage Wittmer shouted that he would kill her.  In retaliation, the Baroness’s lover, Phillipson, turned Dr Ritter’s donkey loose on the Wittmer’s vegetable patch.  Things couldn’t go on as they were.

Matters came to a head on 27 March 1934.  The story put about was  that the Baroness paid a call on the Wittmers, and said that some friends were coming on their yacht to take her and Phillipson to Tahiti.  She would be leaving everything they didn’t take with Lorenz.

And that was the last anyone saw of her and Phillipson.

Many aspects of the story didn’t add up though.  There was no yacht visiting the island at that time, and the Baroness and Phillipson never appeared on Tahiti.  The Ritters believed that Lorenz and the Wittmers had conspired together to do the dreadful couple in, and had then burnt their bodies using acacia wood, which could be found on the island, and which was able to incinerate human bone.

Lorenz convinced a Norwegian fisherman called Nuggerud to give him a lift to Santa Cruz, and then onto San Christobel island.  Somewhere between Santa Cruz and San Christobel though the boat disappeared.  Months later the mummified bodies of the two men were found washed up on Marchena island, which was way off their course.  How on earth they got there is yet another mystery.

The body-count doesn’t end there.   Whilst all this had been going on, things had been drastically deteriorating between Ritter and Dore too, with endless fights.  In November 1934 Dr Ritter suddenly died, supposedly after eating chicken which had gone off … which was odd as Ritter had been a vegetarian.  According to the Wittmers, the finger of suspicion pointed at his companion, Dore Strauch, whom he had cursed with his dying breath.  Ritter’s death was ruled as an accident, and Dore Strauch returned to Germany, where she wrote a book about their odd life on the island, entitled Satan Came To Eden (that’s for sure!).  She died in 1943.

The Wittmers remained on the island, benefiting later on from the tourism boom, and apparently their descendants are still there.   Margret Wittmer, the last survivor of that odd little community, passed away in 2000, at the age of 96.  She took anything she knew with her to the grave.



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