The mystery of the Baroness of Floreana

After almost a week spent visiting the natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands according to Darwin’s famous descriptions: the craters of the numerous volcanoes, the lava tunnels and the lush vegetation; after seeing 100-year-old giant turtles, iguanas of all types, sea lions, pelicans, penguins and an infinite number of fish including hammerhead sharks, manta rays and barracudas, I started to become saturated. Also because, as it always happens, you get used to the sea lions that you have to climb over to take a water taxi or the iguanas that cross the road. And then here nature and animals are a great tourist attraction, in the same way the Renaissance is in Florence. In short, I was also looking for something else, something that could tell the story of these islands beyond Darwin’s stereotype. And here I came across a mysterious case that happened in 1932 on an island nearby called, Floreana. I had read about it on my arrival in San Cristobal – currently there is an English book in circulation, “The Galapagos Affair”, which tells the story of this Galapagos thriller in a romantic way – but it was a few days after our arrival in the bay of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz, that we ran into a story that still arouses some concern today.

But let’s go step by step. It all started in Germany in the early 1930’s. A dentist named Friedrich Ritter abandoned his wife to flee with one of his patients, (Dore Strauch), with the intention of living on a deserted island far from everything: they described themselves as Adam and Eve, practiced nudism and lived on the vegetables they grew. They settled on the uninhabited island of Floreana, one of the southernmost of the Galapagos volcanic archipelago and sent, through contact with some passing boats, letters to their homeland promoting their naturist choice. In August 1932, another German couple arrived in Floreana, perhaps attracted by the descriptions of Ritter. They were Heinz Wittmer, his wife Margret, who was pregnant, and a teenage son. The Wittmer family however was different from Ritter, they were true pioneers, they built a house, raised animals and cultivated the land. The two couples did not bother each other, they lived separate existences marked only by the arrival of the odd scientific expedition that often left them utensils, canned foods and other useful objects.

Everything changed with the arrival on the island, at the end of the same year, of Eloise Grove Wehrhone Wagner, a dark character who called herself a baroness, but who was actually a stripper, perhaps Austrian, decidedly eccentric, mythomaniac, obsessed with sex and displaying megalomania disorders. She landed on the island with two lovers, Alfred Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Phillipson, and an Ecuadorian, who eventually fled the island, but not before warning the two German couples that the baroness was a completely mad, pathological liar. The delusional project of Baroness Wagner, who also called herself Pirate Queen of the Galapagos, was to build a large luxury hotel called “Hacienda Paraiso” in order to welcome millionaires on Floreana. Within a year, the relationship between the two lovers, enslaved by the baroness, deteriorated. Lorenz, driven out by the dominatrix and beaten by Philippson, took refuge with the Wittmer’s in a state of evident mental confusion, complaining about the madness of the baroness and her crazy project. A few days later Lorenz reported seeing the Baroness and Phillipson boarding an American yacht at night, destined for Tahiti. It is a tale that seemed strange to everyone, given the lack of safe anchorages on the island and the fact that boats had not been sighted for days. In addition, Lorenz brought with him a large suitcase whose contents were unknown and he also seemed to be in a hurry to leave the island. He managed to do it after about two months by embarking on an old motor launch called “Dynamita” owned by a Norwegian who promised to take him to the island of San Cristobal, from where he could easily find a boat destined for the mainland. No American yacht ever arrived in Tahiti, while the wreck of the “Dynamita” launch was found on November 19, 1934 in the small deserted island of Machena with the mummified bodies of its conductor and Lorenz. A few days earlier the dentist Ritter had also died of botulinum poisoning, having eaten expired chicken contained in a can left by a scientific expedition long ago. Dore had recounted the series of events to the Wittmer’s before returning home, but many details seemed suspicious. Especially to the Wittmer’s, who knew the level of devotion that Dore felt for Ritter, almost to a point of enslavement and also Ritter had been a strict vegetarian his entire time on the island. Being the only ones left alive, the Wittmer’s, continued their pioneering activity and in the following decades built a tourist company that still exists today, which has Wittmer hotels and a fleet of ships for luxury cruises to Galapagos named Tip Top.

Those who over the years have investigated the story of the mysterious disappearance of Baroness Wagner and the deaths related to this story has always claimed that Heinz Wittmer had known much more of what had occurred than he admitted. Obviously, there are those who have suggested several hypotheses, although never proven, suggesting his direct involvement in the deaths.

Anchored in the bay of Puerto Ayora yesterday morning Valerio and I woke up to find a huge tourist-type motor catamaran that had anchored right in front of us that was drifting too close to our bow. We kindly asked the crew on the ship to re-anchor at a safer distance. After two hours of waiting and a strongly worded suggestion from the harbour master’s office, she decided to move further away. The name of the boat appeared on the side: Tip Top IV.

The mouth of a crater
The mouth of a crater
A sea lion beside us
A sea lion beside us
Galapagos turtles
Sea lions everywhere
Sea lions everywhere
Truly everywhere
Sailing to the Galapagos
Sailing to the Galapagos
Diving in Galapagos
Diving
Baroness Wagner and her two lovers on the island of Floreana
Baroness Wagner and her two lovers on the island of Floreana