The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Empress of the Galapagos Islands, Part 2
This is the second in a series of “murder mystery” posts about a 1930s Smithsonian scientific expedition, based on records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ collections.
“A few years ago, there was a [controversial] story in the papers to the effect that a woman had made herself mistress of the Galapagos, proclaimed herself Empress over the Pacific Ocean, made war with Ecuador and had been pirating the sea with her horde of wild pirates…There was no speck of truth in the story, but whoever was the advertising manager for the Baroness—he was an expert. The Americans are crazy for her…” Excerpt from “Monsumens Reise”, H. Mielche, Translated by Miss Deichmann, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Waldo Schmitt Papers, Record Unit 7231, Box 88.
Charles Island is one of the fifteen main islands of the Galapagos archipelago, which belongs to Ecuador. The island’s sixty-seven square miles are covered in lava rock, which in turn is covered with a growth of thorny scrub. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the uninhabited island served as a hiding place for English pirates and way station for whalers. In 1832, Ecuador attempted to colonize Charles Island with a group of convicts. The attempt ultimately failed, but not before Charles Darwin visited the settlement in 1835.
During the 1920s, two events made Charles Island attractive to human inhabitants once more. Naturalist William Beebe wrote a best seller about his trips to the islands—Galapagos: World’s End—and the Ecuadorian government decided to try colonization again. Settlers were invited to enjoy free plots of land with hunting and fishing rights and no taxes for ten years. The dream of life on a tropical island was especially appealing to Germans suffering the political and economic upheavals of the 1920s. Perhaps the most outrageous of these émigré dreamers was Eloise Bosquet de Wagner, AKA Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrhorn, AKA Eloise Wagner de Bosquet, known in the popular press as the “Empress of the Galapagos Islands.” Her fellow colonists simply called her, “the Baroness.”
"The Baroness curled up on one of the couches with gleaming, half-closed eyes, and told, without encouragement, her romantic story... She is dressed like a baby in the same kind of rompers used by chorus girls when they are exercising…" Excerpt from “Monsumens Reise,” H. Mielche, Translated by Miss Deichmann, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Waldo Schmitt Papers, Record Unit 7231, Box 88.
The Baroness circulated many wild versions of her biography, but the true story, which Smithsonian scientist Waldo Schmitt pieced together from interviews with fellow colonists, still sounds like the plot of an early Marlene Dietrich movie.
A secretary in Constantinople during World War I, the Baroness found herself jobless and stranded there at the war’s end. She found employment in a cabaret, where she attracted the attention of a French merchant named Bosquet. They married and went to live in Paris with his mother.
One suspects that her mother-in-law had ulterior motives when she began introducing the Baroness to eligible bachelors. Among them were Rudolph Lorenz and Robert Philippson. Madame Bosquet the elder’s plot was evidently successful, since Monsieur Bosquet filed for divorce.
During the plush times of her marriage, the Baroness had bankrolled a ladies’ clothing shop for Lorenz; to finance their trip, they sold out the shop and left without paying their creditors. There remained a generous stock of French silk lingerie from the shop, which the Baroness would find to be ideal beach wear.
The Baroness continued her Three Musketeers relationship with her boyfriends Lorenz and Philippson. They heard of Ecuador’s offer of land on Charles Island, and arranged through the Ecuadorian consul to make their home on the purported tropical paradise.
The trio landed on Charles Island with a vague notion of opening a resort, and soon were the subject of bizarre stories circulating in the American press. These attracted attention of American millionaires who made Charles Island a stop-off on their yacht cruises, delighted at a chance to goggle at genuine free-love advocates living in tropical sin. Most of them didn’t leave without giving a generous donation for the upkeep of the Baroness’ homestead, “Hacienda Paradise”.
Waldo Schmitt first became familiar with the Baroness and her cohorts while collecting specimens with a group of scientists in the Galapagos during the 1933-1934 Hancock- Pacific Galapagos Expedition upon the ship, the Valero. Even Schmitt wasn’t immune to a little eyebrow-raising, as seen in the article he wrote for the Velero newspaper, The Barnacle, after an afternoon visit with the Baroness on Charles Island:
"Among the most sparkling and delightful events of the wet and dry seasons of Charles Island were the entertainments pro and con, made possible by none other than the Viennese Baroness Wagner… the Baroness was gowned only in a sweater in honor of…Charlie Swett…& she wore also some simple lingerie.. 'Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?' was her welcome to one of the more Bohemian guests…' I heard that gag before some place, Countess, but I’m too much of a gentleman to say where it was,' was the good natured retort." —The Velero Barnacle, 1/29/1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Waldo Schmitt Papers, Record Unit 7231, Box 88.
As idyllic as all this might seem, there was a fly in the Baroness’ ointment of tropical bliss. Charles Island, as it turns out, wasn’t entirely uninhabited when her ménage arrived, and their antics were obnoxious to the earlier arrivals—particularly Friedrich Ritter and Dore Koerwein.
To be continued...
Stay tuned for our next installment, in which possible nudists, a philosophical dentist, and a set of stainless steel false teeth are all examined.