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This is the fourth in a series of "murder mystery" posts about the Smithsonian’s participation in the 1934 Hancock-Pacific Galapagos Expedition. While on a series of expeditions aboard the vessel the Velero, Smithsonian scientist Waldo L. Schmitt encountered an odd assortment of German Utopian colonists in the Galapagos Islands. What follows is an exploration of a series of colonist deaths that occurred on the Islands, and were recounted by Schmitt in his diaries and papers in the Archives’ collections.
WARNING: The following video contains images of human remains, which some viewers may find disturbing.
In December 1934, the Velero arrived at Marchena Island in the Galapagos. As the ship approached the shore, Smithsonian scientist Waldo L. Schmitt and his colleagues spotted the two bodies that had been reported by passing fishing boats. The story of the Charles Island colonists, which had seemed like a screwball farce peopled by eccentrics, abruptly turned to tragedy.
The bodies had been mummified by the heat of the sun baked and arid island, and were immediately recognized by those on the Velero as Rudolph Lorenz, the young lover of colonist; Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrhorn (aka, the Baroness); and Captain Nyggerud, the skipper of a small fishing boat that made regular trips between the islands.
The two men had erected a mast with signal flag before they died; under it rested a small skiff—but no oars were found. Scattered about were the remains of a bird and a sea lion that had evidently been killed and eaten by the castaways. There was food, but no drinking water to be had on Marchena Island; the men had died of thirst.
A more hopeless scene could not be imagined. One was lying beside a crude homemade little skiff… The other, Lorenz undoubtedly, on his side right on the hot, coarse black lava sand…Both were lying high up on the sand in the hot sun and mummified by the driest conditions in the lowlands of all islands; completely dehydrated, the doctor said, and dead of thirst.
The poor devils; Lorenz, if murderer, got what he deserved, but the Norwegian . . . left . . . a wife who had come all the way from Norway to marry him . . . and was carrying a child when we were there last year. “Hancock-Galapagos Expedition, 1934-1935 Diary” by Waldo L. Schmitt. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7312, Box 87.
On December 2, 1934, the Velero dropped anchor at neighboring Charles Island, where they found the island and its inhabitants deeply changed. Members of the expedition were surprised when their friend, Dr. Ritter, didn’t meet them at Post Office Bay. They soon encountered Dr. Ritter’s weeping and distraught companion, Dore Koerwein, who led the group to Ritter’s grave. Schmitt pieced the story together through conversations with Margarete Wittmer, who witnessed the events on Charles Island since the Velero’s last visit.
Dec. 2 (1934) This is not for publication…As I get the story from Mrs. Wittmer, troubles on Charles Island started with the drought which lasted from last October, 1933 to April 6, 1934 . . . Water got short in the Baroness’ spring and the crops didn’t amount to much . . . “Hancock-Galapagos Expedition, 1934-1935 Diary” by Waldo L. Schmitt
With the island gardens failing in the drought, the Ritters, who were vegetarians, were forced to augment their diet with meat. Dore Koerwein believed that Dr. Ritter died of food poisoning from meat they had improperly canned, but from the symptoms of increasing paralysis she described, the Velero’s doctor suspected the actual cause of death was an aneurism. When Dr. Ritter became ill, Margarete Wittmer helped Dore nurse him, and recalled that before the power of speech left him,
“Ritter said [that] when he took sick; [he] thought [it] must be that he was being punished for having entertained the thought of killing the Baroness—she was such a plague to him that he seriously entertained the idea a number of times.” “Hancock-Galapagos Expedition, 1934-1935 Diary” by Waldo L. Schmitt.
Indeed, the Baroness was disliked by many of the other island inhabitants for her scandalous love life and flagrant desire for celebrity and money. In the end, Friedrich Ritter died on November 2, just as the Velero set off from America. He had only five months to savor life on the island post-Baroness.
At the Baroness’ compound, things were even worse; since this was usually the rainy season, the tourist yachts kept away—and the three inhabitants of the Baroness’ “Hacienda Paradise” depended on them for provisions. Their dwindling resources caused increasing tension; Lorenz burned slowly with anger as the Baroness showed favoritism to Philippson. Around the beginning of March, the two men came to blows. When Lorenz, the loser in the Baroness’ complicated love triangle, was driven out, he found refuge with the Wittmers.
There are as many explanations as people on board almost, but there is no telling till we can piece together the stories . . . at Charles Island . . . The Wittmers will be my meat . . . they should know the most as they lived nearer the Baroness. “Hancock-Galapagos Expedition, 1934-1935 Diary” by Waldo L. Schmitt, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7312, Box 87.
On the 28th of March, Mrs. Wittmer reported, the Baroness came to the Wittmer’s fence and excitedly called for Lorenz, who was off gathering wood with the Wittmer’s older son. Mrs. Wittmer listened to her news—American friends had arrived in their yacht and invited her and Philippson on a voyage to the South Seas. They were leaving immediately and would probably not return; Lorenz could become sole master of the house and animals they left behind.
Mrs. Wittmer conveyed the message to Lorenz on his return, and he left for “Paradise.” On his return, he related that he found the cottage empty, the luggage and donkey missing, and the disorder of a hasty departure all around. Of Robert Phillipson and the Baroness, there was nothing to be seen.
Lorenz stayed at the deserted “Paradise” for the next several weeks, returning to the Wittmers for meals. He then moved to Post Office Bay, where he waited for a passing ship. However, when an acquaintance, Thomas Howell, Sr. of Miami, arrived in his yacht, Lorenz refused to leave with him.
Finally, on July 20th, the fishing boat captained by the Norwegian, Nyggerud, arrived. Mrs. Wittmer recalled that by then Lorenz was in a terrible hurry and even though the sea was dreadfully high, offered the skipper extra money to leave immediately. Two days later the deserted boat was seen drifting off Chatham Island. Nyggerud was known to be reckless; his rickety boat had no sails and an unreliable engine. It was believed that they had engine failure in rough seas and abandoned ship, setting out in the skiff to try and reach the nearest land. Unfortunately, that was the waterless Marchena Island.
So ran Margarete Wittmer’s account; however, there was another witness to the events of March 1934: one who reported from beyond the grave. Among Waldo Schmitt’s papers is a typescript that Dr. Ritter wrote shortly after the disappearance of the Baroness and Philippson. My German is rusty, but I was able to translate the document, and discover some telling discrepancies from Ms. Wittmer’s story. One was that the Ritters hadn’t witnessed a ship in Post Office Bay since January 1924.Their home possessed the best view of the bay, and they were the first to spot and welcome incoming ships—such as the American yacht that supposedly spirited the Baroness away. In addition, on the 28th of March—the day Mrs. Wittmer said that the Baroness made her trip to notify Lorenz, and then departed the island—was Dore Koerwein’s birthday. Dr. Ritter recalled Lorenz and Mrs. Wittmer arriving at their house that morning, with a cake and presents to celebrate, and excitedly telling them the news that the Baroness had sailed off to the South Seas.
Dore Koerwein left Charles Island on the Velero, returned to Germany, and wrote magazine articles about her life on Charles Island. She believed that Lorenz had indeed murdered his companions, and burned the bodies in a fire of the island’s acacia wood, hot enough to completely destroy them. She also thought that the Wittmers may have corroborated the story of the Baroness’ departure out of pity for Lorenz.
The Wittmer family stayed and prospered in their island home; their descendants pioneered the Galapagos tourism industry with their company, Rolf Wittmer Turismo, Ltd. Margarete Wittmer loved telling visitors the mystery story of Charles Island—and always hinted that she knew more than she could say.
The Velero returned to the United States after a successful expedition that collected the most Galapagos wildlife specimens since Darwin’s visit. Waldo Schmitt also collected numerous magazine and newspaper articles concerning Charles Island’s colony; they remain among the papers that he left to the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
As for The Baroness and Robert Philippson, were they killed by Lorenz during a fight or in cold blood, or did they vanish into the obscurity of some South Sea Island?
I’m inclined to agree with Dore Koerwein. My theory is that Lorenz, beaten, humiliated, and driven out by Philippson and the Baroness, hid in the brush until he was able to exact his revenge. He got hold of one of the numerous guns with which the compound was stocked and confronted his former lover and his rival—or picked them off from his hiding place.
Did Lorenz confess his guilt to the Wittmers when he appeared at their home—or did his story of departure on an American yacht deceive them? In any case, the fact that Lorenz, desperate to leave the island, refused Thomas Howell’s offer to take him from Charles Island seems suspicious to me. The reason for Lorenz’s refusal could be that Thomas knew Lorenz, the Baroness, and Philippson from previous visits, and would have asked too many awkward questions.
When the Velero sailed away in 1934, there was nothing left of the Baroness’ empire but a run-down house, a ruined garden, and a sign posted at Post Office Bay:
WHO EVER YOU ARE
Two hours from here is Hacienda Paradise . . . a little spot where the weary traveler is happy to find some rest, refreshment, and peace on his way through life.
Life, this little bit of eternity chained to a clock, is so short after all; so let us be happy, let us be good.
At “Paradise” you have no name but one, “friend”.
We will share with you the salt of the sea, the vegetables of our little garden, the fruits of our trees, the fresh water running down from the rocks; we will share with you what other friends who passed by gave us. We will spend with you some moments of life and give you the happiness and peace that God put into our heart and mind since we have left the restless turmoil of the metropolis to the quiet of centuries which has laid its mantle upon the Galapagos.
This is the third in a series of “murder mystery” posts about a 1930s Smithsonian scientific expedition, based on records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ collections.
This is the third in a series of “murder mystery” posts, based on the Waldo Schmitt Papers in the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ collections. As a member of the Hancock Pacific-Galapagos Expeditions of 1933-1935, Schmitt had become acquainted with eccentric German colonists on Charles Island in the Galapagos. Among them were the polyandrous Baroness (AKA Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrhorn), and two couples, the Ritters and the Wittmers.
“[Ritter’s book] is of theosophical leanings, but it is the type of theosophical writing that no one cares to read after seeing the first page or two.” Waldo Schmitt, Waldo Schmitt Papers, Record Unit 7312 box 87.
Dr. Friedrich Karl Ritter of Berlin was a dentist who longed for a retreat where he could indulge his raw food theories and complete his magnum opus, a philosophical theosophist treatise. He was accompanied by his devoted disciple and girlfriend, Dore Koerwein, who was known to island visitors as Dore Ritter, although their respective spouses had been left in Germany with instructions to take care of each other.
Dr. Ritter’s dentistry came in handy; while on the island he had had to extract most of Dore’s teeth. Unfortunately the two of them had only one pair of false teeth to share, and these were stainless steel—Dr. Ritter’s own invention.
The Ritters quickly came to understand the challenges of living on remote Charles Island. When they arrived, they didn’t know that their land would be covered with thorn bushes and hardened lava flow. To plant a garden, the lava had to be broken up and carried away in buckets before arable soil could be hauled down from their hilltop spring. Dr. Ritter wistfully thought how nice it would have been had they thought to bring along a wheelbarrow.
The couple also arrived expecting tortoises and iguanas, but not realizing that there were large mammals, such as cattle and pigs, on the island. Eighteenth century pirates had introduced goats; in the nineteenth century, the mainland government introduced dogs to control the goats. Earlier colonists left behind cattle, donkeys, cats, and pigs, and accidentally introduced rats, mice, and cockroaches. Hordes of feral animals greeted the Ritters, all eager to share the produce of their garden, and the Ritter’s defenses were a bird gun, rat poison, and dynamite. Their attempts to shoot, poison, and explode the wild hogs were unsuccessful, but in the end the dynamite made the hogs nervous enough to stay away.
The Ritters found that the best way to protect their feet and legs from thorns and jagged rock was to wear hip boots—and the best way to cope with tropical heat was to wear only their hip boots. Visitors were encouraged to shout their presence at their front gate, and were welcomed by the sound of the Ritters scurrying away to get dressed. Thus began Charles Island’s reputation in the press as the nudist island.
Smithsonian scientist Waldo Schmitt noted they weren’t really nudists because they went without clothes for practical reasons—not philosophical ones. In other words, they weren’t nudists—they were just naked.
Ultimately, these two innocents from the arty crowd in Berlin carved a home and garden out of the wilderness. They reclaimed enough land from thorn scrub and lava slabs to build the house and garden they called “Eden,” The Ritters tamed cats and donkeys—as pets and to keep away vermin, and serve as beasts of burden. Dore’s pet donkey colt is in the foreground.
The Ritters were nothing if not high-minded, and the sight of their fellow colonist, the Baroness (AKA Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrhorn), traipsing around in French silk underwear with her two boyfriends was just too much. There was also jealousy provoked by the fact that they had written up their adventure for the Atlantic Monthly—but it was the Baroness who by virtue of her exotic lovelife captured the spotlight and reaped the rewards— gifts from wealthy American tourists. On his deathbed, Dr. Ritter would later speculate that he was being punished for thinking so often of killing the Baroness!
"The nudism so widely touted in the papers is more or less a figment of the imagination. We have a picture of the only nudist on the island—the Wittmer infant…" Waldo Schmitt Papers, Record Unit 7312, box 87.
The story of colonists Arthur and Margarete Wittmer is shorter. They were a happy, relatively ordinary couple who had come to the Island with their children to escape Germany’s post-war financial meltdown. In retrospect, the Wittmers come off like the stars of a television sitcom—normal people surrounded by a cast of Charles Island’s daffy supporting characters.
The press wasn’t filled with racy stories about them, and if wealthy Americans came to visit the family, it didn’t make the papers. The best account of the Wittmers among Smithsonian scientist Waldo Schmitt’s papers comes from a translation of Danish travel writer Hakon Mielche’s account of his visit to Charles Island, Monsumens Reise:
"Wittmer was a quiet, ordinary man, who lived in a quiet, exceptionally beautiful stone house in the middle of a well kept garden. He had a sweet and natural wife and his two children were less noisy and more well-behaved than children usually are…
[Wittmer’s] story is sadly commonplace... German office worker…then the war came and threw him into the trenches…then completely nerve broken when he returned. No job, but a small capital. The inflation took care of that. He tried everything, but nothing would succeed…Sitting here in the quiet room and going through the hard conditions after the war…in spite of the distance in miles and years, his hands still shake and his voice trembles.
Then he broke out of it one day and came over here with his wife and young son. Then began peace and recovery. He is a happy man, and his wife and children thrive…No boxes of gifts are carried up to Wittmer’s house [as they are to the Baroness’], but it is perhaps therefore that his eyes are calm and his children happy. He drew in at his pipe while his children played with a Shepherd dog puppy, and his peace is comfortable."
The last words of Mielche’s chapter on Charles Island is prophetic:
"When Ritter and the Baroness have broken each other down to the level of the ground, when Paradise and Eden have gone down to smoking Hell, Wittmer will still be sitting outside his little comfortable house, sucking his pipe."
*Excerpts from “Monsumens Reise”, H. Mielche. Translated by Miss Deichmann. Waldo Schmitt Papers, RU 7231, Box 88.
In our next and final installment: bodies are found, and tragedy strikes Charles island.
To be continued…
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.
This is the first in a series of "murder mystery" posts about a 1930s Smithsonian scientific expedition, and is based on records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives' collections. One of my first projects as a new employee at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in 2006 was to help prepare our collections for the move from the Arts and Industries Building to our new home at Capital Gallery. We were sitting around a table, putting the contents of the 189 boxes of Record Unit 7231, the Waldo Schmitt papers, in acid-free folders. Schmitt, an expert in marine invertebrates, worked at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History from 1915-1977. He was an engaging diarist and correspondent, monumental record-keeper, and packrat who left us a massive amount of material documenting his 60-plus year career. The volunteers I was working with started turning up some startling items amid the field reports and correspondence—pulp magazines from the 1930s, newspaper clippings with headlines straight out of the era of yellow journalism, and gruesome photos of dead bodies. They certainly piqued my imagination, so I thought the opportunity to blog for THE BIGGER PICTURE was a perfect excuse to go back to the Schmitt papers and try to piece together the story that those intriguing archival fragments told. And what a story it turns out to be! It has everything you’d expect (and wouldn’t expect!) from a Smithsonian expedition to tropical seas—exotic islands, fascinating wild fauna, stout-hearted scientists, a love triangle, and, very likely, murder. The Hancock- Pacific Galapagos Expedition of 1934 was one of three financed and led by Captain Allan Hancock—oil and railroad magnate, pilot, ship builder/captain, and agriculturalist—one of those Renaissance Man/tycoons so typical of the early decades of the 20th century. He financed the first non-stop flight across the Pacific, donated the La Brea Tar Pits to Los Angeles, and toured cross-country as a cellist with his own string ensemble. Waldo Schmitt contributed his expertise in crustacea to three of Hancock’s expeditions, and later accompanied President Franklin Roosevelt on a cruise to the Galapagos. Schmitt headed to the Galapagos once again with Hancock’s 1934 expedition, but according to his journal, the trip got off to a rocky start. On the first day at sea, there was the discovery of a stowaway on board—a young man who had been pestering the crew in California with requests to be part of the expedition. Fortunately, they were able to send him home via a passing fishing boat. [pullquote]Today all had short shorts on . . . broad-brimmed beach or sailor hats . . . They wear sandals and paint their toenails a bright red . . . I told them I didn’t like it. Waldo Schmitt diary, Smithsonian Institution Archives[/pullquote] Then, the women of the expedition emerged on deck dressed like chorines in a Busby Berkely musical. What if the stowaway was actually a reporter in disguise? Schmitt hoped that it would be kept out of the papers—he could just see the headlines reading: "Smithsonian cuties on voyage to nudist isle." In his diary, he noted: "Today all had short shorts on . . . broad-brimmed beach or sailor hats . . . They wear sandals and paint their toenails a bright red . . . I told them I didn’t like it." The headlines on the expedition’s departure from California had been bad enough. The fact that they were on a voyage to collect specimens for the Smithsonian and the San Diego Zoo had been buried in the last paragraphs! As far as the press and public were concerned, their voyage had one purpose—the identification of two mysterious dead bodies spotted by fishing boats on deserted Marchena Island. On their 1933 Galapagos trip, the Hancock expedition had made acquaintance with some oddly assorted German Utopian colonists on Charles Island (also called Floreana Island). Charles Island’s denizens had already provided the type of story that Depression-era news media ate up and exaggerated all out of proportion—nudism! crackpots! canoodling in the tropics! The colonists themselves hadn’t helped matters any by contributing their own articles to the American press.
To be continued…
In our next installment: The unidentified bodies were, in all probability, two of the Charles Island colonists. Who would the Velero find— the happily married couple, the philosopher/dentist and his paramour, or Baronness Eloise Bosquet de Wagner: the scandalous “Empress of the Galapagos Islands” and one of her retinue?