An Unsolvable Mystery: Captain Hancock and the Case of the Quarrelsome Castaways | KCET
An Unsolvable Mystery: Captain Hancock and the Case of the Quarrelsome Castaways
Captain G. Allan Hancock was in a hurry. On November 23, 1934, the famously soft-spoken and adventurous Los Angeles millionaire was onboard Velero III, his legendary diesel power cruiser. Launched in 1931, Velero III had been dubbed a “floating laboratory” because of her cutting-edge research equipment and its owner’s devotion to scientific exploration. Along with a crew of 28— which included scientists, professors and students — Hancock was hoping to make it to the forlorn Galapagos Islands in record time. The Los Angeles Times reported:
Though Hancock would make many trips to the Galapagos — this one was unique. It had been thrown together at the last minute, not to study the remote island chains’ unique flora and fauna, but to solve a gripping mystery. The mystery involved a small colony of European misfits living on the Galapagos Island of Floreana (also known as Charles Island) and the discovery of two dead bodies on nearby Marchena Island.
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Hancock had first become involved in the goings-on at Floreana in February of 1932, during an extensive voyage throughout the Pacific. He and the crew of the Velero III had read newspaper articles about Dr. Frederick Ritter and his partner Dore Strauch, the island’s “Adam and Eve.” The couple had come to the deserted island from Germany in 1929, determined to follow Ritter’s strict beliefs in self-sufficiency, a vegetarian diet and living off the land.
After landing off the coast of Floreana, Hancock and his men made their way to the couple’s camp, known as Friedo. There they found the rather harsh Ritter and the besotted Strauch living a truly off-the-grid existence. With the crew’s film camera rolling, the sun-worn couple showed Hancock their growing homestead, displaying Ritter’s ingenious devices (which included a makeshift shower) and where they posted mail (which passing vessels would retrieve) in an old barrel on a strand of beach known as Post Office Bay.
Hancock and his men were captivated by the couple and offered to take them on board for an afternoon of entertainments. Strauch persuaded a reluctant Ritter to go, and they spent the afternoon aboard the Velero. Hancock, a talented cellist, even played selections of classical music for the couple, which seemed to touch Strauch particularly deeply. However, the two were happy to get back to Friedo that night but accepted Hancock’s gifts of much-needed provisions.
The Velero III was soon off to continue its scientific expedition. They would not return for many months. In the meantime, new settlers would come to Floreana from Europe, much to Ritter’s annoyance. First came Margret and Heinz Wittmer, and Heinz’s teenage son, Harry. Pioneers in the more traditional sense, the industrious, dour Wittmers moved into a series of caves and quickly flourished on the island.
But it was the arrival of three cosmopolitan Parisians which would once more thrust Floreana into the news. The party was headed by a flamboyant woman who called herself the Baroness Eloise von Wagner. Along with her were Arthur Rudolph Lorenz and Robert Phillipson, whom Ritter dismissed as two “servile gigolos.” She had come to the island for excitement and profit- she was determined to build a grand hotel on Floreana.
The Baroness was "a woman whose love of sensation will stop at nothing," according to Margret Wittmer. Soon, strange stories were being published across the world, telling of the mysterious Baroness and the feuds between the three camps of settlers on the island. So prevalent were the rumors of discord and violence, that in February of 1933, Ecuadorian officials hopped a ride on the Velero III during its annual voyage into the Pacific.
When Hancock and his crew arrived at Floreana, they brought much-needed provisions, including dental supplies for the now toothless Ritter and Strauch. They also found a situation much different than what the papers had reported. While the Wittmers were acclimating well, the Baroness was living a squalid existence. “Capt. Hancock found the life of the Baroness and her friends a sad one on their plot of ground an hour and a half’s journey away from the Ritter homestead,” the Los Angeles Times reported. "They are determined to remain, however."
The Ecuadorian officials decided that the Baroness and her men were not a threat. Despite her lack of homesteading skills, she had a large amount of money. According to Hancock, when buying provisions aboard the Velero III, the Baroness had an endless supply of $100 traveler’s checks.
She also had charm for days. It is clear that many of the Velero III crew, including Captain Hancock and entomologist John Garth, were fascinated with the Baroness. “The man isn't born who can resist me,” she wrote. So strong was the lure, that before the Velero III left Floreana, Hancock promised they would return soon — and make a pirate film, starring the Baroness herself.
Hancock held true to his word, and in January 1934, the Velero III returned to Floreana. The Captain, who kept in touch with the colonists via mail, brought many gifts. These included baby clothes for Margret Wittmer, who had recently given birth to a boy. “I have never seen, perhaps,” chief mate Charles Swett said, “such an outburst of enthusiasm as that which greeted us from the lady when we delivered her child’s garments.”
He also brought newspapers. According to the fascinating documentary “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” the colonists were amused by what they read about themselves. Margret Wittmer wrote:
Of course, as a cynical Dr. Ritter noted, the stories had probably been circulated by the Baroness herself.
The Baroness had greater plans — to be a movie star. The crew of the Velero III had been faithful to their word and brought film equipment with them. She and Captain Hancock began to write the scenario for the film, which they named “The Empress of Floreana.”
Crew member John Garth wrote of the first day of filming:
The resulting “pirate drama” is a fascinating document, featuring a charismatic Baroness and the members of the Velero III crew having a raucous good time.
But it was not all fun and games on Floreana. During the Velero III’s visits to the island in early 1934, Captain Hancock claimed to have witnessed many strange events. He later wrote in the Los Angeles Times of an event with an Ecuadorian man whom she had hired to work for her:
Hancock also spoke to Arends, a Danish man on another Galapagos Island, who had been shot by the Baroness when three strangers had come to Floreana to hunt. “The Baroness, who had Arends as an employee at the time, took her men and followed them. In the brush, a revolver shot sounded and Arends fell. A bullet had penetrated his arm and struck him in the hip. The Baroness, Arends says, tried to blame the shooting on the hunters, in the hope of driving them off the island. But Arends says it was the Baroness who shot him, although he dismissed it with a wave of his hand, saying, ‘Oh, well, she didn’t kill anyone.’”
It seems that others were tiring of the Baroness’ antics as well. Lorenz had been displaced in her affections by Phillipson and had become little more than their slave. “When I was there last February,” Hancock recalled. “Lorenz told me he was giving up on island life.” Dore Strauch was also fed up with the Baroness but told Hancock to tell her mother she had not meant it when she wrote she wanted to come home. “I was ill, and enraged over the Baroness, but now I am reconciled and never will leave here. “
Always soft-spoken and tactful, Captain Hancock kept what he had seen to himself — for the time being. To the curious press, he simply stated: “They say they are far happier than ever before. But one never knows, does one?’
Hancock was right to be wary. In late June, a letter arrived in Los Angeles from Dr. Ritter. In it, he told Hancock that the Baroness and Phillipson had vanished. Hancock later wrote in the Times:
The news became grimmer. “Just before Thanksgiving, Captain Hancock’s telephone rang late in the night,” John Garth wrote. “It was the press. Two bodies have been found dead beside an overturned boat on the black lava sands of Marchena Island.”
Hancock immediately made plans to investigate what had occurred on Floreana and Marchena Islands. He initially believed the bodies to be the Wittmers (because of letters from Margret Wittmer and baby clothes that were found near the bodies). However, with additional information, he soon changed his mind.
“It is my belief from what information has been afforded me that the dead men are unquestionably Arthur Rudolph Lorenz, formerly of Paris, and a Norwegian sailor named Nuggerud,” Captain Hancock wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “The description of the smaller man fits Lorenz perfectly. He was a member of the small but romantic colony over which Baroness von Wagner sought to rule as an empress on Charles Island...Of course, we cannot say definitely until we have made a personal inventory in the islands. Friday the Velero III sails for the Galapagos and I plan to make our first stop at Marchena Island in about ten days. What we find there, together with what remaining members of the now apparently disbanding colony may have to tell us, will probably clear up all the mystery.”
On November 23, 1934, Velero III set sail for the Galapagos Islands. A few days later, she was there. According to John Garth:
The crew filmed the bodies of the men, who had died of thirst and starvation after leaving Floreana. Hancock posed solemnly next to the bodies.
The Velero III then made her way to Floreana, where more shocks awaited the Captain and crew. Garth wrote:
Dore Strauch (who claimed the vegetarian Dr. Ritter had died eating a sick hen) now faced an agonizing choice.
“I have decided to leave Floreana with Captain Hancock. I do not know what I will do back in the world again, but go I must,” she wrote. She boarded Velero III weeping, having visited Ritter’s makeshift grave before she left the island. The only people left on the island were the hearty Wittmers, whose family owns a hotel on Floreana to this day. The mystery of what happened to the Baroness and Phillipson (whom Dore later suggested were killed by Lorenz) and Ritter (whom Margret Wittmer hinted was killed by Dore) was never solved despite Hancock, the Ecuadorian government and amateur sleuths’ best efforts.
Velero III would continue her journeys throughout the Pacific, but she would never be involved in such mysterious human goings-on again. On April 22, 1935, G. Allan Hancock presented The Empress of Floreana at Ebell Theater in Los Angeles. For at least one night, the Baroness was a star.
The USC Libraries' digitization efforts for the Hancock collection have been financed (in part) with Federal funds from the National Park Service Maritime Heritage grant program, administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
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Top Image: Velero III at home dock, Wilmington, Calif., 1931-1941 | Allan Hancock Foundation Collection, USC Libraries
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