The Galapagos Islands are a small chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean off the western coast of Ecuador, to which they belong. Not exactly a paradise, they are rocky, dry and hot, and are home to many interesting species of animals found nowhere else. They are perhaps best known for the Galapagos finches, which Charles Darwin used to inspire his Theory of Evolution. Today, the Islands are a top-notch tourist attraction. Normally sleepy and uneventful, the Galapagos Islands captured the world's attention in 1934 when they were the site of an international scandal of sex and murder.
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are named after a sort of saddle which is said to resemble the shells of the giant tortoises that make the islands their home. They were discovered accidentally in 1535 and then promptly ignored until the seventeenth century when they became a regular stopping point for whaling ships looking to take on provisions. The government of Ecuador claimed them in 1832 and no one really disputed it. Some hardy Ecuadorians came out to make a living fishing and others were sent to penal colonies. The Islands' big moment came when Charles Darwin visited in 1835 and subsequently published his theories, illustrating them with Galapagos species.
Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch
In 1929, German doctor Friedrich Ritter abandoned his practice and moved to the Islands, feeling he needed a new start in a faraway place. He brought with him one of his patients, Dore Strauch: both of them left spouses behind. They set up a homestead on Floreana Island and worked very hard there, moving heavy lava rocks, planting fruits and vegetables and raising chickens. They became international celebrities: the rugged doctor and his lover, living on a far-off island. Many people came to visit them, and some intended to stay, but the hard life on the islands eventually drove most of them off.
Heinz Wittmer arrived in 1931 with his teenage son and pregnant wife Margret. Unlike the others, they remained, setting up their own homestead with some help from Dr. Ritter. Once they were established, the two German families apparently had little contact with one another, which seems to be how they liked it. Like Dr. Ritter and Ms. Strauch, the Wittmers were rugged, independent and enjoyed occasional visitors but mostly kept to themselves.
The next arrival would change everything. Not long after the Wittmers came, a party of four arrived on Floreana, led by "Baroness" Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, an attractive young Austrian. She was accompanied by her two German lovers, Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz, as well as an Ecuadorian, Manuel Valdivieso, presumably hired to do all the work. The flamboyant Baroness set up a small homestead, named it "Hacienda Paradise" and announced her plans to build a grand hotel.
An Unhealthy Mix
The Baroness was a true character. She made up elaborate, grand stories to tell the visiting yacht captains, went about wearing a pistol and a whip, seduced the Governor of Galapagos and anointed herself "Queen" of Floreana. After her arrival, yachts went out of their way to visit Floreana; everyone sailing the Pacific wanted to be able to boast of an encounter with the Baroness. However, she did not get along well with the others. The Wittmers managed to ignore her but Dr. Ritter despised her.
The situation quickly deteriorated. Lorenz apparently fell out of favor, and Philippson started beating him. Lorenz started spending a lot of time with the Wittmers until the Baroness would come and get him. There was a prolonged drought, and Ritter and Strauch began to quarrel. Ritter and the Wittmers became angry when they began to suspect that the Baroness was stealing their mail and badmouthing them to visitors, who repeated everything to the international press. Things turned petty. Philippson stole the Ritter's donkey one night and turned it loose in the Wittmer's garden. In the morning, Heinz shot it, thinking it feral.
The Baroness Goes Missing
Then on March 27, 1934, the Baroness and Philippson disappeared. According to Margret Wittmer, the Baroness appeared at the Wittmer home and said that some friends had arrived on a yacht and were taking them to Tahiti. She said she left everything they weren't taking with them to Lorenz. The Baroness and Philippson departed that very day and were never heard from again.
A Fishy Story
There are problems with the Wittmers' story, however. No one else remembers any ship coming in that week, and the Baroness and Wittmer never turned up in Tahiti. Additionally, they left behind almost all of their things, including ( according to Dore Strauch) items that the Baroness would have wanted on even a very short journey. Strauch and Ritter apparently believed that the two were murdered by Lorenz and the Wittmers helped cover it up. Strauch also believed that the bodies were burned, as acacia wood (available on the island) burns hot enough to destroy even bone.
Lorenz was in a hurry to get out of Galapagos and he convinced a Norwegian fisherman named Nuggerud to take him first to Santa Cruz Island and from there to San Cristobal Island, where he could catch a ferry to Guayaquil. They made it to Santa Cruz but disappeared between Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. Months later, the mummified, desiccated bodies of both men were found on Marchena Island. There was no clue as to how they got there. Incidentally, Marchena is in the northern part of the Archipelago and not anywhere near Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal.
The Strange Death of Dr. Ritter
The strangeness did not end there. In November of the same year, Dr. Ritter died, apparently of food poisoning due to eating some poorly-preserved chicken. This is odd firstly because Ritter was a vegetarian (although apparently not a strict one). Also, he was a veteran of island living, and certainly capable of telling when some preserved chicken had gone bad. Many believed that Strauch had poisoned him, as his treatment of her had gotten much worse. According to Margret Wittmer, Ritter himself blamed Strauch. Wittmer wrote that he cursed her in his dying words.
Three dead, two missing over the course of a few months. "The Galapagos Affair" as it came to be known is a mystery that has puzzled historians and visitors to the islands ever since. None of the mysteries have been solved. The Baroness and Philippson never turned up, Dr. Ritter's death is officially an accident and no one has any clue how Nuggerud and Lorenz got to Marchena. The Wittmers remained on the islands and became wealthy years later when tourism boomed: their descendants still own valuable land and businesses there. Dore Strauch returned to Germany and wrote a book, fascinating not only for the sordid tales of the Galapagos affair but for its look at the hard life of the early settlers.
There will likely never be any real answers. Margret Wittmer, last of those who really knew what happened, stuck to her story about the Baroness going to Tahiti until her own death in 2000. Wittmer often hinted that she knew more than she was telling, but it's hard to know if she really did or if she just enjoyed tantalizing tourists with hints and innuendos. Strauch's book doesn't shed much light on things: she is adamant that Lorenz killed the Baroness and Philippson but has no proof other than her own (and supposedly Dr. Ritter's) gut feelings.
- Boyce, Barry. A Traveler's Guide to the Galapagos Islands. San Juan Bautista: Galapagos Travel, 1994.