The Galapagos Islands are one of the natural wonders of our planet. Isolated for millions of years, they are so populated by such a vast number of unique, endemic species that their name has become synonymous with places where evolution has progressed in geographic solitude. Indeed, it was here among these scattered remote islands where Charles Darwin made his observations and notes that would lead him to conceive of his theory of evolution. Considering this image of remote, untouched natural beauty and wonder that most people may have of them, the Galapagos Islands are probably the last place where one would expect to find human settlements, yet the islands have attracted permanent human populations since the 1800s. Unfortunately, wherever mankind goes so does the evil of which we are capable and these tranquil tropical islands would become the scene of a scandalous murder mystery that to this day remains unsolved.
The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands spread out along the Equator around 906 km (563 mi) west of Ecuador. The islands are most famous for their incredible diversity of both marine and terrestrial life, including the well-known Galapagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra) and the marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). Although humans have known of the islands since they were first recorded in 1535 by the Bishop of Panamá, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, perhaps the most famous visitor to the island was the naturalist Charles Darwin, who spent 5 weeks there during his voyage aboard the Beagle in 1835. Darwin called the Galapagos “that land of craters,” due to their craggy, volcanic nature, and actually spent much time studying the unique geology and volcanic formations of the islands. Darwin would make several important geological discoveries during his stay on the Galapagos, but he is most well-known today for his studies on the wildlife there. Darwin’s observations would lead him to come up with the groundbreaking concept of natural selection as an explanation for evolution, which would ultimately be published in his landmark work, The Origin of Species.
Darwin and his companions were certainly not the only human visitors who had ever been to the Galapagos Islands at the time. From 1807-1809 an Irish sailor by the name of Patrick Watkins was marooned on Floreana Island, making him the first truly permanent human settler of the islands, where he subsisted by hunting, fishing, and growing his own vegetables until he stole a boat from passing whalers and made his escape. In 1818, vast numbers of sperm whales were found to be in the seas of the region, and so the Galapagos became a popular stop over point for whalers, which they called the Offshore Grounds, with several temporary whaling outposts set up on the islands where sailors could send and receive mail, restock on supplies, and carry out repairs on their ships. Many of the islands were perfectly suited to this role, as they offered a relatively flat landscape, plentiful water, and many plants and animals that could be gathered for food.
In addition to using the Galapagos as a launching point to slaughter whales by the hundreds there were other unfortunate environmental consequences of human visitors. One whaleship called the Essex made a stopover on Charles Island, now known as Floreana Island, and the crew went about hunting the endemic giant tortoises for food, something which was unfortunately somewhat of a common practice for visitors passing through at the time. During this particular hunt, some of the crew started a fire that soon blazed out of control, with all of the crew members barely escaping to their ship with their lives. The unchecked fire soon had engulfed much of the island and was so spectacular that its illumination reportedly could be seen on the horizon even after a full day of sailing. It caused such extensive damage that several years later one visitor described Charles Island as still being mostly a blackened, charred wasteland. This was in fact the very same island where Darwin would formulate his theory on evolution years later, so it was able to bounce back somewhat, yet it is thought that many species unique to this one island were likely wiped out in the blaze.
Although humans certainly had a negative impact on the islands and their ecology, these were at first mostly temporary settlements or people just passing through. There was no real attempt to colonize the islands permanently until Ecuador acquired them on 12 February 1832, changing their name to the Archipelago of Ecuador. Permanent settlement began with groups of convicts, who were brought there by the islands’ first governor, General José de Villamil to be put into penal colonies. These convicts were there mostly to separate them far from society, and they eked out sustenance living in their new home. Later that year, the convicts would be joined by artisans and farmers, further increasing the population. These first steps towards colonization would lead to more and more people coming to the islands to set up sugar cane plantations and small villages. This growing amount of human settlement, as well as the ships passing through, had rather disastrous consequences for some of the native wildlife, most notably with the demise of the Floreana subspecies of giant tortoise, which had already gone extinct due to being hunted by settlers and passing whalers by the time Darwin arrived in 1835.
Settlement of the Galapagos really picked up in the 1920s and 30s, when a wave of settlers from Europe started to arrive, lured by numerous perks and benefits including the right to receive land from the Ecuadorian government, the ability to maintain their citizenship, unlimited fishing and hunting rights, and freedom from taxation for their first 10 years. These perks, as well as the intoxicating allure of this peaceful, tropical locale, proved irresistible to many and the islands experienced a small population boom, with other settlers rushing in from Ecuador and even America. It is here where our story begins to divert from one of the promise of an unfettered quiet life in paradise to one of scandalous betrayal, sex, murder, and the evil of man.
One of these European settlers was a German dentist by the name of Friedrich Ritter, who arrived at Floreana Island in 1929 to elope with a patient named Dore Strauch, with whom he had been having an affair and who was also married. They had escaped to be together unhindered and live a simple life, as well as to get away from the crumbling economy of their native land in the wake of World War I. The two had left everything behind, including their spouses, to start a new life far from the ones they had known, and specifically chose Floreana as it was one of the more remote and sparsely populated islands of the archipelago. Ritter and Strauch set up a modest homestead on the island where they enjoyed a quiet, simple life of growing fruits and vegetables and raising chickens.
It was not long before newspapers caught onto this story of the two star crossed lovers who had escaped to this remote island in the middle of the Pacific to carve out a new, peaceful and tranquil way of life far removed from the hectic pace of civilization. Their life was played up as an idyllic existence and an adventure story, with headlines proclaiming them to be the “Adam and Eve of the Galapagos.” The media coverage made the two celebrities, portraying them as a happy couple who had bravely defied civilization to pursue life on their own terms, and this caught the attention of many who were attracted to such a brave spirit of adventure.
Although the media portrayed Ritter and Strauch as an adventurous, happy couple, enchanted by their new surroundings, there were certain disturbing facts behind the scenes that they failed to pick up on. First was that the couple had been quite eccentric from the outset, having had all of their teeth removed in order to be able to share a pair of steel dentures before they had even left for the islands. Ritter, who was portrayed as a rugged, romantic hero by the media was actually a strict disciplinarian who advocated a harsh lifestyle of hard, back breaking work, a strict vegetarian diet, and complete lack of any creature comforts. While indeed simple and tranquil, life on the island was certainly not easy. It was marked by brutally hard work and the difficulty of eking out a living on the rocky, windswept volcanic land. Although Strauch was happy to be away from civilization, she once lamented “Ceaseless manual toil dulls the edges of spiritual life.”
Nevertheless, the media coverage enthralled people with its story of leaving civilization behind in pursuit of a new life in paradise, and thus prompted many brave souls to make the trip there. While many of these visitors to Floreana were curiosity seekers there merely to catch a glimpse of the now famous couple and their lifestyle, others went fully expecting to stay to establish their own permanent homesteads. However, many who had envisioned an idyllic, romantic lifestyle in paradise were unprepared for the harsh reality of the hardship of toiling over the volcanic soil and scraping out a living on this speck of sun beaten land in the middle of the ocean bereft of all modern conveniences, and found they were not cut out for it. Many of these disillusioned people left soon after arriving, but some stayed.
One family who chose to stay and brave this new land was that of former soldier Heinz Wittmer, who arrived on the island in 1932 along with his pregnant wife, Margret, and their young son Harry, who was suffering from health problems and was one of the reasons the family had decided to come live amongst nature in the first place. The Wittmer’s were similar to Ritter in that they were independent people who enjoyed the rugged and secluded life of the island, and they set up their own homestead there not far from Ritter’s land. Shortly after their arrival, Margret would give birth to their son Rolf, who was the first Galapagos colonist to have ever been actually born there. This was all much to the chagrin of Ritter. After all, he had come to Forteana specifically to get away from other people, and he was very much a loner who valued his privacy and did not like visitors. He did not appreciate the influx of curiosity seekers, least of all those who intended to stay. Nevertheless, Ritter grudgingly went along with the new family moving in, although contact with the Wittmers was infrequent, with both families coexisting peacefully while keeping mostly to themselves. Both families seemed to like it this way, and life on the island remained quiet and without incident.
Just as a calm sort of truce had settled over the island and Ritter was beginning to grow accustomed to having others around, another group of settlers arrived that would manage to shatter the peaceful life they had built in this faraway land. This new group came in the form of the attractive and eccentric Austrian “Baroness” Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, along with her two young, handsome lovers, Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz, as well as an Ecuadorian man by the name of Manuel Valdivieso, who tagged along as a hired hand to do all of the hard work while the others basked in paradise. The Baroness quickly set up her own homestead, which she called “Hacienda Paradise,” right next to Wittmer’s and promptly went about shaking up life on the island as much as was humanly possible.
The Baroness was a talkative, flamboyant, highly eccentric character who quickly proved to be the polar opposite of everyone who was living in the area when she arrived. The first most glaring offense was the fact that she had come with two lovers with whom she slept in the same bed and of whom she was not ashamed in the slightest. The Baroness would take strolls hand in hand with both of them, be intimate with them regardless of who might be watching, and engage in sexual relations that were, shall we say, audible in the still, quiet air of the island. An attractive woman, the Baroness tended to go out onto her property scantily clad and sometimes wearing nothing at all. She was also known to walk about the island wearing nothing but silk lingerie, which upset the ultra-conservative Ritter to no end. Additionally, she made up her home with quite a loud, garish décor that was just as flamboyant as she was, in stark contrast to the simple, functional design of the other homesteads.
Another problem was the Baroness’ personality, which proved to be abrasive to those around her, as well as her deceitful actions. Whereas the others were quiet, kept to themselves, and avoided drawing undo attention to themselves, the Baroness was known to wear bright, clashing clothing and roam around the island wearing a pistol and a whip at times. It was also not uncommon for her to snoop around other people’s property or sometimes even sift through their mail looking for juicy tidbits to gossip about. The Baroness would also sometimes covertly acquire gifts that had been left by visitors for the other island residents, and one time several cases of canned milk that had been left for the Whittmer child were found to be in her possession.
The Baroness was reportedly an insufferable chatterbox as well, who would tell stories and gossip to anyone within earshot, whether they wanted to listen or not. This included visiting yacht captains, who she would entertain with grandiose tales and also shamelessly flirt with. The Baroness was reportedly so charming and such an unrepentant flirt, in fact, that she is rumored to have seduced the governor of the Galapagos himself and spent several weeks living lavishly at the governor’s home on Chatham Island. The governor was reportedly so enamored with the Baroness that he gave her an additional 4 square miles of land on Forteana along with other gifts. She became popular with many male visitors who passed through, and some yacht captains were known to go out of their way to make a stop at the island just to have a chat, among other things. Her lovers who she had brought to the island with her did not seem to mind any of this, and in fact the two men seemed to be weak-willed and rather terrified of her. This was perhaps understandable since the Baroness was known to have a hot temper, and made people very nervous with the pistol she always seemed to be constantly carrying around with her, which she was known to wave about from time to time when she was particularly angry, as well as the whip which she was known to use judiciously on her lovers when they stepped out of line. There also seemed to be a sadistic streak pulsing under her usual outgoing, friendly demeanor, as she reportedly would shoot animals in the leg for fun and then nurse them back to health.
Such a colorful, interesting and eccentric figure was the Baroness that she became a media sensation, drawing further attention to the island which the other inhabitants did not want, least of all Ritter. While Wittmer seemed to more or less ignore the Baroness, Ritter is said to have absolutely loathed her. Her exploits became steadily bolder, and before long she had declared herself the “Empress of Forteana” and announced her plans to build a grand luxury hotel on her property, much to the horror of Ritter. She was also prone to spreading gossip, much of it untrue, to passing sailors, captains and visitors about the other settlers of the island. Although the Baroness did not really get along particularly well with any of the permanent island inhabitants, the animosity between her and Ritter quickly reached a boiling point and a bitter feud developed between them, with petty conflicts becoming commonplace. Ritter began to accuse the Baroness of stealing his private mail in order to sell it to newspapers, and on several occasions the fiery Baroness threatened Ritter with her pistol. The frictions steadily mounted and the whole situation became a veritable powder keg ready to blow at the slightest misstep. All the while, Wittmer stayed mostly out of it and tried to ignore the situation, leading one visitor to once muse:
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.
Adding to the already volatile mix of conflicting personalities on the island were the problems starting to brew within the Baroness’ very own entourage. One of her lovers, Philippson, began to make it a habit of regularly beating and abusing the Baroness’ other, physically smaller lover, Lorenz. The beatings became so severe that Lorenz took too seeking refuge at the Wittmers’ homestead, where he would hide and refuse to come out until someone came for him and took him back to his own home to face more violence. Lorenz was also reported to have lost a shocking amount of weight from being underfed. It is unclear what the catalyst for this new development was, but it is said that the Baroness had decided that she didn’t need Lorenz anymore, and had reduced him to a mere whipping boy and slave to do hard labor on the homestead. Additionally, it is thought that jealousy fueled by the Baroness and her many new lovers on the island had finally eaten away at Philippson, who took it out on the smaller man. Regardless of the reasons, the abuse and mistreatment towards Lorenz continued and there was not much anyone could do about it. Lorenz eventually became so terrified of the Baroness that he took to living with the Wittmers full time.
Other tensions were igniting around the island as well. Wittmer started to experience domestic turmoil when his wife began to accuse him of having an affair with the charismatic and seductive man-hunting Baroness, largely because he seemed indifferent to all of the offensive or insensitive things she had done. Even Ritter was not exempt from such accusations, as Strauch was convinced that he too was having an affair with the pretty Baroness, despite the fact that he quite publicly despised her.
Additionally, the even-tempered Wittmer, who had until now mostly tolerated the Baroness and her eccentricities, became embroiled in a feud with her as well after one incident pushed him over the edge. The island of Forteana had only one source of fresh drinking water, a single solitary spring that provided water to the whole population. One day, Wittmer found the Baroness bathing and frolicking about within the spring with her lover. This enraged the previously quiet Wittmer, and he threatened to kill them both. In response, the Baroness would go on to steal Ritter’s donkey and set it loose on Wittmer’s vegetable garden. The furious Wittmer then shot and killed the animal with his rifle, and the whole incident sowed conflict, tension and distrust between the two men.
Just as things were starting to froth to a head, one day in March, 1934, the Baroness and Philippson just disappeared without a trace, leaving behind all of their valuables and personal property. The Wittmers claimed that the Baroness had mentioned their intention to take a visiting yacht to Tahiti for a getaway, but there were several inconsistencies with this story. One was that no one had seen any such yacht come to the island neither the previous night nor the day they had supposedly left. In fact their had been no passing boats in weeks. Additionally, the two lovers had taken no luggage with them whatsoever, and since the Baroness was such a celebrity at the time it seemed odd that there would be no word in the news of her arrival in Tahiti. Indeed, considering her celebrity status it is unlikely that she could have gone anywhere in the world without some degree of media fanfare. The news was quiet, all of their belongings and valuables remained, and the Baroness and Philippson were simply gone without a trace.
Ritter and Strauch became highly suspicious of the whole situation, and suspected foul play. They saw the abused and neglected Lorenz as the most obvious suspect, that he had murdered the two, and were convinced that the Wittmers, with whom Lorenz now lived, were covering for him. This was despite the fact that Ritter had been the one who had shown the most animosity towards the Baroness, thus making him a perfectly reasonable suspect in his own right. This is precisely what the Wittmers responded with when met with Ritter’s accusations, and the relationship between the two couples degenerated as they pointed fingers at each other and accused each other of murder.
During this period of confrontation, paranoia, and distrust, Lorenz quietly and perhaps wisely slipped away aboard a passing boat manned by a Norwegian fisherman headed for San Cristobal Island, where he hoped to then catch a ferry to the mainland. This fishing boat, along with Lorenz and the fisherman, would also mysteriously disappear, and it wasn’t until months later that their desiccated, mummified remains were found baking in the sun on desolate, arid Marchena Island; a volcanic wasteland devoid of any trees or fresh water sources. It was believed that they had experienced engine problems and had been forced to land on the island, where they died of dehydration in the scorching sun.
Meanwhile, conflict between Ritter and the Wittmers had escalated to the point where there were fights between them nearly every day. Not long after that, in November of 1934, Ritter suddenly and inexplicably came down with botulism while allegedly eating chicken cooked by Strauch. The canned chicken meat had come from chickens that had died after contracting botulism through being fed rotten wild boar meat, but Ritter had known it could be safe to eat if cooked properly. It was all very unusual since Ritter was a strict vegetarian. Mrs. Wittmer would claim that Strauch had been the one to poison him by intentionally undercooking the meat even though she knew it was laced with botulism, and that indeed Ritter himself had told her as much as his health deteriorated, a claim that Strauch vehemently denied. The idea was not exactly farfetched, as Strauch had slowly grown to hate Ritter over the months and the two were known to have epic arguments, but the fact that Ritter was a vegetarian and the heated conflict between Ritter and the Wittmers also pointed to the possibility that they had been the ones to poison him. Strauch would continue to deny having anything to do with Ritter’s death and would leave the island the following year to return to Germany, where she would write a book on her experiences of Floreana called Satan Came to Eden. In the end, only the perpetrator knew for sure and who that was remains a mystery to this day.
The Baroness and Philippson had disappeared without a trace, Lorenz had died, Ritter had suffered a slow, deteriorating, agonizing death of botulism, and Strauch had packed up and left; in the end the Wittmers were the only ones who remained. Indeed, the Wittmer family would thrive on the island, and would go on to eventually establish a hotel there which is still run by their descendants. The original matriarch of the family, Mrs. Wittmer herself, would later write her own book on her experiences on the island entitled Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos. A movie was made on the whole affair in 2013 titled “”The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” which recounts one version of the events based on pieces of home video footage taken by the settlers there, photos, diary entries, stories from visitors to the island and locals, and letters to the settlers’ friends and families.
What happened out there away from the eyes of civilization on this remote, isolated island of the Galapagos all of those years ago? To this day no one knows for sure and considering the conflicting accounts it is likely no one ever will. It is not certain what exactly transpired on the island because most of the information we have on what happened there comes from the books published by Strauch and Wittmer, media accounts, diaries kept by Ritter, Strauch, and the Wittmers, and tales told by various visitors to the island over the years, but much of this information is contradictory or embellished. The most intriguing character in all of this, the Baroness, kept no diary and we have only the accounts of others to piece together a picture of her life on the island and her role in the mayhem.
As for the deaths and disappearances, the bodies of both the Baroness and Philippson have never been found and Mrs. Wittmer would claim to her dying day that the Tahiti story was true, while Strauch stubbornly maintained that she and Ritter were convinced that Lorenz had murdered them with the help of the Wittmers. Dore Strauch and Mrs. Whittmer would also spend the rest of their days accusing each other of murder and denying any involvement in the death of Ritter. Indeed even the deaths of Lorenz and the fisherman remain mysterious, as their bodies were found on a barren speck of rock nowhere near their intended destination of the lush San Cristobal Island. The last living witness to the events, Mrs. Wittmer, who was thus probably the only one alive who knew for sure, spent the rest of her life sticking to her story and mostly refusing to divulge any information at all. Mrs. Wittmer passed away in 2000 at the age of 96, likely taking the secret to the grave with her. To this day, the mystery of what happened on Forteana Island remains unsolved and probably will remain that way.
The idea of leaving civilization behind, of escaping our busy and stressful lives to spirit ourselves away to some tropical paradise where we can live out our days in blissful quiet is an alluring one. Many of us yearn to get away from it all, and some of us even manage to conjure up the courage to actually do it. Yet it seems that no matter how far we may distance ourselves from civilization, no matter how far out into the ocean we go to escape this hectic life for something simpler, there is no escaping our very nature and the potential evil that resides within the human soul.