Usually, day-to-day life on the remote Galapagos Islands is as uneventful as it gets. Time is measured in geologic eras and even the human interlopers find life there to be sleepy and laid-back. That all changed in 1934, when the world’s attention was drawn to the distant archipelago as a drama of murder, mystery and sex played out among the colorful inhabitants of Floreana Island.
Being billed as “Darwin meets Hitchcock”, a star studded cast recreates the melodrama, climaxing in a violent still unsolved mystery.
Here are the real-life characters and the story of The Galapagos Affair:
Ritter and Strauch
In 1929, German doctor Friedrich Ritter felt the need to get out of Germany. Running off with one of his patients, Dore Strauch, he made his way to the Galapagos Islands, where he settled on Floreana Island. Floreana is an unforgiving, harsh place, but he and Strauch made a rugged home there out of volcanic rocks and twisted pieces of wood. The eccentric doctor praised a regime of hard work, a vegetarian diet and lack of creature comforts. Such a lifestyle, he said, would make a man strong. They became famous: the two lovers, alone on a remote island, carving a life out of the barren rock under the blistering island heat.
The Wittmer Family
As the fame of Ritter and Strauch spread, other settlers came to Floreana. Most of them could not hack it and left after a brief stay. A German family, Heinz and Margret Wittmer and their son, did stay.The Wittmers were not exactly friendly with Ritter and Strauch, but they tolerated and respected one another and helped each other in times of need.
Not long after the Wittmers arrived, they were followed by “the Baroness:” a young Austrian named Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet. She was accompanied by Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Philippson, her two German lovers: they announced their intention of building a grand hotel on Floreana. She was an attractive woman and greeted passing ships wearing a skimpy outfit complete with a whip and pistol.
She told grandiose stories and it wasn’t long before ships passing through the Pacific would go out of their way to see her.
The stage was set for drama. The Wittmers and Ritter were sure the Baroness was going through their mail and spreading lies about them to passing ships. Meanwhile, Wagner-Bosquet had turned on Lorenz and Philippson began beating and abusing him regularly: he would take refuge at the Wittmer home until someone came for him, when he would sheepishly return to the Baroness. Petty conflicts among the settlers escalated until life on the island was intolerable.
On March 27, 1934, the Baroness and Philippson disappeared. According to Margret Wittmer, they had boarded a passing yacht headed for Tahiti. The story was extremely dubious, however: there was no record of such a yacht entering Galapagos at that time and they never turned up in Tahiti (or anywhere else for that matter).
Death of Lorenz
Meanwhile, Rudolf Lorenz hurriedly attempted to get back to Germany. He hired a Norwegian fisherman named Nuggerud to take him to San Cristobal Island, where he could catch a ferry to the mainland. They both disappeared until their mummified bodies were discovered months later on arid Marchena Island.
Death of Dr. Ritter
Just a few months later, in November, Dr. Ritter died, apparently of food poisoning after eating some poorly preserved chicken. According to the Wittmers, he said before dying that Dore Strauch had poisoned him: Strauch always denied it. She left Galapagos not long after and returned to Germany, where she wrote a book about her experiences.
What Happened on Floreana?
The mystery of the Galapagos affair has never been solved. Margret Wittmer died in 2000. She stuck to her story about the boat for Tahiti her whole life (although she loved dropping hints that she knew more than she was letting on). Dore Strauch claimed that she and Dr. Ritter were certain that Lorenz had murdered Phillipson and Wagner-Bosquet and that the Wittmers had helped him cover it up. No one knows how Nuggerud and Lorenz ended up on Marchena, which was far away from their destination of San Cristobal. It will probably always remain a mystery, too, unless some new information comes to light!