Floreana, Galapagos

The Galapagos Affair

The so-called Galapagos Affair gained worldwide attention in 1935. After several mysterious events happened amongst mostly german settlers on the island of Floreana in 1934. In its course various people died under partly unexplained circumstances while others disappeared without a trace.

The media around the globe reported on the events and it spawned several books and movies.

Starting in the late 1920s, several groups of German dropouts settled on the uninhabited island of Floreana, in the south of the Galapagos archipelago.

Floreana – the island

Floreana Island is part of the Galapagos archipelago, located in its very south. It was discovered by Tomás de Berlanga, a panamanian bishop, in 1535.

Over the centuries it served as a convict colony and as a base and hideout for pirates. Also Charles Darwin visited the island. But it wasn’t constantly populated until 1929.

 

To this day, an old barrel, once set up by whalers in the late 18th century, serves as a mailbox for ships to pick up letters for recipients all over the world. 

Floreana Island - Galapagos Affair
Isla Floreana

Dramatis personae

The Ritters

Friedrich Ritter, a doctor from Berlin, with his life partner Dore Strauch, a teacher, switched partners before leaving Europe. They both traveled to Floreana, while his wife moved in with her husband back in Germany. We should also mention that both of them had all of their teeth removed to prevent dental problems.

Ritter was driven by a fundamental rejection of the western civilization, a combination of philosophies, and a mix of crude life reform considerations. In his opinion, illnesses, for example, should be overcome by the “power of thought” rather than with medication. In his rejection of the capitalist form of society and economy, he called the USA an “ant society”.

Galapagos Affair - The Ritters
Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch
The Galapagos Affair - 1934 in Floreana
Family Wittmer

The Wittmers

Inspired by Ritter, Heinz and Margret Wittmer, from Cologne, settled 2 years later with their 12-year-old son, Harry. On the one hand, the Wittmers tried to escape the economic crisis in Germany, on the other hand, they hoped that the climate would improve Harry’s state of health, who was suffering from lung and eye diseases. However, this hope was not fulfilled.

Margret was pregnant when arriving in Floreana, and their son Rolf was the first child officially born in Floreana.

The Baroness and her lovers

A woman named Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, possibly an imposter, who called herself “The Baroness” settled on the island. Accompanied by her two lovers, Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Philippson. This distracted the quite conservative lifestyles of the other settlers. This will later turn out to be the beginning of the end.

Lorenz was part of that love triangle in the beginning. Later he was treated more and more like a work slave by the other two.

The Galapagos Affair - Floreana 1934
Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet
The Galapagos Affair
The Baroness and her lovers

The baroness had planned to build a luxury hotel on Floreana, called Hacienda Paradiso, mostly for wealthy Americans . To realize her plans, she brought with her cows, donkeys and chicken, as well as 80 hundredweight of cement. 

In the end,  the paradisiacal Hacienda consisted only of a corrugated iron shack with two rooms. 

A life in harmony?

From the beginning, life on the island wasn’t easy. The growing leadership claim by the baroness burdened living together. She tried to control the island’s  limited freshwater resources, the incoming mail and food deliveries. 

Written submissions by Ritter and the Wittmers to the Ecuadorian authorities to put an end to the baroness’ violent activities did not lead to any improvement in the situation.

In her eyes ‘unwelcome visitors’ were violently kicked off the island. 

A Norwegian settler who visited the island for hunting was expelled at gunpoint.

 

But also the relationships within the groups changed dramatically: 

 

The relationship between Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch, who was unable to cope with the difficult living conditions on the island due to multiple sclerosis, became increasingly difficult. According to eyewitness reports, Ritter physically abused Strauch, sometimes in the presence of others.

Rudolf Lorenz fell ill with Tuberculosis and was increasingly forced into the role of a work slave and regularly beaten by his physically superior rival Philippson.

Lorenz even confided to the Wittmers that he feared for his life, and that the Baroness planned on murdering him.

In 1934, a series of events ended the supposedly peaceful life in paradise.

When Satan came to Eden

Due to the failure in building the hotel,  the baroness told the Wittmers that she and Philippson were planning to leave the island for Tahiti. Then they both suddenly disappeared without a trace. 

It’s not clear if Lorenz was involved in the disappearance. 

He sold all of their belongings and hired a Norwegian fisherman to bring him to San Cristobal Island. There he wanted to catch a ship back to Europe.

It’s blurred what happened next. Lorenz’s and the fisherman’s corpses were later found on Marchena Island, further north, where they probably died of thirst since Marchena has no freshwater resources. The boat and an Ecuadorian shipboy who was with them were never found.

The Galapagos Affair - Floreana Island 1934
The house of family Wittmer

Friedrich Ritter died soon after of food poisoning. Dore Strauch is a possible suspect for his death. She allegedly served the (quite hypocritical) vegetarian and grain despiser Ritter undercooked chicken. 

The media’s response regarding the Galapagos Affair

Many publications about the Galapagos Affair in newspapers around the world followed. Most famously by Georges Simenon. He wrote articles for a French newspaper about it as well as a novel, ‘Ceux de la soif’.

The events were so famous at some point, that even Franklin D. Roosevelt took a trip to Floreana in 1938 to meet the Wittmer family.

Unfortunately, they were not home.

Margret Wittmer survived all protagonists of the Galapagos Affair, dying in the year 2000, at age 96 on ‘her’ island. Her descendants still live there today.

Besides numerous media coverages over the decades, there is also a great documentary about the on-goings. The Galapagos Affair: Satan came to Eden by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, and should not go unmentioned.

Margret Wittmer
Margret Wittmer, later in life
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