In the 1930s, a string of deaths and disappearances among a curious group of European settlers on Floreana – which became known as the Galápagos Affair after the book by John Treherne – made the islands more famous to the contemporary world than even Darwin had done a century earlier. The story began with the arrival in 1929 of two Germans, Dr Friedrich Ritter and his mistress Dore Strauch. Ritter, a determined, vain and deliberately compassionless man, was pumped up on the ideas of Nietzsche and Lao-tze, and had pretensions to being a great philosopher, rather than breadwinner in a suburban Berlin household. Dore fell under his spell as his patient, and they eventually conspired to run off to the Galápagos Islands, no easy holiday spot, but the perfect place to found a dark Utopia and play out the roles of “philosopher-heroes”. Seeing himself as one of Nietzsche’s Übermenschen, Ritter refused to bring a supply of morphine with him, welcoming the test of beating pain “by the power of the will”. He had also had his and Dore’s teeth removed, preferring the reliability of a set of steel dentures – which they shared. He refused to show any love to his mistress, leaving her weeping on the lava when she couldn’t carry their supplies; he wouldn’t even clean Dore’s burn wounds after she’d knelt in red-hot coals. Towards the end he even beat her, but Dore claimed her devotion to him never faltered.
The couple lived alone on the island until 1932, when the Wittmer family – Heinz, Margret and their son Harry – arrived from Cologne. They were a far more practical bunch and stayed out of the way of their strange neighbours as much as they could. A couple of months later, a woman armed with a riding crop and a revolver, calling herself the Baroness Wagner de Bosquet and claiming to be an Austrian aristocrat, stormed onto the island with her two German lovers, Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Philippson. Her plan was to build a hotel for millionaires, the Hacienda Paraíso, which she set about doing, but before long it became clear to the previous settlers she was a compulsive liar and a sadistic megalomaniac. She took pleasure in treating Lorenz like a slave and regularly got Philippson to beat him. Soon she was treading on the other settlers’ toes, intercepting their mail left at Post Office Bay, stealing supplies left for them by passing yachts and declaring herself “Empress of Floreana”.
Matters came to a head during the long drought of 1934, when the Baroness and Philippson disappeared. According to Margret Wittmer, the Baroness said a friend was taking them to Tahiti, a story backed by Lorenz, who had managed to escape the household shortly before. But Dore claimed she heard a “long-drawn scream” coming from the hacienda and Ritter seemed unusually sure they had gone for good – even though all the Baroness’s belongings were where she’d left them, including her beloved copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. “She won’t come back. Take my word for it,” he told Margret Wittmer. He was right – neither the Baroness nor Philippson were ever seen again.
After their disappearance, Lorenz grew increasingly desperate to leave the island and persuaded a visiting Norwegian, Nuggerud, to sail him to San Cristóbal. Nuggerud wasn’t keen: the sea was rough, he wanted to get back to his wife on Santa Cruz who was about to give birth to their first child and it was Friday 13th. Nevertheless, he relented; four months later, the desiccated bodies of both men were found on Marchena Island. Only a few days after this, Ritter fell gravely ill after eating a poisoned chicken cooked by Dore, who said she’d also eaten it, but was only mildly sick. His hatred for his mistress was remorseless and, just before he died, he wrote a final message to Dore: “I curse you with my dying breath.” Dore returned to Berlin, where she died, shortly after telling her story in the book, Satan Came to Eden. Margret Wittmer, who was the last survivor of the original settlers, died in 2000 aged 95, but the deaths and disappearances on Floreana are no closer to being solved.