After German Settlers Arrived On A Remote Island, They Became Wrapped Up In A Bizarre Murder Mystery

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On a far-flung outcrop in the Pacific Ocean, a band of unlikely settlers eke out a living on the beautiful, yet challenging, terrain. But as tensions rise between these mismatched neighbors, a mysterious death sends shockwaves around the world. Was a cold-blooded murder committed on Floreana Island? And if so, which of its strange inhabitants were to blame?

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Located some 560 miles to the west of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are among the most remote places on Earth. And despite their abundant beauty, they attracted little in the way of human settlement over the years. However, in the 1920s, a scattering of brave Europeans began making their way to the archipelago in search of a new life.

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At the time, Ecuadorian law offered a tempting package to anyone willing to settle on the far-flung islands. As well as 20 hectares of land, colonists were also entitled to hunting and fishing rights not to mention an entire decade free from taxation. Moreover, they were not required to give up their original citizenship in order to live on the Galapagos.

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In 1929, a German, Friedrich Ritter, arrived on Floreana Island, a remote part of the archipelago less than 70 square miles in size. Back in his native Berlin, Ritter was a doctor, although his personality was far more eccentric than that of a typical medical man. A follower of the philosopher Nietzsche, he believed that some conditions could be remedied using only the power of the mind.

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Prior to his arrival on Floreana, Ritter began treating a woman named Dore Strauch. She was 15 years younger than the doctor. The pair met when Ritter treated her for multiple sclerosis. The couple, who were both married to other people the time, shared a distaste for their humdrum domestic lives.

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Soon embroiled in a romantic affair, Ritter and Strauch fled to the Galapagos, hoping to start afresh on Floreana. There, they established a homestead and began living a simple life. But while the island was remote, it was often visited by passing vessels, and the story of this castaway couple did not remain a secret for long.

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Newspapers soon caught wind of Ritter and Strauch – two lovers who gave up everything to find happiness far from civilization. Dubbed the “Adam and Eve of the Galapagos,” they became celebrities in their own right. However, the reality of life on Floreana was not quite the paradise that it might appear.

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According to reports, Ritter practiced a very strict set of beliefs, banning any consumption of meat and advocating tough manual labor. And bizarrely, he removed his teeth, along with Strauch’s, before their departure – leaving the pair to share a pair of metal dentures. On top of that, the terrain of Floreana was often harsh and unforgiving, providing a number of physical challenges to the settlers. Nevertheless, in 1932, another family decided to set up home on the island.

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Like Ritter and Strauch, Heinz Wittmer and his wife Margret also hailed from Germany. However, that was where the similarities ended. While Floreana’s first castaway couple abandoned their families back in Europe, the new settlers arrived with their son Harry in tow. Apparently, the boy was sickly, and the Wittmers hoped that life on the island might help to heal his condition.

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By the time the Wittmers arrived on Floreana, they were expecting another child. In fact, some reports claim, they hoped that Ritter might even help with the delivery. However, the two families soon realized that they had little in common. And while Strauch dismissed the other woman as a gossip, the new arrivals perceived the previous settlers as pretentious.

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Despite their differences, however, the two couples eventually learned to coexist, mostly by keeping out of the others’ way. But then, life on Floreana was thrown into upheaval once more by a new arrival. Drawn to the island by its potential as a tourist destination, rather than its off-the-grid lifestyle, Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet was a very different type of settler.

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Styling herself as a Baroness, this glamorous Austrian woman brought two lovers, Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Philippson, with her to Floreana. The trio were accompanied by an Ecuadorian man, hired to take care of the manual labor and the group set up camp next door to the Wittmers. Before long, they had built their own simple homestead, known as Hacienda Paradise.

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If the Wittmers were markedly different to Ritter and Strauch, then the Baroness was from another world. According to reports, she was shameless about her unusual living arrangement, and often appeared outside her homestead in a variety of states of undress. And while some of the earlier settlers also practiced nudism, the Baroness was prone to roaming around the island dressed in silk lingerie.

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At other times, the Baroness would appear clad in nothing but shorts and a brassiere, carrying a pistol at her side. And unlike the previous inhabitants of the island, she had no intention of living a quiet life. Flamboyant and eccentric, she soon added Empress of Floreana to her list of dubious titles.

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The Baroness was a terrible gossip, and even stole letters meant for her fellow islanders. According to some reports, she was also fiercely protective of her adopted domain. For example, there’s one story that she refused to help a couple stranded at sea, turning their small boat away from the island.

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In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Baroness had a sadistic personality. For example, witnesses claim that she regularly used a whip to keep her two lovers under control. Meanwhile, it’s also alleged that she made a habit of shooting animals, only to take them in and care for them until they recovered.

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According to another story, the Baroness once used her pistol on a hunter visiting the island. But despite these rumors, curious onlookers could not keep away from this new, glamorous resident of Floreana. In fact, she became quite the attraction for yacht captains passing through the Galapagos.

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Reportedly, the Baroness even managed to cast a spell over the governor of the Galapagos. And after spending a number of weeks with the Austrian exile, he granted her even more land on the island. Meanwhile, the international media delighted in this new twist in the story of Floreana. In fact, a visiting captain even made a short film about this new arrival, The Empress of Floreana.

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Although some were enamored with the Baroness and her eccentric behavior, however, the same could not be said for the other inhabitants of Floreana. And when she announced her plans to construct a luxurious hotel on the island, the animosity between them grew. But while the Wittmers mostly ignored their new neighbor, Ritter was more outspoken in his dislike.

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As the feud between Ritter and the Baroness grew, trouble was also brewing between her two lovers at Hacienda Paradise. Rudolf Lorenz had fallen out of his mistress’ favor and grown despondent about his life on the island. Facing violence from Robert Philippson, it seems, the smaller man sought refuge with the Wittmers.

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Before long, rumors about the Baroness’ treatment of Lorenz wasn’t the only gossip causing trouble on the island. Bizarrely, Wittmer’s wife began accusing him of having an affair with their glamorous neighbor. And elsewhere on the island, Strauch became suspicious of much the same thing of her partner – despite Ritter’s obvious disdain for the Baroness.

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Up until this point, Wittmer largely steered clear of conflict with the Baroness. But when he caught her frolicking with a lover in the island’s only spring, he saw red. In his rage, he made a threat on his neighbor’s life. And in response, she unleashed a donkey belonging to Ritter on Wittmer’s garden.

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Unfortunately, this incident resulted in Wittmer shooting the donkey, fuelling animosity between him and Ritter. So by now, relations between all of the islanders were at breaking point. But then, in March 1934, things took an unexpected turn. Seemingly overnight, the Baroness and Philippson disappeared. At the time, the Wittmers declared that the couple had caught a passing yacht to the island of Tahiti.

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However, this story has a number of flaws. At Hacienda Paradise, for example, all of the Baroness’ valuables were left behind – including a book that she never traveled without, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Moreover, nobody had spotted a boat anywhere near the island in weeks. In fact, it seemed as if the couple had simply vanished into thin air.

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Immediately, Ritter and Strauch were suspicious. Had the abused Lorenz murdered his mistress and her lover with the Wittmers’ help? Meanwhile, at the other homestead, the inhabitants suspected Ritter himself of foul play. As the two couples leveled accusations at each other, Lorenz quietly slipped away in a boat bound for San Cristobal Island.

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Unfortunately, Lorenz never arrived. In fact, just like the Baroness and Philippson, he disappeared. Months later, his body was discovered on the uninhabited Marchena Island, apparently dead from dehydration. But in a mysterious twist, his final resting place is more than 100 miles north of Floreana, while San Cristobal lies some 75 miles to the east.

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With Lorenz gone, tensions escalated between the remaining inhabitants of Floreana. Then, eight months after the Baroness’ disappearance, Ritter fell ill. Apparently, he and Strauch abandoned their vegetarianism in the face of a difficult drought and decided to eat some chickens that they had found dead.

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Unfortunately, the chickens appear to have been contaminated with botulism and Ritter himself soon contracted the condition. And before long, he passed away, leaving yet another mystery behind. According to reports, Wittmer was suspicious that Strauch remained unaffected by eating the poisoned meat. Might the unfortunate death actually be another murder in disguise?

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According to Mrs. Wittmer, Ritter accused Strauch of just such a scheme in his final moments. In fact, she claims that the fatally ill man wrote a note to his partner on his deathbed, scribbling, “I curse you with my dying breath.” Moreover, she also added that the dying man made reference to some sinister secret between himself and Lorenz.

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Had Strauch intentionally poisoned Ritter as part of a nefarious plot? Certainly, the couple argued in the months preceding the incident. But while the Wittmers appeared d to believe in this possibility, there were other strange circumstances surrounding the death that this theory did not explain.

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For example, why had Ritter suddenly decided to start eating meat after being a strict vegetarian for so many years? And wasn’t it a handy coincidence that he passed away just as the conflict between him and the Wittmers was at its peak? For her part, Strauch denied having had any involvement in her partner’s death.

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The year after Ritter’s death, Strauch left Floreana and returned to Germany. There, she published Satan Came to Eden, an account of the scandals that tore her island home apart. And while she did not directly accuse the Wittmers of any crimes, the book clearly implied that she believed them guilty.

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Sadly, life away from Floreana was not kind to Strauch. According to reports, she was committed to a mental institution, where she died during a bombing raid in World War II. Meanwhile, back on the island, tragedy also returned to haunt the small community. And just a few years after Ritter’s death, the Wittmers’ son Harry drowned.

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Despite this, however, the Wittmers remained on the island. And ironically, it was this unassuming couple who would go on to make the dream of the Baroness a reality – albeit in a more understated fashion. Eventually, they opened a modest hotel on Floreana, and their descendants still live there today.

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In 1961 Margret Wittmer published her own memoir, Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos. And in it, she cast doubt on Strauch’s account of Ritter’s death. Much like Strauch herself, she did not directly accuse anyone of murder – although the implications were clear.

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In the intervening years, the Wittmers welcomed another daughter, Floreanita, into their castaway family. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of World War II, other settlers arrived on the island. And by the time that Mr Wittmer died in 1963, as many as 50 households had been established in this remote corner of the Galapagos.

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As possibly the first person to be born on Floreana, the Wittmers’ youngest son Rolf went on to play a major role in tourism on the Galapagos. Throughout the 1960s, he brought some of the first visitors to the islands, eventually launching his own yachting company in 1969. And when he died in 2011, he left an impressive legacy behind.

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Two years after the death of the Wittmers’ youngest son, saw the release of a documentary telling the story of the early years on Floreana. Entitled The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, it combines historical footage with voiceovers from Hollywood actors. And six years later, plans were announced to make a feature film of the same name.

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So what really happened on Floreana all those years ago? Were the Baroness and Ritter murdered by settlers intent on controlling their island paradise? Or was the community simply cursed with a run of bad luck? Until recently, the only person who might have known the truth was Margret Wittmer – but she died in 2000, taking her secret with her.

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Today, Floreana is a popular destination with tourists visiting the Galapagos Islands. In fact, Wittmer Lodge is currently rated as the top hotel on the island on TripAdvisor. Run by the Wittmers’ daughter Floreanita, known as Inge, it is one of the last reminders of the outpost’s mysterious past.

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