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Unsolved Murder Mystery: The Galapagos Affair

Who Killed "The Baroness?"

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Unsolved Murder Mystery: The Galapagos Affair

Dore Strauch

Photographer Unknown

Deterioration

The situation quickly deteriorated. Lorenz apparently fell out of favor, and Philippson started beating him. Lorenz started spending a lot of time with the Wittmers, until the Baroness would come and get him. There was a prolonged drought, and Ritter and Strauch began to quarrel. Ritter and the Wittmers became angry when they began to suspect that the Baroness was stealing their mail and badmouthing them to visitors, who repeated everything to the international press. Things turned petty: Philippson stole the Ritter's donkey one night and turned it loose in the Wittmer's garden. In the morning, Heinz shot it, thinking it feral.

The Baroness Goes Missing

Then on March 27, 1934, the Baroness and Philippson disappeared. According to Margret Wittmer, the Baroness appeared at the Wittmer home and said that some friends had arrived on a yacht and were taking them to Tahiti. She said she left everything they weren't taking with them to Lorenz. The Baroness and Philippson departed that very day and were never heard from again.

A Fishy Story

There are problems with the Wittmers' story, however. No one else remembers any ship coming in that week. They never turned up in Tahiti. They left behind almost all of their things, including - according to Dore Strauch - items that the Baroness would have wanted on even a very short journey. Strauch and Ritter apparently believed that the two were murdered by Lorenz and the Wittmers helped cover it up. Strauch also believed that the bodies were burned, as acacia wood (available on the island) burns hot enough to destroy even bone.

Lorenz Disappears

Lorenz was in a hurry to get out of Galapagos and convinced a Norwegian fisherman named Nuggerud to take him first to Santa Cruz Island and from there to San Cristobal Island, where he could catch a ferry to Guayaquil. They made it to Santa Cruz, but disappeared between Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. Months later, the mummified, desiccated bodies of both men were found on Marchena Island. There was no clue as to how they got there. Incidentally, Marchena is in the northern part of the Archipelago and not anywhere near Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal.

The Strange Death of Dr. Ritter

The strangeness did not end there. In November of the same year, Dr. Ritter died, apparently of food poisoning due to eating some poorly-preserved chicken. This is odd, first of all because Ritter was a vegetarian (although apparently not a strict one). Also, he was a veteran of island living, and certainly capable of telling when some preserved chicken had gone bad. Many believed that Strauch had poisoned him, as his treatment of her had gotten much worse. According to Margret Wittmer, Ritter himself blamed Strauch: Wittmer wrote that he cursed her in his dying words.

Unsolved Mysteries

Three dead, two missing over the course of a few months. "The Galapagos Affair" as it came to be known is a mystery that has puzzled historians and visitors to the islands ever since. None of the mysteries have been solved: the Baroness and Philippson never turned up, Dr. Ritter's death is officially an accident and no one has any clue how Nuggerud and Lorenz got to Marchena. The Wittmers remained on the islands and became wealthy years later when tourism boomed: their descendants still own valuable land and businesses there. Dore Strauch returned to Germany and wrote a book, fascinating not only for the sordid tales of the Galapagos affair but for its look at the hard life of the early settlers.

There will likely never be any real answers. Margret Wittmer, last of those who really knew what happened, stuck to her story about the Baroness going to Tahiti until her own death in 2000. Wittmer often hinted that she knew more than she was telling, but it's hard to know if she really did or if she just enjoyed tantalizing tourists with hints and innuendos. Strauch's book doesn't shed much light on things: she is adamant that Lorenz killed the Baroness and Philippson but has no proof other than her own (and supposedly Dr. Ritter's) gut feelings.

If you're interested in learning more (or solving the mystery yourself!) some of the links below will take you to online versions of first-hand accounts, such as Strauch's book or interviews with the Wittmers.

Source:

Boyce, Barry. A Traveler's Guide to the Galapagos Islands. San Juan Bautista: Galapagos Travel, 1994.

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