THEN CAME THE DEVIL
A True Story of Sex, Murder, and Utopia at the Dawn of World War II
Los Angeles, November 1934
The wire reports traveled 3,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean and described a gruesome scene: Two bodies were found on Marchena, a bleak and barren speck of land in the northern part of the Galapagos Islands. Over the course of several months the searing tropical sun had mummified the corpses and eroded their features. Both lay on their backs. The larger one measured about six feet and had a tuft of brown hair sprouting from its skull. Parts of the body in touch with the ground were punctured with worm holes. The other, presumed to be a woman, was a foot shorter and very slight and dressed in torn scraps of lingerie. The desiccated skin of the face had affixed itself so tightly to the bones that the skull looked encased in parchment. Neither body wore shoes. Faded footprints trailed across the chalky shore, as though someone had been pacing just before death came.
Hundreds of burnt matches and a pristine pile of wood suggested they had failed in their efforts to start a fire. The head of a seal, the body of another, and scaley strips of iguana flesh served as a final meal. The pair had died of thirst; there was no fresh water to be found on Marchena, covered almost entirely with lava rock. A few personal effects had scattered beneath their overturned skiff: a passport, baby clothes, several photographs, a cache of letters. The two fishermen who had discovered the bodies unsealed the letters and read them all. One described the contents as “a hell of horror.” The other confessed that they inspired nightmares.
A few of the letters were addressed to George Allan Hancock, a Los Angeles oil millionaire and avid explorer who, along with preeminent scientists from across the country, had made several
excursions to the Galapagos. Inspired by Charles Darwin and, more recently, the American naturalist William Beebe, Hancock and his colleagues sailed to the islands in search of exotic wildlife but found themselves equally intrigued by the humans they encountered. Over the past five years, seven adventurers had settled on the southern island of Floreana, 112 miles South of Marchena, hoping to create a Utopia: an egotistical doctor and his long-suffering patient; a struggling war veteran and his pregnant wife; and, finally, a flamboyant Viennese noblewoman with two lovers by her side and a pearl-handled revolver on her hip. Hancock, well acquainted with all of them, had long been aware of escalating tensions on the island. There had been violent battles, a suspicious shooting, fantasies and threats of murder. A recent letter from the doctor hinted at further ominous events: “We hope you will come once more to the island. Then I will tell you what I cannot write, for I have no proof of it.”
By the time Hancock and his crew anchored again at Floreana, death had also visited that island.