Carl Tanzler, aka Count Carl von Cosel, was a man of many talents. The German-born radiologist (who was most definitely not a count) claimed to have nine university degrees, be a former submarine captain, and an accomplished inventor. In reality, he was an eccentric and lonely man who had abandoned his wife and children to work in the United States Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida.
After taking the job at the hospital in 1927, Carl maintained a relatively low profile and mostly kept to himself. That is, until he met Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos. When the 21-year-old Cuban beauty came in for an examination, Carl knew immediately that Hoyos was the woman of his dreams — literally. For years, Carl had been plagued by visions of a beautiful dark-haired woman who was destined to be the love of his life. Unfortunately for Elena, Carl assumed she was this apparition in human form.
Carl’s examination yielded a grim prognosis, and Hoyos was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a highly fatal disease at the time. However, now that Carl had found his soulmate, he was determined to save her life. Sparing zero expense and displaying a total irreverence for hospital authority, Carl set out to find a miracle cure for his Elena. He administered homemade specialty tonics and medicines, illegally brought x-ray and electrical equipment to the Hoyos’ house for home treatments, all while showering Elena with copious gifts and professing his love.
However, despite Tanzler’s best efforts, she died of complications from her disease on October 25, 1931. Tanzler insisted on paying out of pocket for Elena to be buried in an expensive stone mausoleum, and with the approval of her family he hired a mortician to clean and fix up her body before placing it in the tomb. One fact her family remained ignorant of was that Tanzler was the only person with a key to the mausoleum.
Elena’s Tomb (via Florida Keys Public Library)
After two years of visiting Elena’s mausoleum nightly and generally creeping everyone out with his dead patient obsession, Tanzler was fired from his job and ceased going to the Elena’s final resting place, which Hoyos’ family found rather odd, considering his behavior.
Little did they know, Tanzler was far from satisfied with his nightly visits. He needed more quality time with his decaying dream girl, so he put Elena’s rapidly decomposing carcass in a toy wagon and transported it to a makeshift lab he had fashioned inside of an old airplane. Using plaster of Paris, wires, mortician’s wax, and glass eyes, Tanzler brought Elena “back to life,” and proceeded to take her to his home where the pair shared a marital bed.
Elena’s Airship (via Florida Keys Public Libraries)
Carl’s home and laboratory(via Florida Keys Public Library)
Over the years, Tanzler kept Elena “alive” using wire hangers to preserve her frame, stuffing her abdominal cavity with rags, routinely reapplying wax to her face, replacing her decaying scalp with real hair, and constantly dousing her in disinfectants and oils to mask the rotting smell of her body. While attending to the physical demands of his moldering bride, Carl attended to her material needs as well, purchasing her clothing and perfume, and even installing a curtained cloth veil for privacy on the bed they shared (apparently feminine modesty was a prerogative for a man who routinely saw Elena’s innards). This domestic Ed Gein’s style bliss went on for seven years.
Everything was going great, until people inevitably started asking questions. The combination of Carl’s habit of routinely buying women’s clothing, his absence from the mausoleum, and a local boy’s sighting of him through a window dancing with what appeared to be a giant doll, aroused some serious suspicion. The rumors began to swirl that Tanzler was keeping Elena in his house.
In October of 1940, Elena’s sister confronted Tanzler at his home. He allowed her inside where, to her horror, she was met with what appeared to be a wax dummy of her sister (if only). Elena’s sister alerted the authorities, which seized the “doll,” only to discover it was actually Elena’s rotted corpse. Not only that, but while performing an autopsy on Elena’s remains, coroners discovered that among the multiple body parts Tanzler had reconstructed, he had inserted a paper tube inside her to serve as a makeshift vagina. Whether or not Tanzler fully consummated with his real life corpse bride is a subject of public debate, however, it’s pretty clear Elena wouldn’t have been into any of this regardless.
Carl’s “Doll” (via Wikimedia)
Tanzler was arrested and stood trial for “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization.” The trial became a media sensation, and surprisingly the majority of the public, especially women, supported Tanzler, finding him to be an eccentric romantic.
While on the stand, Carl claimed he planned to use an airship to take Hoyos, “high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form,” which made about as much sense as anything else during the hearing. Tanzler was eventually cleared since the statute of limitations on his crimes had expired.
Tanzler during his trial (via Florida Keys Public Library)
However, since the trial had garnered so much media attention, and because this took place in Florida, Elena’s body was put on public display at a local funeral home where thousands of people got to view her disturbing form. After the gawking was over, Elena was finally reburied in an unmarked grave so that she could rest in peace without any further romantic shenanigans.
As for Carl Tanzler, after asking for Elena’s body back (a ballsy request that was obviously denied), he lived the rest of his days out without further incident, although with a life-size effigy made from Elena’s death mask as a companion,. Cleary, Nicholas Sparks has nothing on the undying romance of Carl Tanzler.
Elena’s body on display (via Florida Public Library)