Happy Halloween, FloReaders! Today, I’m going to share a story that is usually featured by other, less interesting blogs and news outlets during Valentine’s Day. You’ll soon learn why this is a problem. Be warned, this story features some graphic material. I’ve kept it pretty clean…definitely PG-13.
Like many of the most unusual Florida stories, this one starts in a Key West Hospital.
In 1930, Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the Marine Hospital in Key West. She died on October 25, 1931 at the age of 22. Over the next nine years, her corpse was in the possession of a man thirty-two years her senior, and deeply obsessed with her. A man she barely knew. A man who, not surprisingly, faced no consequences for his actions.
CALL ME COUNT
Carl Tanzler moved to the U.S. from Germany in 1926, and settled in Zephyrhills with his wife and two daughters. The next year he took a job as an x-ray technician at a Key West Marine Hospital under the name Carl von Cosel.
In the Keys, he told people to call him Count von Cosel, and by his own accounts, he was a very interesting man: he lived in a castle in Germany, he had nine degrees, he was a grand inventor, he was a high-ranking member of the German military as both a submariner and pilot, and he was building an airplane. All of these claims were made by Tanzler/von Cosel, and most remain unverified; his title of Count was verifiably self-proclaimed.
He was indeed a smart man, well-read in many subjects, but he probably didn’t have much real schooling in the fields he practiced, including medicine. But we do know that he was a rich man in Key West at a time when almost any amount of money made you wealthy.
LOOKING FOR LOVE IN A VERY WRONG PLACE
The Count was in search of his soulmate, who apparently was not his wife. There was another woman who, thirty years before his move to the U.S., visited him as an apparition alongside the ghost of his dead ancestor. He knew this beautiful, dark-haired woman to be his bride-to-be.
Three decades later, when Elena de Hoyos visited the hospital for her tuberculosis screening, the Count recognized her as the apparition in corporeal form (even though the ‘visit’ occurred a decade before Elena’s birth). This was their first meeting, and he immediately fell in love.
Meanwhile, de Hoyos was most likely grappling with the distress of a confirmed diagnosis of tuberculosis, still an incurable disease at the time. Devastated and creepily overprotective, the Count decided that he was going to save her life and, being a self-proclaimed master of invention, he would use methods of his own invention. He would do this at no cost to the de Hoyos family. His primary method was electrocution.
Throughout the treatment, the Count claimed that he would save de Hoyos, marry her, and fly her off in the plane he was building himself. She made it abundantly clear that she was not at all interested in him.
Unsurprisingly, the Count’s methods failed and Elena de Hoyos died. But he didn’t let death get in the way of his one-sided relationship. With an unhealthy sense of ownership and responsibility over her, the Count paid for Elena’s funeral, and even chose the flowers and casket. After the burial, he visited her grave every day.
Two years later, and still harboring an unsettling amount of responsibility over her, the Count demanded that a mausoleum be built for Elena so that the groundwater wouldn’t damage her remains. Once the casket was exhumed for construction of the mausoleum, the count paid off the funeral director so he could spend time with her corpse.
THE NEXT STEP
If he wasn’t working at the hospital, the Count was at the cemetery with Elena’s corpse. He caressed its skin, he talked to it, and after some time, it began to speak back to him. The Count reasoned that if she could talk, she wasn’t dead. So, he stole the casket back to his home, removed the body from it, and threw the casket into the ocean.
More than two years had already passed since Elena’s death and her body had shown all the normal signs of decomposition. Rigor mortis had set in, leaving her limbs stiffened in unnatural positions. The Count began to rebuild her while also working to develop a more effective embalming method. Over the next few years, her body was ‘reinvigorated’ with wax, plaster, and silk, cleaned with over six bars of soap daily, and decontorted with wires and pulleys to counteract the rigor. He gave the corpse food and wine, bought it a wedding dress, shared a bed with it. For years. In return, she looked at him, smiled at him, took breaths, and got more lifelike by the day.
Suspicions grew when people noticed a change in the Count’s behavior: he was no longer spending time in the de Hoyos mausoleum. Elena’s sister, already suspecting that the mausoleum was empty, demanded the Count show her the body of her sister. He acquiesced and brought her to his house, where she saw her sister–now dead for nine years—clad in a blue silk robe, lying in the Count’s bed.
Count Carl von Cosel was promptly arrested.
In the aftermath of his arrest, von Cosel said that he was fully aware that Elena had been dead for almost a decade. He was merely fulfilling a promise he made to take care of her, keeping her safe until he could find a way to bring her back to life.
HOW DO PEOPLE NOT SEE THIS AS A PROBLEM?
The public was oddly supportive of the Count after his arrest and charge of “malicious and wonton disfigurement of a burial vault.” The general sentiment was that he had not committed a crime, that was trying to help, to resurrect a pretty girl who died too soon, that he was ‘preserving’ a great love (which, you recall, was never reciprocated).
Some researchers speculate that the state of global politics drove people to seek a positive spin to a story after tens of millions were left dead in the wake of World War II. I can empathize with the need to find positivity in spite of the political realities of our time, but I’m not sure I would look for it in a corpsenapping case.
A high-profile lawyer offered to defend the Count for free, but apparently this wasn’t necessary. He argued that he was simply following through on an (unwanted) promise he made to take care of Elena. He even passed a “professional” psychiatric evaluation. The judge decided to do nothing, and the Count was free.
The de Hoyos family even failed to get sympathy from the local police. After Elena’s body was recovered, she was neither returned to her family nor reburied. Instead, it was put on public display in the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, a spectacle that drew over 6,800 viewers. At this time, the population of Key West approached 13,000, and access to the island was hindered by the catastrophic 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.
When the authorities finally decided to rebury Elena’s body, the responsibility was left to the Key West police. To keep it safe, only three Key West police officers had knowledge of the interment location. In another stunning example of people’s inability to sympathize with the victims, knowledge of her burial site was not shared with the de Hoyos family.
The Count died under the name Carl Tanzler in Pasco County in 1952, aged 75. His body was found in his home three weeks after his death, alongside a life-sized wax effigy of Elena’s body complete with her death mask.
KEY WEST IS KEY WEST IS KEY WEST
Key West is one of the weirder cities in what is generally regarded as the weirdest state in the Union. In its weirdness, Florida doesn’t discriminate; anyone can move to Florida become Florida Man. You don’t need to be a native. Carl Tanzler certainly qualifies.
But what’s even weirder is the general consensus–both at the time of the events and today–that the actions of the posthumous suitor were simply those of a hopeless romantic, and not a creepy old corpse-defiling stalker. Numerous articles and books have been written on this “relationship” and they often carry unsettlingly cute themes and titles like “undying/immortal love,” or “the passion that defied death,” a “strange love story,” or “true love never dies,” and “macabre romance;” the Miami Herald even published an article in 2018 titled “Key West’s most romantic legend involves grave robbing and a mummified corpse. Happy Valentine’s Day.” You’ll find it in their “Things To Do” section.
If by “romantic legend” they mean “crazed old hospital worker obsesses over patient, steals her corpse, and shares a bed with it for seven years” then yeah, I guess they hit the nail on the head.
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