The Gruesome Story of Carl Tanzler and His Corpse Bride

Carl Tanzler or sometimes Count Carl von Cosel was a German-born radiologist at the United States Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida who developed a morbid obsession for a young Cuban-American tuberculosis patient, Elena Milagro “Helen” de Hoyos, that carried on well after Hoyos died.

In 1933, almost two years after her death, Tanzler removed Hoyos’ body from its tomb, and lived with the corpse at his home for seven years until its discovery by Hoyos’ relatives and authorities in 1940.

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The love of his life

During his childhood in Germany, and later, while traveling briefly in Genoa, Italy, Tanzler claimed to have been visited by visions of a dead ancestor, Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel, who revealed the face of his true love, an exotic dark-haired woman, to him.

On April 22, 1930, while working at the Marine Hospital in Key West, Tanzler met Maria Elena Milagro “Helen” de Hoyos (1909–1931), a local Cuban-American woman who had been brought to the hospital for an examination by her mother.

Tanzler immediately recognized her as the beautiful dark-haired woman that had been revealed to him in his earlier “visions.” By all accounts, Hoyos was viewed as a local beauty in Key West.

On February 18, 1926, Hoyos married Luis Mesa (1908–?), the son of Caridad and Isaac Mesa. Luis left Hoyos shortly after Hoyos miscarried the couples’ child, and moved to Miami.

Carl Tanzler
Carl Tanzler

Hoyos was legally married to Mesa at the time of her death. Hoyos was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis, a typically fatal disease at the time, that eventually claimed the lives of almost her entire immediate family.

Tanzler, with his self-professed medical “knowledge,” attempted to treat and cure Hoyos with a variety of medicines, as well as x-ray and electrical equipment, that were brought to the Hoyos’ home. Tanzler showered Hoyos with gifts of jewelry and clothing, and allegedly professed his love to her.

Despite Tanzler’s best efforts, Hoyos died of terminal tuberculosis at her parent’s home in Key West on October 25, 1931. Following Hoyos’ funeral, which Tanzler paid for, and with the permission of her family, Tanzler commissioned the construction of an above ground mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery that he visited almost every night.

The Nasty Details

In April, 1933, Tanzler removed Hoyos’ body from the mausoleum, carted it through the cemetery after dark on a toy wagon, and transported it to his home. He reportedly said that Elena’s spirit would come to him when he would sit by her grave and sing a Spanish song, he also says she would tell him to take her from the grave.

Tanzler attached the corpse’s bones together with wire and coat hangers, and fitted the face with glass eyes. As the skin of the corpse decomposed, Tanzler replaced it with silk cloth soaked in wax and plaster of paris.

As the hair fell out of the decomposing scalp, Tanzler fashioned a wig from Hoyos’ hair that had been collected by her mother and given to Tanzler not long after her burial in 1931.

Mummified Maria Milagro De Hoyos

Tanzler filled the corpse’s abdominal and chest cavity with rags to keep the original form, dressed Hoyos’ remains in stockings, jewelry, and gloves, and kept the body in his bed. Tanzler also used copious amounts of perfume, disinfectants, and preserving agents, to mask the odor and forestall the effects of the corpse’s decomposition.

In October, 1940, Elena’s sister Florinda heard rumors of Tanzler sleeping with the disinterred body of her sister, and confronted Tanzler at his home, where Hoyos’ body was eventually discovered.

Florinda notified the authorities, and Tanzler was arrested and detained. Tanzler was psychiatrically examined, and found mentally competent to stand trial on the charge of “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization.”

After a preliminary hearing on October 9, 1940 at the Monroe County Courthouse in Key West, Tanzler was held to answer on the charge, but the case was eventually dropped and he was released, as the statute of limitations for the crime had expired.

Shortly after the corpse’s discovery by authorities, Hoyos’ body was examined by physicians and pathologists, and put on public display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, where it was viewed by as many as 6,800 people. Hoyos’ body was eventually returned to the Key West Cemetery where the remains were buried in an unmarked grave, in a secret location, to prevent further tampering.

Tanzer in Later Life

In 1944, Tanzler moved to Pasco County, Florida close to Zephyrhills, Florida, where he wrote an autobiography that appeared in the pulp publication, Fantastic Adventures, in 1947.

His home was near his wife Doris, who apparently helped to support Tanzler in his later years. Tanzler received United States citizenship in 1950 in Tampa.

Separated from his obsession, Tanzler used a death mask to create a life-sized effigy of Hoyos, and lived with it until his death on July 3, 1952. His body was discovered on the floor of his home three weeks after his death. He died under the name “Carl Tanzler”.

It has been recounted that Tanzler was found in the arms of the Hoyos effigy upon discovery of his corpse, but his obituary reported that he died on the floor behind one of his organs. The obituary recounted: “a metal cylinder on a shelf above a table in it wrapped in silken cloth and a robe was a waxen image”.

It has also been written that Tanzler had the bodies switched (or that Hoyos’ remains were secretly returned to him), and that he died with the real body of Elena. There is no evidence that the waxen effigy found in his house at the time of his death contained bones, or any other human material.

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