Freaky Friday: The Corpse Bride of Key West

Key West, Florida is home to many stories and oddities of American culture. There are many stories of the paranormal, the intriguing and the downright weird in this area of the State. One such tale is that of a German hospital worker who turned a patient into a real-life corpse bride.

Carl Tanzler, a.k.a  Count Carl Von Cosel, was born in 1877 in Dresden, Germany. Not much is known about his early life or family, except that he had one sister. He grew up in Imperial Germany, where he had an unremarkable childhood nonetheless. He had interests and hobbies such as science, astronomy and generally building and inventing things.

He made his way around the world for unknown reasons by traveling to India, Australia and Cuba and then back to Germany. On February 6, 1926, Tanzler sailed from Rotterdam to Havana, Cuba. From Havana he sailed to Zephrhills, FL, where his sister had already emigrated.

Carl was then joined by his wife Doris Anna Shafer and two daughters, Ayesha and Chrystal (who died aged 10 from an infection in her throat), and settled in Zephyrhills, Florida. Tanzler left them, however, for employment at U.S. Marine Hospital (now a permanently closed apartment building on Emma Street) in Key West.

The lonely and aging Tanzler would soon meet and fall in love with a patient named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos.

Hoyos was a 19-year-old local Cuban-American woman who had once been an entertainer. She also had already been married by age 16 to Luis Mesa. Mesa left her after she miscarried their child and he moved to Miami where he lived well into the 1970s.

Hoyos had been diagnosed by local doctors with tuberculosis. The disease was a death sentence at the time (as there was no cure or vaccine to treat it yet) and Hoyos feared for her life.

Tanzler, who by this time had changed his name to Count Carl Von Cosel,  had been hired at the hospital as a radiology technician and bacteriologist where he had claimed to have nine university degrees, be a former submarine captain and an accomplished inventor (to confirm, he didn’t have nine degrees nor was he any of those things). Despite this, he was able to convince people of his abilities and he worked as a doctor and went by Dr. Carl Von Cosel.

As Elena made her way down to his basement office, Von Cosel was quietly reading a book and looked up as he heard a soft knock on the door. He asked the person to come in and soon he was met with a shocking sight.

The girl of his dreams was right in front of him.

He had been plagued for years by visions of his “one true love”, a revelation made to him by a long-dead ancestor (supposedly) one night as a young boy vacationing in Italy. His purported ancestor, Countess Antonia Von Cosel, revealed it was a dark-haired, exotic beauty. And Hoyos fit this description like a glove.

Cosel, with his self-professed medical knowledge, attempted to treat and cure her with a variety of medicines, herbs and home-made tonics, as well as x-ray and electrical equipment, that were brought to Maria’s home (illegally). He showered her with gifts of jewelry and clothing, and professed his love to her. He even asked her to marry him several times. Though flattered, Hoyos repeatedly declined to marry him, stating she was still technically married to her first husband and was sickly. There’s no evidence she ever reciprocated his feelings.

On October 25, 1931, Hoyos died of tuberculosis at her parent’s home in Key West despite the doctor’s best efforts to save her.

The devastated man insisted on constructing an above-ground mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery with permission from Hoyos’ family. He would visit Elena at her grave every night for two years without fail. He claimed Elena’s spirit would come and serenade him with her favorite Spanish song, “La Boda Negra”.

One night in April 1933, Von Cosel crept into the cemetery and removed Elena’s body from the mausoleum, carting it out of the graveyard in a toy wagon. He took her body home with him. He said Elena had been telling him to take her out of her stone prison, to which he happily obliged to after she finally agreed to marry him and become his bride for all eternity.

For 7 years Carl slept with his corpse bride beside him in his bed after he “restored” his new bride’s body to “life”. (A simple Google search will tell you the grizzly details, for those of you that want to read about that.) He bought her clothes and perfume at the local stores. He cooked, cleaned and cared for her at all hours. One night a neighbor saw Carl through the window dancing with what looked like a life-sized doll.

Rumors made their way around town that Carl was sleeping with a dead body and Hoyos’ sister suspected what Carl was doing. Soon she visited him at this home where Hoyos’ dead body was discovered. The police were called and Von Cosel was arrested.

He was released soon after though because the statute of limitations for his crimes had expired.

Carl then asked the court if he could have Elena’s body back. The court (thankfully) denied his request.

At this, Von Cosel was so upset that he could not have his dear Elena back that he blew up her mausoleum he had paid to be constructed with dynamite.

The case became a media sensation at the time and the Count’s name became well-known in the press.

The morbidly curious people of Key West wanted to see the mad doctor’s creation, so Elena’s dead body was displayed for all to see at Dean-Lopez Funeral Home (where it was taken to be examined by pathologists and physicians). They charged people $1. As many as 6,800 people showed up to get a glimpse of the decomposing corpse.

Hoyos’ body was then later re-buried in an unmarked grave at an undisclosed location, so she may finally rest in peace without fear of Carl or the curious crowds coming to disturb her yet again.

With no money, no employment and no longer welcome, Carl decided to leave Key West.

Carl Tanzler moved back to Zephyrhills to live alone, close to his wife and daughter. She supported him for the remainder of his life.

Carl Tanzler died on July 3, 1952. His body was not found until 3 weeks after his death. Tanzler died supposedly clutching a life-sized effigy along with the deathmask he had made himself of his beloved Elena. His obituary states he was found dead behind his organ. Ironically, he was later buried in an unmarked grave himself, for fear of someone tampering with it.

Years later after Carl’s death and long after the case was closed, in 1972, the original physicians who were present during the initial autopsy of the body stated in an interview there had been evidence of Tanzler performing necrophilia with Hoyos’ decaying corpse.

Photo Credit: keyslibraries