Carl Tanzler’s Terrifying, Deadly Obsession

In 1930, 53-year-old Carl Tanzler fell in love with 21-year-old Elena de Hoyos who was dying of tuberculosis in a Florida hospital. 

Convinced that this young woman was the love of his life, Carl Tanzler did everything he could to save her. He tried everything from homemade concoctions to newfangled medical equipment. 

When his efforts failed, he made sure that she would remain with him forever… no matter that Elena de Hoyos was already dead. This is the disturbing story of Carl Tanzler, the man who loved a corpse and went to eerie lengths to keep her by his side.

Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel at his building on Flagler Av. C 1940. From the DeWolfe and Wood Collection in the Otto Hirzel Scrapbook

The Death of Elena de Hoyos

In 1930, Elena de Hoyos entered the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida to be treated for tuberculosis. 

Elena’s prognosis was poor, but an X-ray technician named Carl Tanzler – who liked to go by Count Carl Von Cosel – decided to do everything he could to save the 21-year-old beauty. This was despite the fact that Carl was not a doctor. He was an X-ray technician.

During his childhood in Germany, Carl often dreamt of his true love. In these vivid visions, Carl always saw the same radiant young woman – a woman whose beauty he could not resist. 

When he ran into Elena de Hoyos in the hospital, he was convinced that the person he was looking at was the same woman who had visited him in his dreams. He showered her and her family with gifts and expensive X-ray equipment. 

He declared his love to Elena over and over again. Despite all of Tanzler’s desperate efforts, however, Elena died a few months later, at the age of 22. 

Although it’s not clear what Elena thought about Carl Tanzler, it’s worth noting that she was three decades younger than him and already legally married.

Elena’s death should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. Tanzler persuaded Elena’s family to allow him to buy a large stone mausoleum in Key West Cemetery and they agreed. A mortician then carefully prepared Elena’s body and locked her corpse inside the stone vault.

Unknown to the family, her body would not rest there for long.

The Count’s Eternal Love

Unknownst to the family of Elena de Hoyos, Carl Tanzler was the only person who held the key to Elena’s tomb, and he didn’t hesitate to start paying her frequent visits. For two years, Tanzler went to her grave every night to spend time with his dead love.

He would sing her Spanish songs and he asked her to marry him over and over again. To Tanzler, he was not just talking to a corpse – he was conversing with Elena’s spirit.

Eventually, that spirit requested that Carl Tanzler take her out of the mausoleum. And who was the love-struck man to deny her that request?

In April of 1933, two years after Elena died, Tanzler rolled a toy wagon over to the mausoleum. He loaded Elena’s corpse onto it and took her home with him. Once in his house, Tanzler set about preserving the body as best he could.

He used coat hangers and wire to keep her bones from falling apart. He stuffed her body with rags to prevent her torso from caving in. And he placed strips of silk cloth in places where the flesh was starting to rot away.

The smell was no doubt the biggest problem. To combat what must have been a nauseating odor, Tanzler used formaldehyde and copious amounts of perfume.

And it’s a good thing that he used so much perfume because Tanzler didn’t just keep Elena behind a glass case to admire. What Tanzler maintained with his dead love can only be described as a very intimate relationship.

He dressed her from head to toe with outfits that included jewelry and a wig. He took her out and danced with her. And he slept with her each night in his bed.

But the most disturbing of all was hands down the paper tube that Tanzler placed in Elena de Hoyos’s vagina. A sign that their relationship may have had a physical element to it.

The Discovery of “The Man Who Loved a Corpse”

Unfortunately for Tanzler, he could not keep his secret lover hidden forever. After several years, his neighbors began to suspect that something was amiss within the elderly man’s house. 

People noticed that Tanzler was buying lots of gifts – perfume, jewelry, women’s clothing – for someone, but there didn’t seem to be any woman in his life. Then a neighbor caught a glimpse of Tanzler dancing around his living room with Elena. 

At that moment, they couldn’t be completely sure what they were seeing. But it wouldn’t take much longer for the truth to come out.

It happened when Elena’s sister, Florinda, visited Tanzler and saw her sister’s corpse lying on his bed. Horrified by the revelation, Florinda called the police who promptly arrested Carl Tanzler. 

Tanzler was officially charged with grave robbing and was put on trial. You would think that a case like this would be pretty clear-cut. Especially considering that there weren’t very many ways for Elena de Hoyos’s corpse to have ended up in Carl Tanzler’s bed.

But as the trial unfolded, Tanzler received a surprising amount of public support. Despite the creepy nature of his actions, many people saw in him a kindly old man who was willing to do anything for love. 

In the end, it wouldn’t matter anyway. Carl Tanzler was eventually let go because his case had passed the statute of limitations.

The trial revealed just how deep Carl Tanlzer’s love – or obsession – for Elena de Hoyos went. At one point while taking the stand, he admitted that he planned to take her, “high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form.” Indeed, Carl Tanzler had even built an airship in his backyard for the planned journey. 

After his trial, rather than be ostracized or shunned, he seems to have lived out a peaceful, quiet life. He wrote an autobiography called The Secret of Elena’s Tomb: The Confessions of Carl Von Cosel. He later gained his United States citizenship in 1950.

Meanwhile, Elena de Hoyos’ body was moved from Tanzler’s house to a funeral home. And then taken to the Key West Cemetery where she still rests in peace in an unmarked grave. Hopefully, her body is finally safe from any other creepy suitors.

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