Carl Tanzler and His Captive Corpse Bride

Carl Tanzler and His Captive Corpse Bride

Carl Tanzler and Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos

This is not a love story. As much as people want to paint it as such, it’s really a tale of obsession, grave desecration, body snatching, and necrophilia. It’s a tale about a man who, despite the girl of his dreams being categorically uninterested in his advances – and dead – decided to build a life for them. Even after she died, she couldn’t escape him.

This is the story of Carl Tanzler and Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, his corpse bride.

Carl Tanzler

Carl Tanzler was born in Dresden, Germany on February 8, 1877. His name at birth was Karl Tänzler or Georg Karl Tänzler, which is listed on his German marriage certificate. The man went by many variations of this name throughout his life; on his US citizenship papers, he is Carl Tanzler von Cosel, and some of his hospital records are signed as “Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel” – he had no claim to the title of Count, and it’s assumed that he simply used this moniker to sound more important and mysterious. For clarity of this article, we are going to refer to him as Carl Tanzler, which appeared on his death certificate.

He grew up in Imperial Germany but travelled to Australia at some point before WWI. According to some reports, he was a prisoner of war at the Trial Bay Gaol, and built a sailboat to escape; however, there is little evidence to prove or disprove these claims. He would later say that he had also travelled to India at some point, did electrical work, owned boats and a small island, and had built a plane that could cross oceans; none of these claims have been substantiated. In 1920, he returned to Germany and married a woman named Doris Schäfer. They had two children together; Ayesha, who was born in 1922, and Clarista, who was born in 1924. Clarista later died of Diptheria at the age of 10. 

Carl Tanzler

Tanzler left Germany for the United States in 1926, entering Florida via Cuba. He settled in a town called Zephyrhills, where his sister was living at the time. A few months later, his wife and daughters joined him, but he decided to abandon them for unknown reasons in 1927. He ended up working as a radiology technician at the US Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida. He would later claim that he was a doctor with nine separate university diplomas, but in reality, he didn’t even have one.

Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos

Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos – who went by Elena – was born on July 31, 1909. She was a local to Key West, the daughter of a local Cuban American cigar maker named Francisco Hoyos and his wife, Aurora Milagro. She was the middle child of three daughters; she had an older sister named Florinda and a younger sister named Celia. She was known as a local beauty.

Elena de Hoyos

A polaroid photo of Elena, signed by Tanzler.

On February 18, 1926, she married a man named Luis Mesa, but he left her shortly after she suffered a miscarriage. She was still legally married to Mesa at the time of her death.

Tanzler met Elena on April 22, 1930, while working as a radiologic technician (NOT a doctor, as he would later claim to the de Hoyos family)  at the US Marine Hospital. Tanzler claimed that, throughout his childhood, he was visited by one of his ancestors, a woman he called Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel. This ancestor claimed to show him his future in visions – one of these visions included his supposed “true love”, a beautiful, dark-haired woman. Tanzler immediately assumed that Elena was this mysterious true love and became fixated on her. Notably, Tanzler was 53 at the time, and Elena was only 21. 

Carl Tanzler and Elena de Hoyos

A photo of Carl and Elena together, presumably taken shortly before her death.

Unfortunately, Elena was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which was almost always fatal at the time. Tanzler claimed to be a doctor (he was not) and decided that it was his duty to cure Elena of her illness. He gave her a variety of drug cocktails, used X-rays on her, and even electrocuted her with equipment that he moved into her family’s home. He was also professing his love for her constantly during this period, and showering her with gifts. There is no evidence that she reciprocated any of these feelings, but Tanzler was not deterred.

Elena succumbed to the illness on October 25, 1931, at the age of 22. This should have been the end; her family should have buried her, mourned her, and gone on with their lives. Unfortunately, for Tanzler, it was just the beginning. 

Tanzler immediately wanted to take control of Elena’s body after her death. Firstly, he immediately had a death mask made of her face. He was concerned about what would happen to her if she were buried underground, especially about the idea that water could get into the coffin. To take care of this problem, he convinced her family to let him pay for her funeral and commission an aboveground mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery. Notably, he was the only one who had a key to this mausoleum. He also insisted that Elena be interred in an airtight casket with an incubation tank full of formaldehyde to prevent her body from decaying. Elena’s family believed that he was simply overcome with a doctor’s grief over not being able to save his patient, and thus allowed him to do all of this.

Grave of Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos

The original mausoleum that Tanzler had built especially for Elena.

According to witness reports, Tanzler visited Elena in the mausoleum every night, sitting by her and playing one of her favourite Spanish songs. He would later say that her spirit would come to him when he played this song and that she often asked him to remove her from her grave. This routine would continue for 2 years. 

In April 1933, close to the 2-year anniversary of Elena’s death, Tanzler decided that he was going to take Elena home with him. He crept into the cemetery in the middle of the night and removed her body from the mausoleum. He used a toy wagon to transport her back to his home. 

Tanzler's home

The small house where Tanzler lived with Elena’s body for 7 years.

Reportedly, Tanzler’s plan was this: he was going to transport Elena’s body up to space with an aircraft that he was in the process of building, where he believed that the radiation would resurrect her. But while he worked on his so-called spaceship, he had to figure out a way to keep Elena from decomposing. It had been two years since her death by this point, so she had already degraded significantly. 

Carl Tanzler's airship

The “airship” that Tanzler was building to take Elena up to space so that the radiation could resurrect her.

Tanzler embarked on a truly horrifying process of preserving Elena’s remains. He began by wiring her bones together with piano wire. He removed her internal organs and stuffed her abdominal cavity with rags to keep her form. As her skin decomposed, he would replace it with a mixture of silk that he’d soaked in wax and plaster of Paris. When her hair fell out, he gathered it up and fashioned a crude wig from it, also using hair that he’d obtained from Elena’s mother to do this. He replaced her eyes with glass ones and made her face up with cosmetics. He would douse the body in perfume and disinfectant to mask the odours of decomposition. Most horrifically, he inserted a paper tube in her vaginal area, presumably so that he could engage in necrophilia with her corpse.

While he was doing all of this, he lived with Elena’s body as though she were his wife. He would dress her, bathe her, make up her face, and move her around his house as though she were alive. He would play music and sing for her late into the night; on one occasion, he was caught dancing with her in front of an open window. He even slept in the bed next to her every night. He lived like this for seven years before anyone thought that something could be wrong.

Elena de Hoyos post-mortem

Elena’s body after Tanzler’s tampering.

In October of 1940, Florinda de Hoyos, Elena’s older sister, began to catch on that something wasn’t right with Tanzler. People had noticed that he’d stopped visiting Elena’s mausoleum for some time, and rumours were circling that he was sleeping with her disinterred body. His neighbours also noticed that he was constantly buying women’s clothing and perfume.  Florinda confronted Tanzler at his home; according to some reports, she demanded that he take her back to the Key West Cemetery and open the mausoleum so that she could see for herself that her sister was still there. Tanzler coolly replied that she didn’t need to go to the cemetery to see her sister anymore – Elena was right upstairs. Florinda went upstairs and found the horribly preserved body of her younger sister, lying in Tanzler’s bed, dressed in a wedding dress. Florinda, understandably horrified, contacted authorities, who seized the body and arrested Tanzler.

Carl Tanzler newspaper clipping

Coverage of the case in a Key West newspaper, featuring a photo of Florinda. Note the sympathetic tone of the lower headline.

Physicians and pathologists conducted an examination of Elena’s remains shortly after she was recovered, slowly peeling back the layers and layers of Tanzler’s work to reveal what remained of her body underneath. After the examination, her body was put on display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, where as many as 6800 people went to see it. 

Elena de Hoyos on display

Elena’s corpse was kept in the funeral home for public viewing after she was recovered from Tanzler.

Tanzler was charged with “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization.” He was examined by psychiatrists and deemed sane and mentally fit to stand trial, but the charges were dropped after a preliminary hearing on October 9, 1940, at the Monroe County Courthouse. Tanzler escaped prosecution because he’d gotten away with his crime for so long – the statute of limitations had expired. Incredibly, once he was released, he asked authorities when he could “have his wife’s body back.” Authorities refused to return Elena’s remains to Tanzler and instead returned her to the Key West Cemetery. She was buried in an unmarked grave to prevent Tanzler or others from disinterring her again. Enraged, Tanzler set a bomb off at her former mausoleum, destroying the structure.

Tanzler faded into relative obscurity after Elena’s body was taken from him. He moved back to Zephyrhills, Florida in 1944 and wrote an autobiography that was published in Fantastic Adventures, a pulp magazine, in 1947. He reconnected with his wife Doris, and she helped support him in his last years of life. 

He wasn’t going to let the authorities stop him from continuing his obsession with Elena, however. He was still in possession of the death mask that he’d had made shortly after she’d died, and he used that to create a life-sized replica of her. He was discovered dead in its arms on July 3, 1952, at the age of 75. His last diary entry read, “Human jealousy has robbed me of the body of my Elena, yet divine happiness is flowing through me for she has survived death. Forever and ever, she is with me.” 

Some reports have stated that he either managed to switch the bodies or had Elena’s remains covertly returned to his possession and that the doll he was found with was the real Elena. However, these claims are unsubstantiated, and we can only hope that they aren’t correct. 

Carl Tanzler and Elena de Hoyos art piece

An art piece by History Bones depicting Carl Tanzler and Elena de Hoyos together in death.

The case drew a lot of attention from the media at the time and was a public sensation. In a sick twist of events, many members of the public sympathized with Tanzler, and some even considered it an eccentric “love story.” Local schools would even let out early to allow schoolchildren to view the body. 

schoolchildren viewing Elena de Hoyos' corpse

Children posing behind the body of Elena, on display. She was viewed by thousands of people before her family finally laid her to rest.

The Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum in Key West has an exhibit recreating Elena’s corpse being handled by Tanzler. Additionally, portions of the original memorial plaque that he commissioned for her mausoleum have been reassembled after the bombing and are on display at the Martello Gallery-Key West Art and Historical Museum.

Elena de Hoyos Original Grave Marker

The original grave marker from Elena’s mausoleum, reassembled after Tanzler bombed it.

The macabre story has inspired numerous pop culture mentions. The story has inspired two albums: The Secret of Elena’s Tomb by And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead (2003) and Von Cosel by Sleep Station. It’s also inspired episodes of two hit TV Shows. Season 3, Episode 9 of Fringe depicts a man stealing organs from donor recipients to attempt to resurrect his dead wife. A 2014 episode of The Blacklist involves a smuggler mailing corpses as “mail order brides”, and the remains recovered from his headquarters closely resemble Elena’s corpse after she was taken from Tanzler.

Fringe Season 3 Episode 9: Marionette

A screencap from Season 3 Episode 9 of “Fringe”, where a deranged doctor steals his dead wife’s donated organs back to attempt to resurrect her.

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