Ah, Valentine’s Day. A day set aside specifically for the purpose of sending the sales of both Hallmark cards and antidepressants soaring. Well, I felt the time was ripe for another entry in my Wicked History series; it is a tale of love and obsession, even beyond the grave. A tale straight out of a Gothic horror movie. It is the tale of Carl Tanzler, AKA “Count Carl von Cosel”, and Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos.
*A brief note: Carl Tanzler was a man of many names. He is listed on his German marriage certificate as Georg Karl Tänzler, Carl Tanzler von Cosel on his US Citizenship papers, and Carl Tanzler on his death certificate, while he often signed his hospital records Count Carl Von Cosel. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll simply refer to him as Carl Tanzler.
Carl Tanzler was born February 8, 1877, in Dresden, Germany. In 1920 he married “Doris A.”, with whom he had two children. During his youth, he was struck with a fever, during which he claimed to have a vision of an ancestor, Countess Anna Constantia von Brockdorff, he showed him the face of his “One True Love”, a beautiful dark haired young woman. After he suffered what could have been a midlife crises, he journeyed to Australia, where he lived for 10 years. When WWI broke out, Tanzler was placed in a British concentration camp “for safe keeping” along with other Germans and Chinese. He was eventually moved to Trial Bay, a castle-like fortress on a cliff overlooking the sea. When the war ended, he set out to find his mother, whom he stayed with for three years, before at her suggestion he went America like his sister. He immigrated in 1926, sailing from Rotterdam to Cuba. From Cuba he went to Zephyrhills, Florida, where his sister now lived. Although his wife and children moved to join him, he abandoned them when he went to Key West, Florida, and took a job as a radiologic technologist at a US Marine hospital. It is here that our story takes a turn for the truly bizarre.
On April 22, 1930, Tanzler first met Maria Elena Milagro "Helen" de Hoyos, a local beauty of Cuban descent. Tanzler claimed he recognized her as his “One True Love” from his youthful vision. The daughter of a local cigar maker, Elena had been brought in by her mother for an examination; it soon came to light she was dying of tuberculosis. Tanzler, already obsessed with Elena, swore he would find a way to cure her. In the meantime, he courted her, showering her with gifts of clothing and jewelry, and professing his love to her, although it should be noted that there is no evidence that Elena returned his affections. Tanzler used a variety of medicines and equipment that he brought to the de Hoyos home. But, it was all to no avail, and on October 25, 1931, Elena passed away. Devastated, Tanzler paid for the funeral, and, with her family’s permission, had an elaborate mausoleum constructed for her. He took to visiting the crypt nightly. Tanzler, an accomplished pipe organ player, would often often serenade the grave with music and a Spanish ballad that was a favorite of Elena’s. But our story does not end here…
Tanzler later claimed he began to be plagued with visions of Elena’s ghost, when he visited the grave, begging him to take her away. In April 1933, he did just that. Tanzler removed Elena’s corpse from the tomb, carting it away on a toy wagon. He took the corpse to his home, where he tried to recreate Elena. He attatched her bones together with coat hanger wire, treating the body with preservatives, and coating it in copious amounts of deodorants and perfumes. He covered Elena’s face in a mask of silk, plaster, and wax, with glass eyes set into the sockets, and fashioned a wig out of her hair. He filled her chest and abdominal cavity with rags to keep the original form. He dressed her in fine clothes and jewelry. Finally, in the most ghoulish detail, he inserted a length of paper tubing into the vagina of the corpse to allow for intercourse. Tanzler “lived” Elena’s remains in his bed for seven years, often engaging in perverse acts of necrophilia. In October of 1940, Elena’s sister Florinda began hearing strange rumors about Tanzler, so she confronted him. Tanzler was arrested, and while in custody, Elena’s remains were put on display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, where it was viewed by about 6,800 people. The body was buried in a secret, unmarked grave while Tanzler was in captivity to prevent further tampering.
The presevered body of Elena
As for Tanzler, his crimes made him a nationwide media sensation. He received much sympathetic mail while in prison; he was seen as an eccentric romantic. Part of the reason for this was that the police decided that his behavior was so unspeakable that it should be kept unspoken (similar choices on censorship would be made in the case of Ed Gein in the 1950’s). Tanzler was found mentally competent to stand trial, although he was ultimately released as the statute of limitations on the crime had expired. In 1944, Tanzler moved to Pasco County, Florida, and where he wrote an autobiography that appeared in the pulp magazine Fantastic Adventures. He used a death mask to create a wax effigy of Elena, which he kept in his home, sometimes charging morbidly curious tourists to see it. Rumors persist to this day, however, that the wax effigy of Elena was in fact her remains, secretly returned to him. On July 3, 1952, Carl Tanzler was found dead on the floor behind one of his pipe organs. He was 75.
So Specters, if you don’t have someone to spend the 14th with, just remember, it could be worse: you could be with Carl Tanzler.
Happy Valentines, Specters...