Carl Tanzler von Cosel was a microbiologist and bacteriologist at the United States Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida. In 1931, he treated a tuberculosis patient – the Cuban-American girl Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos and felt obsessively in love with her.
He did everything that he could to save her life but she died despite all of his efforts. Tanzler’s love and obsession remained.
Tanzler was born in 1877, in Dresden, Germany. There are reports about him living in Australia in the 1910s where he went to study the weather patterns. Instead, he got interested in engineering and electrical work so he bought a property and remained there until the outbreak of WWI.
When the war started he was placed in a concentration camp alone with many officers who served in India and China at the time. That was an order from the British military authorities who kept them as prisoners of war or, as stated then, for safe keeping.
After the war, he went back to Germany where he lived with his mother for three years. He married around 1920 and had two daughters. The younger one died of diphtheria at the age of ten. Tanzler sailed to Havana, Cuba from where he was able to enter the States.
He had settled in Flordia where his sister lived and then his family joined him. In the following year, he left his family in Zephyrhills and accepted a job as a radiologic technologist at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida.
While working there in 1930 he met the 22-year-old Maria Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos. Helen was a local Cuban-American beauty and Tanzler fell in love with her. He had claimed that during his childhood he had visions of Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel – an exotic dark-haired woman, his true love. Helen had been a realistic resemblance.
Hoyos was legally married but her husband left her after her miscarriage. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis – a disease of which almost all her family died. At the time, there was no cure for it but Tanzler tried to save her with a variety of medicines.
He visited Hoyos every day in the home of her parents and brought her gifts such as expensive jewelry and clothes. He confessed to her about being madly in love with her but there is no evidence that she responded back with any kind of affection.
No matter how inventive Tanzler was and how desperately he tried to save Hoyos, she died after a few months.
Tanzler paid for her funeral and got the permission from her parents to build her a mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery.
He visited the mausoleum every evening and in 1933 removed the body from there and transported it to his home.
He claimed that he had visions of Helen telling him to take her out of the grave. He attached the corpse’s bones together with wire and coat hangers.
As the skin of the corpse decomposed, Tanzler replaced it with silk cloth soaked in wax. As the hair fell out of the decomposing scalp, Tanzler fashioned a wig from Hoyos’s hair that had been collected by her mother and given to Tanzler soon after her burial.
He had filled the abdominal and chest cavity with rags to save the original form and then put a dress on the remains and gloves on the hands.
He had also put jewelry on the body and kept it in 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 1940, rumors spread that Tanzler was sleeping with a corpse, so Helen’s sister went to his home and discovered the body. Tanzler was arrested and detained. His psychological state was examined but concluded as mentally competent.
The corpse was examined by physicians and pathologists. A paper tube had been revealed, which had been previously installed in the corpse’s vagina, allowing Tanzler to have sex with the corpse.
The body was later put on public display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, where it was viewed by as many as 6,800 people.
Tanzler spent his last years alone, only with a life-sized effigy with a death mask of Hoyos. He died in 1952 and was discovered in his home three weeks after his death.