In 1931, tuberculosis patient Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos – known to loved ones as Elena – was taken by her mother to the US Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida.
At this point in history, the prognosis of tuberculosis was not good, and it was highly unlikely that shy, young Elena would have survived even if she were to receive the best possible treatment available.
Regardless of this grim expectation, the doctor attending to her made it his mission to bring Elena back from the brink, diligently – and hopelessly – treating her with various medicines. Little could Elena’s family have known that conscientious Dr. Carl Tanzler wasn’t simply driven by his medical calling alone.
As detailed on the podcast The Lost Diaries of Elena Hoyos, Elena – a Cuban American woman who at the time of her hospitalisation was already married to a man named Luis Mesa – was a gifted singer and turned heads wherever she went. Tourists were reportedly left so astounded by her good looks that they would actually ask to take photographs with her on the street.
While growing up in Dresden, Germany, Dr. Tanzler – who claimed royal lineage and called himself himself Count von Cosel – came to believe he was regularly visited by the spirit of one of his ancestors. This aunt figure would reveal to him the woman who would one day enter his life as his one true love: a dark-haired beauty from a faraway land.
In his 1947 memoir, The Secret of Elena’s Tomb, Dr. Tanzler recalled having been left ‘spellbound’ as a boy by the vision of a face ‘so beautiful I can’t attempt to describe it’, framed with ‘long, dark, black tresses’.
When Elena, with her jet-black hair and extraordinary beauty, walked into the hospital that first day, Dr. Tanzler felt as though the woman he had met in dream form had come to life. He knew he couldn’t lose her.
Sadly, on October 25, 1931, Elena succumbed to her illness at the age of just 22, devastating the lovelorn Dr. Tanzler. Going above and beyond the duties of his profession, he had an above-ground tomb at Key West cemetery built for his beloved patient, paying for the funeral using his own money.
Elena’s grieving family were grateful for this surprising act of generosity, and gave him a lock of Elena’s raven hair as a keepsake. They had no idea that Dr. Tanzler had in his possession the one and only key to the mausoleum, which he used to ‘visit’ his sweetheart nearly every single night.
For two years, Dr. Tanzler would go to the grave of his adored Elena, singing her love songs, weeping and proposing marriage. He would later claim that Elena herself asked to be lifted from her tomb, and in April 1933, he did as she asked.
Recalling the night when he took Elena from the cemetery using a small cart, Dr. Tanzler wrote:
It was indeed like a festival among the departed, as they moved up on all sides. It was more like a great, divine wedding march for me, taking place. It could not be a funeral march for all seemed happy and joyful and interested.
Dr. Tanzler took Elena’s body home and attempted to restore the beauty that had so captivated him, channelling the fastidiousness he had once used to soothe the girl’s living suffering.
Elena had lain in her grave for two years at this point, and the face that he looked upon now was not the face of the lovely young patient he had treated so long ago.
However, death and decay had not quelled his obsession, and Dr. Tanzler set about making Elena look alive once again, fixing glass eyes into her skull and crafting a wig out of the hair so kindly gifted to him by her family.
Perfume, mortician’s wax and preserving agents masked the smell of death to a more bearable extent, and Dr. Tanzler treated Elena to lovely clothes and jewellery, just as one might with a living, breathing wife. However, as sickening photographs would later show, he never succeeded in recreating her breath-taking visage.
Elena’s putrid skin was replaced with silk, while her lifeless bones were fixed together with piano wire. Dr. Tanzler stuffed rags into Elena’s torso to help keep some sort of shape, and even inserted a cardboard tube into her vaginal cavity.
While many later presumed this was so he could have sex with the corpse, Dr. Tanzler would deny anything of the sort took place. But whether or not he was engaging in necrophilia, it was clear Dr. Tanzler kept Elena’s body intimately close, sleeping beside her in his very own bed for seven long years.
In his memoir, Dr. Tanzler recalled how he would play Elena’s favourite music on his organ ‘every evening’, feed her wine at Christmas and kiss her on the lips as she lay in the bath. Being ‘wholly absorbed’ in his secret life, he admitted he ‘hardly noticed how the months and years passed’.
Dr. Tanzler claimed that he had actually managed to revive Elena, recalling how ‘her hand pressed firmly against my face and lips as she used to do when alive, so that I should kiss it’. He also planned to take her body into space, believing radioactive particles would awaken her for good.
Of course, suspicions about what was going on in Dr. Tanzler’s home inevitably sparked local gossip, especially after a young boy spotted the unconventional doctor dancing with a ‘giant doll’ in front of his parlour window.
Eventually, dark rumours reached the ears of Elena’s surviving family, and one day her sister Florinda decided to figure out what was going on, once and for all.
Once inside Dr. Tanzler’s home, Florinda was introduced to what she at first believed to be an eerie, life-size effigy of her long-dead sister.
This would have been an alarming enough sight for anyone, but the reality was of course so much worse. One can only imagine how Florinda felt once the realisation of her sister’s macabre afterlife set in.
Police were informed and Dr Tanzler was finally arrested for ‘wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorisation’. Following a psychological examination, he was found fit to stand trial for his crimes.
Nine years after her family first mourned her, Elena was given a second funeral, her remains buried in a secret location in the hope that her eternal rest would never again be so grotesquely disturbed.
Before her burial, Elena’s corpse was displayed at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, with more than 6,850 people turning up to view the spectacle. Children in local schools were even let out early so that they might catch a glimpse.
As per Sinister Isles, some decades later, a witness to the gruesome display – who had been just 10 years old at the time – revealed that the memory had continued to haunt him throughout his adult life:
I have never been able to forget this vision. She didn’t even look like a human anymore. So much reconstruction and decay. It was the scariest thing I had ever seen.
Her face was a questionable white that looked more like a wax dummy than a woman’s face. And she had horrible glass eyes, black and fixed. I still dream of this show.
As unsettling as modern readers may find Dr. Tanzler’s behaviour, there was a surprising amount of public sympathy for him at the time, with many regarding him as an oddball ‘eccentric romantic’ rather than a deceitful criminal.
This tragic tale of undying love persisted despite, by all accounts, Dr. Tanzler’s affection for Elena being anything but reciprocated. In life, the young woman had politely rejected countless proposals from the doctor, who was by this point in his 50s.
Florinda told the Miami Herald at the time that her sister had ‘never loved’ Dr. Tanzler and was only nice to him ‘because my mother told her she should be kind to those who were kind to her’:
She looked upon von Cosel as a grandfather. And when he proposed marriage, she always told him, ‘You are too old. Why, you are old enough to be my grandfather. What’s more, I do not love you’. He became so persistent that we asked him to stay away from the house.
The grief-stricken romantic angle becomes further complicated by the fact that Dr. Tanzler was himself technically married at the time he met and fell for Elena, having left his wife and children behind in Zephyrhills back in 1927.
After appearing before a grand jury, charges against Dr. Tanzler were ultimately dropped due to the statute of limitations, and he was allowed to walk free.
As he left the courtroom, Dr. Tanzler had the audacity to ask whether Elena’s corpse might be returned to him, believing it to belong to him. This request was of course declined.
Frustrated that the corpse had been taken from him, Dr. Tanzler moved back to Zephyrhills, reportedly blowing up the the original tomb he’d built for Elena before leaving town.
In 1952, Dr. Tanzler died at home beside a life-size doll version of Elena, his body found some weeks later. In accordance with his wishes, the creepy doll was buried with him. However, to this day, there are those who harbour doubts about what or who actually lies with the doctor in his grave.
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