The Real Corpse Bride

German immigrant Carl Tanzler would not let anything stand in the way of true love, even death.

He claimed that when he was a child, his late ancestor Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel appeared to him in a vision. In this vision, she revealing to him the face of his one true love, a memory that he would carry into his adult life. He married and was the father of two children, but he did not lose faith that his soulmate would one day be discovered. In 1927 he abandoned his family in Zephyrhills, Florida, taking a job as a radiologist at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West. In April of 1930, he met patient Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, a Cuban-American woman who was dying of tuberculosis. Tanzler recognized her dark hair and facial features as matching those of his vision, and although he was still married, he instantly became obsessed with her.

As a vaccine for tuberculosis had yet to be discovered, Tanzler took it upon himself to care for Elena and tried everything in his power to cure her. He would break hospital protocol administering homemade tonic and medicines, even using electric equipment of his own devising. Tanzler presented himself to her family as Count von Cosel and convinced them with repeated house calls that his concoctions could work to treat her condition. He showered her with lavish gifts and jewelry, although it was reported that Hoyos was flattered yet not romantically interested in Tanzler and she was only concerned with her health. Then, in October of 1931 at 21 years of age, Hoyos succumbed to the disease.

Tanzler convinced her family to let him pay for the funeral costs and had her buried in an opulent above-ground mausoleum he had built for her in Key West. He would visit her monument every night and the family saw him merely as a dedicated physician who was heartbroken by his inability to save the patient. What they did not know was that he had the only key to the mausoleum, and would enter under the cover of darkness to spend more time with his beloved. Then after two years of dedicated visits, they abruptly stopped. Some people believed that he had healed from his heartbreak and had moved on, but that was far from the truth.

Tanzler’s obsession took a macabre turn when he began to hear the voice of his dearly departed, calling to him from the grave and pleading with him to free her from her prison tomb. He later stated that her spirit appeared to him when he sat next to her tomb and he serenaded her with her favorite song. Then one night in 1933, he removed her body from the mausoleum, loaded it into a child’s red wagon, and dragged it back to his makeshift laboratory he and built inside of an old airplane. It was from here that he decided to resurrect Hoyos.

He was dedicated to preserving her body, using coat-hangers and piano wire to fit her skeleton back together, stuffing her body with rags to maintain its shape. He also replaced her decomposed eyes with glass eyes, then patched her rotting skin with silk, mortician’s wax and plaster. He would use copious amounts of perfume, disinfectants, and preserving agents to mask the odor and slow the decomposition of the body. He was also able to fashion a wig for Hoyos’ corpse, made from her own hair, which had been collected by her mother and gifted to Tanzler at her death. Tanzler then dressed the body in her own clothing, stockings, jewelry, and gloves.

He was spotted buying women’s clothes and perfumes, and neighbors believed that he was seeing someone new. He was also seen dancing with someone behind the closed curtains inside his home, but that was later found to have been Hoyos. It is alleged that Tanzler would dance with her body, would sing to her, and even slept with her in his bed. His strangeness and boldness grew as he drafted plan to create a spacecraft in order to fly Hoyos into the stratosphere, believing that radiation from outer space would penetrate her tissues and revivify her. After seven years, rumors of Tanzlers actions began to spread, namely that he was sleeping with the corpse of his lost love, eventually reaching Hoyos family. Her sister, Florinda, entered into the home and to her horror discovered the preserved body that now looked more like a wax doll than her sibling. She fled the home and rushed to contact the authorities.

Tanzler was arrested and charged with desecration of the grave site in October of 1940. He was examined by a psychiatrist and deemed mentally competent to stand a trial. He was then prosecuted for “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization.” In a bizarre twist, the public was actually sympathetic to Tanzler’s acts, seeing him as a hopeless romantic and feeling sorry for his misfortune. As the crime had passed the statute of limitations at the time, the case was dismissed. There was no conclusive evidence at the time that Carl had intimate relations with the corpse, though later examinations suggested that it was possible. After the trial, he even asked if Elena’s body could be returned to him, though his request was denied by authorities and by Hoyos family.

The bizarre story of the “corpse bride” became a popular legend among residents of Key West, and due to public request, the body was briefly kept on display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home. Nearly seven thousand locals came to view the wax-like figure it before it was returned to a proper resting place. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Key West cemetery in a secret location, to prevent any further tampering.

He returned to Zephyrhills and even published an autobiography, yet his obsession for Hoyos never died. He created a forensic “death mask” of Hoyos as the basis for a life-sized dummy, which he kept in his bed until his death in July of 1952 at the age of 75. Some accounts of Tanzler’s death claim he wasn’t discovered for three weeks after his passing and that his body was found resting in the arms of the dummy.

Happy Valentines Day!