Volumes of poetry and countless love songs are dedicated to the proposition that love endures forever. This is an honorable and appropriate sentiment. Even so, it is possible to take things too far.
Allow us to introduce you to Carl Tanzler.
Carl was born in 1877 in Dresden, Germany. He was in Australia during World War I and was interred in a concentration camp, along with other German citizens. After the war, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked as a radiology technologist at the Marine-Hospital in Key West, Florida.
By this point, he had changed his name to the more adventurous-sounding Count Carl von Cosel. He even dressed for the part. The “Count” sported an impressive imperial mustache and carried a silver-tipped cane.
Clearly a highly-intelligent man, Carl is a perfect example of the principle that the more intelligent a person is, the more he can get away with odd behavior. Society has always been willing to categorize peculiarity as “eccentricity” when it is connected with someone who has smarts.
Carl’s eccentricities were not limited to adopting a title of nobility or conducting himself in an imperial manner. He bought the wreckage of an airplane and deposited it in the hospital parking lot so he could work on restoring it in his spare time. Although pretty much everyone knew he acquired the wreckage, they went along with his claims that he built the whole thing from scratch. They also nodded and smiled politely as he explained his plan to build the airplane with gigantic hollow wheels that would allow it to be driven over bodies of water. Because of his intelligence — and more importantly, because of his competence at his job — folks were willing to turn a blind eye to behavior that would typically be classified as the signs of mental illness.
No discussion of Carl is complete without mentioning his pursuit of love. On April 22, 1931, he met a young tuberculosis patient named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos (known as “Elena”). It would not be strictly accurate to say that it was love at first sight. Although they had not previously encountered one another, she wasn’t exactly a stranger to the enamored radiologist.
From the time of his childhood, Carl knew the woman he was destined to be his partner for eternity. Well, he at least knew what she looked like. He claimed to have received visits from his deceased ancestor, Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel. She gave him visions of an exotic, dark-haired woman whom fate had decreed to be the one with whom Carl would spend the rest of his life.
When Carl laid eyes on the young Cuban-American beauty, he saw the face his long-departed ancestor had shown him.
There were a few trifling obstacles to their relationship. For one thing, Carl was more than 30 years older than the 22-year-old Elena. Secondly, she had tuberculosis — a condition that was almost always terminal in those days. Although these were challenges to a relationship, they certainly would not be the first two people to overcome such barriers.
There were, alas, a couple of other hiccups in Carl’s quest for romantic bliss. For one thing, Elena apparently had no reciprocal affection for the older gentleman. Lastly — and perhaps we should have mentioned this earlier — Carl was already married.
More than ten years earlier, Carl married Doris Schäfer (1889-1977). True, she wasn’t the exotic, dark-haired beauty of his visions, but Carl was getting a little long in the tooth by that point and must have reasoned that beggars can’t be choosers. Together, they had two children: Ayesha Tanzler (1922–1998), and Clarista Tanzler (1924–1934).
As Elena’s medical condition deteriorated, Carl threw himself into a noble quest to save the young woman’s life. He devoted every waking moment to finding a cure — or at least a remedy — to the deadly disease. He also showered her with gifts and bold expressions of his deep love for her.
Although Elena never showed the least amount of interest in the older, married man, her illness prevented her from separating herself from him. Carl may have mistaken her continued presence at the hospital as a sign that her romantic resistance was weakening. In fact, it was her hold on life that was giving way.
Despite Carl’s best efforts to win her love and save her life, he failed on both accounts. Elena died on October 25 — a scant six months after meeting Carl. The grief-stricken Carl approached Elena’s parents and offered to help with the final arrangements. He helped them financially by renting Elena’s bedroom from them and moving there. He purchased an expensive mausoleum for the Hoya family and grieved with the family as Elena’s body was laid to rest inside.
Carl’s offer to purchase the mausoleum was motivated by something more than altruism. It also allowed him to possess a key, permitting him entry at his leisure.
This is where Carl’s story goes beyond that of a starry-eyed if misguided, would-be Romeo. This is also where we need to warn our readers that this is probably not the story to be reading if you are in the midst of enjoying a pleasant breakfast. (Parents, be assured that we have not abandoned our family-friendly policy. What follows is gross, not graphic.)
For the next two years, Carl paid a visit to the mausoleum every single night. He even had a telephone installed in the crypt so he could call her if he was unable to be there in person. A little creepy and obsessive, to be sure, but even that was not enough for him. In April 1933, he snuck Elena’s body out of the mausoleum and took her to his airplane project in the hospital parking lot. We find it somewhat amusing and troubling that the man who claimed to have built an airplane from scratch couldn’t have whipped up something a bit more dignified to transport the remains of the woman he loved than the toy wagon he ended up using.
Keep in mind that Elena had departed this mortal coil two years earlier. Her once-beautiful body was not exactly a picture of freshness and vitality. Carl had to employ all of his aircraft reconstruction skills just to keep the decaying corpse from disintegrating before his very eyes. He used coat hangers and piano wire to add some stability to Elena’s skeleton. He stuffed her chest and abdomen with rags to keep her body from collapsing in on itself.
Elena’s facial features required a bit more than a powdering of the nose. She was unlikely to win any beauty contests in the near future, but with the help of some plaster of Paris and glass eyes, Carl at least managed to hold her face together.
As Elena’s skin continued to deteriorate, Carl replaced it with silk cloth soaked in wax and plaster. As her hair fell out, Carl replaced it with a wig made from her own hair, which the woman’s mother, strangely, had previously given him.
You might be wondering about the smell. Bodies that have been petrifying in the grave for two years rarely have the springlike freshness most people desire for their homes. Carl addressed this problem with much of the same strategy used by today’s teenage boys when they can’t be bothered to take a shower. Instead of Axe body spray, however, Carl doused Elena’s body with massive amounts of perfume, disinfectants, and preserving agents.
He worked on Elena’s body in the airplane almost every night. When a new hospital administrator insisted he remove the plane from the hospital grounds, Carl purchased a shack that would allow him to work on and spend time with his beloved Elena without fear of interruption.
By this point, Carl had long since concluded that his marriage to Doris was a mistake. Still married but separated, Doris and the children lived nearly 500 miles away in Zephyrhills, thus spared first-hand witness to Carl’s macabre obsession.
For the next seven years, Carl descended ever deeper into his dark obsession. He developed a routine of dressing Elena in wax-coated fabric, painting her face, and endowing her with expensive jewelry.
Yes, this is definitely on the creepy side, and we’re sorry we didn’t find this story in time to present it on Halloween. Even at this point, however, it isn’t too much different from the experience of another man. As reported here, Argentinian dictator Juan Perón preserved the body of his wife, Evita, and had her sit with him and his new wife at the dinner table. Although truly bizarre (how many different ways can we say this is really disturbing behavior?), it isn’t exactly unprecedented, even when Carl sang and danced with Elena’s corpse, propped her up in chairs, and gave her Christmas presents.
If you’re looking for something that puts this case over the top, consider that Carl was motivated by more than a desire to preserve the woman’s beauty. He fully intended to become a modern-day Victor von Frankenstein. He would settle for nothing less than bringing Elena back to life.
Carl devoted himself to resuscitate the woman, and he insisted he was making progress. Although her mummified body had reduced to less than fifty pounds (23 kg), he was certain the signs of life were returning to her flesh.
Carl’s journey into utter madness would no doubt have continued indefinitely, had his antics not been discovered. For those of you who might be thinking about following in Carl’s footsteps, you might consider doing so somewhere other than a small community. Folks in the neighborhood couldn’t help but notice and wonder when Carl continued to buy women’s clothing and jewelry. And how many women could he be seeing, anyway, to justify his purchase of all those gallons of perfume? And by the way, just who is that remarkably-clumsy woman he keeps dancing with in front of the window that faces the street?
Perhaps even these suspicions would have been insufficient to bring Carl’s activities to light. When it all became known, it was as if Elena was acting from beyond the grave to give some well-deserved rest to her body.
On October 1, 1940, Elena’s brother-in-law Mario came to see Carl. Ironically, it was Mario who helped Carl move the airplane containing Elena’s body from the hospital. At the time, of course, Mario was unaware of the airplane’s passenger. Mario asked Carl to come with him to pay a visit to Elena’s mausoleum.
When the men arrived at the cemetery, Carl was surprised to find a crowd waiting for him. Mario explained that his wife, Elena’s sister Nana, had been diagnosed with the same disease that took Elena’s life. Nana had been dealing with deepening anxiety that Elena might not be in the tomb, after all. She told Carl that she wanted to see her sister’s body to put her fears to rest.
Carl was outraged. He accused Nana of seeking to use this opportunity to steal the jewelry with which Elena had been entombed. Nana calmed him down by explaining that she simply needed some peace. Her recent diagnosis gave her a profound empathy for Elena, and if she could only look upon her sister one last time, that would provide a great balm for her soul.
Nana’s explanation made perfect sense to Carl. If anyone could understand the desire to look upon Elena’s face, it was him. He asked Nana to come back to his house where they could speak privately, without the crowd that had assembled at the cemetery.
Carl escorted Nana and Mario back to his home. He welcomed them inside and led them to his bedroom. There, he said, “Come here, Nana, and see now beautiful Elena is resting in her bed in her silken garments and with all her jewelry. Come and see, she could not have it better anywhere. I think that will pacify you now.” He then threw back a curtain and let the startled and horrified couple see their long-dead loved one.
Oddly, Nana and Mario were not exactly pacified. Five days later, Carl and Elena received more visitors. This time it was the sheriff and a team of investigators. The sheriff showed Carl a search warrant and stepped inside to see the grizzly scene for himself.
Carl was immediately arrested on charges of unlawful possession of a dead body. As he was led away in handcuffs, he got his final look at Elena, being carried out in a wicker basket.
Word of Carl’s arrest brought reporters from all over the country. The bewildered man sat in his jail cell, utterly unable to understand what all the fuss was about. He was charged with “wanton and maliciously demolishing, disfiguring, and destroying a grave.”
Elena was also receiving special treatment, but of a much more honorable nature. Her remains were taken to the Lopez Funeral Home. Thousands of people lined up to pay their final respects (and let’s be honest: a bunch of them were simply there out of morbid curiosity).
Carl was arraigned on October 8, 1940. Carl and his attorney seemed to be unconcerned about the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. With rapt attention, the judge and spectators listened as Carl explained in florid detail how he moved the body, his process of reconstructing her, and that his purpose in all of it was to bring her back to life. Carl explained that there is always life remaining even in the most decomposed body, and it is just a matter of applying the right process to reanimate the dead. This is where his airplane comes in because he also explained that the process cannot always happen on earth. The airplane, which he called Elena’s Aircraft, was being rebuilt so it could fly his beloved to outer space so cosmic radiation would reanimate her.
For several days, the judge heard evidence concerning Carl’s mental state. Carl received help from an unexpected source when his estranged wife, Doris, wrote to the court to attest to the fact that her husband was as nutty as a fruitcake and that his mental condition was the primary cause of their marital separation.
The overwhelming opinion of all of the experts who examined Carl was that he was clinically insane. The judge, however, concluded that he was entirely competent to stand trial.
While the public was still digesting the news that Florida’s own Dr. Frankenstein was adjudged mentally competent to be tried, yet another shocking development grabbed the headlines. On October 19 — nine days after declaring Carl mentally competent — the judge dismissed all charges against him.
The key to Carl’s case rested not with his mental condition, but with the amount of time that had passed. Florida’s statute of limitations for the crimes for which he was charged was seven years. Since more than seven years had passed, Carl could not be legally charged with the crime.
As for Elena, only three people were involved in her final burial: the cemetery sexton, the undertaker of the Lopez Funeral Home, and the Key West police chief. Out of a desire to give Elena’s mortal remains their long-denied rest, the location and timing of her burial were kept secret.
Upon Carl’s release from custody, he returned to his home, only to find it vandalized and a focal point for curiosity seekers. Although he sought solitude, Carl was forced to give tours of his home and the airplane to visitors, charging them a fee for the privilege, just to have some source of income. Being the center of so much attention was too much for him, however, and he decided to move to Zephyrhills and escape all of the publicity.
Before leaving, there was one thing he needed to tend to. He paid one last visit to Elena’s mausoleum. He left a gift. With no one entombed there, flowers would have been inappropriate and unappreciated. Instead, he left dynamite and a timer. Twenty-four hours after leaving the cemetery for the last time, Elena’s mausoleum exploded into a cloud of dust. By this point, Carl had already moved to his new home. No formal investigation was conducted.
He spent his remaining years writing his autobiography and trying to give his reputation a makeover. He told fantastic stories of how he and Elena would fly together through space in his airplane (which never did get finished, by the way). Read Carl’s autobiographical account from the September 1947 issue of Fantastic Adventures here.
In July 1952, Carl’s neighbors gradually noticed that they hadn’t seen their peculiar neighbor for a while. They called the police, who paid a visit to Carl’s home to check his welfare. Upon entering the home, they discovered Carl’s badly decomposed body. He had died weeks earlier, alone and without anyone to try to preserve his body the way he had cared for Elena.
Police also found a wax replica of Elena’s body, identical in every way. At least in symbolism, Carl managed to live to the end of his days with his beloved Elena.
Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to verify whether Carl Tanzler’s story in any way influenced Jimmy Cross to write what many consider to be the worst song ever recorded: “I Want My Baby Back”
Categories: Crime, Death, Eccentrics, Health, History, Human body, Laws and Lawyers, Strange Deaths, US History
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