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Twisted Obsession: A Tale of Infatuation and Grave Robbery in Key West

September 7, 2011

The Fort East Martello Museum houses exhibits showcasing local citizens contributions to Key West and some scandal.  Notably a replica of the tomb and the remains of the memorial placque of Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos the unwholesome obsession of Carl Tanzler.  Carl Tanzler sometimes known as Count Carl von Cosel was a German radiologist practicing in Key West Florida.  He became seriously obsessed with a young patient suffering from tuberculosis, Elena Milagro de Hoyos.

Carl Tanzler aka Count von Cosel

Elena Milagro de Hoyos was a Cuban-American beauty and the daughter of a local cigar maker.  Her husband left her after she miscarried their child and, in time, Elena was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  Carl Tanzler, though married but living apart from wife and children, became smitten with the young girl when she became his patient at the hospital in which he worked.  Elena was 32 years his junior but he claimed she was the beautiful dark haired woman of his visions, visions he claimed to have since his childhood back in his native Germany.

Carl was determined to cure Elena, and felt with his self-proclaimed knowledge he would be able to do so.  He brought equipment to the de Hoyos home in an effort to administer healing treatments to the object of his desire.  He also bestowed on Elena expensive gifts and reportedly declared his love for her; there is no suggestion that the feelings were reciprocated by Elena.

All of Carl Tanzler’s treatments were in vain as Elena succumbed to her illness on October 25, 1931.  Carl paid for Elena’s funeral and asked her parents’ permission to erect an above ground mausoleum in which to house her remains.  It is said that he visited her grave almost every night.  Tanzler later claimed that Elena’s spirit would appear when he would sing her favorite Spanish song at her graveside.  He also claimed that her spirit asked him to remove her from her crypt.

The museum contains a replica of Elena's tomb with a stand up photograph of Carl Tanzler

Almost two years after her death Carl did remove Elena’s remains and carted them away to his home.  The remains were obviously in an advanced state of decay and he covered the bones with silk dipped in wax and plaster to construct “skin”.  He placed glass eyes in the skull and made a wig out of Elena’s hair.  He did his best to reconstruct Elena de Hoyos, dressing her and using perfume and disinfectant to try and mask the smell of decay.  And he kept this figure by his side in his bed for seven years until Elena’s sister Florinda became aware of rumors that Count von Cosel was harboring the remains of her sister.

This is what remains of the placque from Elena de Hoyos' tomb

Florinda went to the authorities to report Carl Tanzler.  Tanzler was arrested and Elena’s body, or what was left of it encased in the perverted shell, was found.  Sadly in an action I personally don’t understand, the figure was put on display at the Dean-Lopez funeral home.  I would have hoped for more restraint and feeling so many years ago, but no, Elena’s desecration was to continue by becoming a public spectacle.  Crowds came to gaze upon the twisted effigy of Elena de Hoyos.

A replica of Carl's "Elena" figure is inside the tomb exhibit at the Fort East Martello Museum

Another point, that puzzles me, is that the public was largely sympathetic to Carl Tanzler when the body was discovered after his arrest.  Many viewed Count von Cosel as an unconventional romantic.  There appears to be disagreement as to whether Tanzler had “relations” with Elena’s corpse.  Doctors present at the autopsy claimed years later that there had been a paper tube inserted in the corpse to facilitate intercourse.  The people who claim that necrophilia did not take place site the fact that it was mentioned so long after the fact.  Though I assert at the time, it may have been a point that her family did not wish to make public as Carl Tanzler was not charged because the statue of limitations had run out, or simply the media did not disclose quite as much in those days as they do now.

The body, or what was left of it, of Elena de Hoyos was placed in an unmarked grave and only three people were made aware of its location, where it remains to this day.

Count von Cosel had made a death mask of Elena’s corpse which remained with him the rest of his life.  Stories circulated that Count von Cosel had found where Elena was buried and carried her corpse away yet again; there is absolutely no evidence that this is true.  Carl Tanzler’s body was not discovered until three weeks after his death, and the wax and cloth figure found in his home at the time of his death contained no human remains.  I, for one, hope it can be surmised that Elena was left at peace after all.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Fern permalink
    September 7, 2011 12:22 am

    Now that is a tale! :O

  2. September 7, 2011 1:05 am

    So yucky and he did have sex with her-I think the shock factor made them tame it for the masses at the time but eeewwww.

    • September 7, 2011 10:24 am

      Most likey that is true, I don’t really think there can be a doubt about that. I mean, he kept the remains in that horrible effigy in his bed for 7 years…I don’t think it was to play canasta! It is truly an ewwww. What really miffs me is people trying to pass it off as a love story. She didn’t love him, he was obsessed, he completely victimized her corpse-that is beyond low.

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