Carl von Cosel
The Case of the Corpse Bride
Carl von Cosel
"A ghoulish love story"
In April 1930, the German-born radiology technologist Carl von Cosel met a Cuban-American tuberculosis patient named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, and soon developed a deep obsession with the beautiful young woman. He believed she was his true love, something that had been revealed to him in a vision he once experienced during his childhood, and he frantically used every possible medical treatment available in an attempt to cure he of the disease.
Despite his best efforts, the young woman died of tuberculosis on October 25, 1931. Tanzler, who also went by the name Carl von Cosel, paid for her funeral costs and commissioned the construction of lavish mausoleum in the West Key Cemetery in Florida, which he visited every day for many years. In October 1940, Hoyos’ sister decided to visit von Cosel’s home after hearing ghastly rumours concerning the theft of her sister’s body and discovered he had been keeping her corpse for his own sinister purposes.
The man who would become known as Carl von Cosel was born as Carl Tanzler in Dresden, Germany on February 8, 1877, and grew up during the time of Imperial Germany. At some point during his childhood he travelled briefly to Genoa, Italy where he experienced a vision of one his dead ancestors, Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel. As an adult, Tanzler would recount this story, claiming he was shown visions by this apparition, who had apparently revealed to him the face of an exotic dark-haired woman, who would be destined to be his true love.
In his later years he travelled to Australia under unknown circumstances, just prior to the outbreak of World War I. Some of his time in Australia is known from an autobiographical account that appeared in the Rosicrucian Digest of March and April 1939, titled, “The Trial Bay Organ: A Product of Wit and Ingenuity” by Carl von Cosel. In it, von Cosel was said to have travelled from India to Australia with the intention of proceeding to the South Sea Islands.
However, he decided to stay in Australia where he soon became interested in electrical and engineering works and bought property, boats, an organ and even an Island in the Pacific. Upon the outbreak of war, he was in the process of building a trans-ocean flyer when the British military authorities placed him in a concentration camp along with many others, including Chinese and Indian nationals, for “safe keeping”.
Later he was sent to Trial Bay Gaol, a castle-like-prison, where he was put to work on what would be the narrative of the account in the Rosicrucian Digest. Whilst interned he attempted to build a secret sailboat to escape the goal, a claim that was later supported by Nyanatiloka Mahathera, who would go on to become a fully ordained Buddhist monk, and who mentioned his plan to escape his imprisonment with “Count Carl von Cosel.”
At the end of the conflict none of the prisoners of war were allowed to remain at their former residences, and Tanzler was shipped to the prisoner’s exchange in Holland. Upon his release he went home to visit his mother, who he had not seen since the outbreak of war, and finding she was safe, decided to stay with her for the next three years.
It was there he witnessed the chaos that followed in the wake of the war, and the political unrest from Germany’s defeat. In 1920, he married Doris Schäfer, and his name was listed on the marriage certificate as Georg Karl Tänzler. Two years later they had their first child, Ayesha Tanzler and later another daughter together called Clarista in 1924. It was his mother who suggest Tanzler should emigrate to the United States to live with his sister.
He sailed from Rotterdam on February 6, 1926, and journeyed to Havana, Cuba and from there he settled in Zephyrhills, Florida where his sister had already emigrated and where his wife and two daughters would eventually join him. By 1927, he took a job as a radiology technician at the U.S. Marine Hospital, and leaving his family behind in Zephyrhills, Tanzler took up residence in Key West, Florida under his supposed ancestral name, Carl von Cosel.
It was whilst working at the hospital that von Cosel met Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos on April 22, 1930. “Helen” as she was known, was a local Cuban-American woman who was considered by many to be a local beauty in Key West. That day she had been taken to the hospital by her mother for an examination, and when he first saw her, von Cosel immediately recognised Hoyos as the dark-haired woman from his vision who would be his true love.
21-year-old Elena was the daughter of a local cigar maker, and had an elder sister called Florinda, along with a younger sibling called Celia. She had previously married Mario Medina in 1926, but he left her and moved to Miami when she suffered a miscarriage with their child.
She was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that would claim most of her immediate family, which was treated by von Cosel, who with his self-proclaimed medical knowledge attempted a variety of treatments. He would use different medicines to cure Hoyos, as well as x-rays and other equipment which was brought to her home.
He also showered her with gifts of jewellery and clothing and eventually professed his love for her, but there has never been any record that this affection was reciprocated. Hoyos died of tuberculosis on October 25, 1931 at her parents home, whilst under Tanzler’s care.
He paid for her funeral and asked the permission of her family to commission the construction of an above ground mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery. Over the course of the next two years he was often seen there every night visiting the remains of the woman he considered he professed to love. Tanzler would serenade her corpse with her favourite Spanish song, and he reportedly said Hoyos spirit would come to him as he sat by her grave. He said she often told him to take her from the mausoleum, and eventually one evening in April 1933, he did just that. He crept through the cemetery to where she was buried and removed her body, placing it on a toy wagon to transport it to his home.
He dressed Hoyos’ remains in her own clothing along with stockings, gloves and jewellery and kept the body in his own bed. As the corpse decomposed further, he attached the bones together with wire and coat hangers, and used glass eyes in place of her own.
As her skin began to rot, he replaced it with silk cloth soaked in wax and plaster of paris, and stuffed the abdominal and chest cavity with rags to keep the original form. When the last strands of hair fell out of her decomposing scalp, von Cosel fashioned a wig, using hair collected by her mother which she had given to him shortly after her burial in 1931.
In order to impede the effects of decomposition, von Cosel used preserving agents, as well as large amounts of disinfectants and perfume to mask the odour of petrification. It has been rumoured that he placed a paper tube inside her vaginal region which allowed him to have sex with her corpse.
Sometime in October 1940, Hoyos’ sister Florinda Medina came to von Cosel’s local laboratory after hearing rumours he had been sleeping with the body of her sister, and confronted him. It was there that she discovered the ghoulish truth when she caught him dancing with her corpse in front of an open window. She alerted the authorities and when police broke into his house, they found the body in bed and swathed in gauze.
Because of the plaster of paris and wax, the body had a life-like appearance and there were reportedly fresh flowers in the dead girls hair. A nearby closet was filled with bridal attire he used to dress the body. von Cosel was arrested and when questioned over the theft of Hoyos remains, he calmly explained how he had stirred up a vat full of chemicals to preserve the body.
He insisted she often came to life and talked with him. Whilst in custody he was examined by a psychiatrist and found to be mentally competent to stand trial on the charge of “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization.”
The body of Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyo was examined by physicians and pathologists, two of whom, Dr. DePoo and Dr. Foraker, conducted the autopsy. At the time no mention was made of the paper tube which von Cosel had used to commit his necrophiliac love making on the corpse, and this revelation was only revealed by the doctors in 1972, casting doubt on the validity of this claim.
Her body was placed on public display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, where it was to be viewed by as many as 6,800 people. The remains were eventually returned to the Key West cemetery, and interred in an unmarked grave at a secret location, to prevent any further tampering.
When he appeared at Monroe County Courthouse on October 9, 1940 to answer the charge at a preliminary hearing, the case caused a sensation in Florida, garnering a great deal of local interest from the Miami Herald, as well as the citizens of Key West. When the story spread nationwide, von Cosel was viewed as an “eccentric romantic”, by a largely sympathetic American public, who were morbidly fascinated his ghoulish love for the deceased young woman. At a later hearing the case was eventually dropped and he was released because the statute of limitations for the crime had expired.
Carl Tanzler, also known as Carl von Cosel, moved to Pasco County, Florida in 1944 where he wrote an autobiography which consisted of a 180 page novella entitled “The Secret of Elena’s Tomb”, which featured in the pulp publication, “Fantastic Adventures” in September 1947, under the name Karl Tanzler von Cosel. In a foreword of the magazine, the editors describe von Cosel and the reason for his imprisonment.
The introduction reads in part, “This is the true story behind the story that made headlines all over world in 1940. Maybe you recall reading some of the details of the man, Karl Tanzler von Cosel, a German scientist, who took the dead body of Elena Hoyos Mesa from her tomb and performed one of the most sensational experiments upon her, an experiment that according to Mr. von Cosel was in actuality a successful attempt in restoring life to the dead.”
The editors note continues, “Mr. von Cosel spent some time in prison, and it made him, as he says, a bitter man. It is not for us as editors, or you as readers, to judge whether his term in prison was a miscarriage of justice. But we do have the facts of the case in their entirety in von Cosel’s own words. And as facts, they recount one of the most fantastic adventures any man ever encountered.”
“Mr. von Cosel made a special trip to Chicago to talk to us about his manuscript, and we received the undeniable impression that he was a man perfectly sound mentally, and what is more important, scientifically.” It concludes by describing von Cosel’s actions as being committed in the same of scientific research,“It is of course impossible to say what might have come of his experiment had he been able to continue it without interruption. No man can say- except von Cosel himself.”
And the world is apparently not willing to accept his word. But you may judge for yourself after reading his story. And we would like to point out that not only is this an account of a great scientific effort, but also the story of an undying love, a love so strong it has weathered the barrier of the grave. They say love can make a man do great things. Karl von Cosel’s love for his Elena then is what drove him onward with all the scientific zeal he possessed.” The magazine attempted to portray Tanzler as a latter day Herbert West, the character from H.P. Lovecraft’s short novella, about an inventor who attempts to resurrect the dead through scientific methods.
In his later years he lived close to his wife Doris, who continued to support him, and when he was awarded American citizenship in 1950 in Tampa, Florida, he signed the papers using the name Carl Tanzler von Cosel. He died on July 3, 1952, at the age of 75, and his body was found on the floor of his home behind one of his organs, three weeks after his death. He was listed as Carl Tanzler on his death certificate. In the last years on his life his obsession over Hoyos continued, and he created a death mask to place on a life sized effigy of her.
It was reported erroneously that upon the discovery of his corpse, he was found in the arms of this effigy. His obituary made mention of “a metal cylinder on a shelf above a table in it wrapped in silken cloth and a robe was a waxen image”. In one final chapter to a suitably ghoulish love story, there was a disturbing rumour that Carl von Cosel had somehow switched the bodies, or that Hoyos remains were secretly returned to him, and he had died with the real body of his true love.