The Disturbing True Story Of Carl Tanzler And The Corpse He Dug Up And Lived With For Seven Years

Published August 24, 2023
Updated November 7, 2023

Carl Tanzler fell in love with Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, a young tuberculosis patient at the Key West hospital where he was a radiology technician — but his fondness grew into an obsession after she died in 1931.

Carl Tanzler

Wikimedia CommonsCarl Tanzler lived with the corpse of the woman he loved for seven years.

In 1930, a radiologist named Carl Tanzler fell in love with a young patient he was treating for tuberculosis. Though Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos didn’t return Tanzler’s affection, he grew obsessed with her — and that obsession continued after her death in 1931.

Tanzler spent more than a year sitting by the mausoleum he’d commissioned for Elena each evening, singing to her corpse and speaking with her spirit. Then, one night in April 1933, Tanzler exhumed her body and took it home with him.

He wired Elena’s limbs together, replaced her skin with wax, and stuffed her torso with rags to maintain its form. For the next seven years, Carl Tanzler slept next to the corpse of Elena de Hoyos as if she were still alive.

Authorities and Elena’s family learned of Tanzler’s disturbing actions in 1940. Police arrested the radiologist and took the corpse — but that still didn’t stop Tanzler from carrying out his bizarre love affair.

Carl Tanzler’s Early Life In Germany And Australia

Carl Tanzler was born Georg Karl Tänzler in Dresden on February 8, 1877. He grew up in Germany, and during his childhood there, he had dreams of a dead ancestor named Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel. In these visions, von Cosel reportedly showed Tanzler the face of his true love.

Tanzler moved to Australia at some point soon after the turn of the 20th century. An autobiographical note in a story he wrote for a 1939 edition of The Rosicrucian Digest states that he was living in Australia when World War I broke out, and because of his German heritage, he was placed “in a concentration camp for ‘safe-keeping.'”

Count Carl Von Cosel

Wikimedia CommonsCarl Tanzler immigrated to the United States in 1926 under the name Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel.

He returned to Germany after the war, where he married Doris Schäfer and had two children in the early 1920s. By 1926, Tanzler had decided to move his family to America, and they settled in Zephyrhills, Florida. The following year, he accepted a job as a radiology technician at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West and left his wife and children behind to move south.

Three years later, he caught his first glimpse of the woman from his childhood dreams.

How Carl Tanzler Met Elena De Hoyos

Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos was the Cuban-American daughter of a Key West cigar maker. Born in 1909, she was just 17 when she married a man named Luis Mesa in 1926. Sadly, their marriage fell apart after Elena suffered a miscarriage. Mesa moved to Miami, leaving his wife behind in Key West.

To make matters worse, Elena was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis. On April 22, 1930, she walked into the U.S. Marine Hospital for treatment — and met Carl Tanzler. He was 53; she was 20.

Maria Elena Milagro De Hoyos

X (Twitter)Elena de Hoyos was known as a local beauty in Key West before her death from tuberculosis in 1931.

Though he specialized in radiology, Tanzler became determined to cure young Elena, who he believed was predestined to be his one true love. He even brought X-ray equipment to her home in an attempt to treat her there.

Over the next 18 months, Tanzler showered Elena with gifts of jewelry and clothing and professed his love to her, even though she was still legally married to Mesa and he had a wife and children back in Zephyrhills. Despite Tanzler’s persistence, there is no evidence that Elena reciprocated his feelings.

Tragically, Elena de Hoyos succumbed to her illness on Oct. 25, 1931, at the age of 22. Tanzler paid for her funeral and insisted on purchasing a pricey stone mausoleum in Key West Cemetery for her remains.

Elena De Hoyos Mausoleum

Flickr/Florida Keys History CenterElena’s mausoleum in Key West Cemetery.

For the next two years, Carl Tanzler visited Elena every evening. He frequently serenaded her grave, singing her favorite Spanish songs. He reportedly heard Elena’s spirit speak to him as he sang, asking him to take her home with him. So one night in 1933, he did just that.

A Disturbing Response To Elena De Hoyos’ Death

After dark on an evening in April 1933, Carl Tanzler crept into Key West Cemetery and removed Elena’s body from her tomb.

After nearly two years, Elena’s corpse was in poor shape. After dragging her body to his home in a toy wagon, Tanzler set to work securing her limbs to her torso with piano wire. He then replaced her decaying skin with silk that he’d soaked in wax and plaster, fashioned a wig from the hair that had fallen out of her skull, and doused her in disinfectants and perfume to cover the odor of her rotting flesh.

Tanzler dressed Elena and kept her in his bed, where he slept next to her each night. And though it’s never been verified, there was allegedly evidence that he engaged in necrophilia with her corpse by inserting a tube into her vagina.

Corpse Of Elena De Hoyos

X (Twitter)The corpse of Elena de Hoyos after Carl Tanzler replaced her decaying flesh with wax and strung her body together with wire.

For the next seven years, Carl Tanzler lived with the body of Elena de Hoyos. Eventually, rumors started to fly. When someone reportedly spotted Tanzler dancing with the corpse through his open window, Elena’s family decided to confront him.

Elena’s sister notified the police of her suspicions, which investigators soon confirmed. Tanzler was arrested and charged with “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization,” according to Atlas Obscura.

A psychiatric evaluation determined that Tanzler was competent to stand trial despite the fact that he testified he wanted to take Elena “high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate [her] tissues and restore life to her somnolent form.”

However, the statute of limitations for Tanzler’s crime had expired by the time he was arrested, and he was soon released. He actually received quite a bit of compassion after the fact, with some women even viewing him as a hopeless — albeit eccentric — romantic.

Body Of Elena De Hoyos On Display

Wikimedia CommonsElena De Hoyos’ corpse on display after police confiscated it from Carl Tanzler.

Meanwhile, Elena de Hoyos’ body was placed on display at a local funeral home, where nearly 7,000 people came to see the corrupted corpse for themselves. She was finally laid to rest once and for all in an unmarked grave at Key West Cemetery.

Following the uproar surrounding his arrest, Tanzler returned home to his wife in Zephyrhills. But his infatuation with Elena wasn’t over yet. He reportedly created a life-sized effigy of the young woman — and lived with it until his death in 1952.

After reading about Carl Tanzler’s perverse obsession with Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, go inside the story of Robert the Doll, the toy that’s been haunting Key West for decades. Or, learn about the bizarre art of extreme embalming.

Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
Krissy Howard
Krissy Howard is a New York-based freelance writer. She regularly contributes to Runt of the Web and her original humor has appeared on The Hard Times, Reductress, and The Hairpin.
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Johnson, Cara. "The Disturbing True Story Of Carl Tanzler And The Corpse He Dug Up And Lived With For Seven Years.", August 24, 2023, Accessed May 21, 2024.