The first time I heard of Carl Tanzler it was during a ghost walk in south Florida. The story of a love so strong it didn’t end at death. To death do we part – except for Carl and his fantasy bride, death was just the start. Carl gained infamy when it was discovered he was living with his corpse bride for 7 years. In the 1940’s, Carl was considered a hopeless romantic. A story of love after the grave. It wasn’t until thirty years later that the true nature of his relationship with a corpse was fully revealed.
Carl wasn’t just an obsessed necrophiliac, he was also a con man. Born in Dresden, Germany on February 8, 1877, he went by many names. Georg Karl Tänzler on listed on his German marriage certificate and Carl Tanzler von Cosel was listed on his United States citizenship papers. He died as Carl Tanzler, the name on his Florida death certificate. During his career, some of his hospital records were signed Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel. There is no evidence Carl was an actual count; in fact, Carl had visions a dead relative, a countess, which convinced him of his title. These visions also convinced him he was to meet his one true love, a dark haired exotic woman. His educational background is unclear, yet he practiced in radiology, bacteriology and even dabbled in the medical sciences. He claimed to have 9 university degrees, yet there is no evidence of truth in his claims. He also claimed to be a former submarine captain and accomplished inventor. The reality was Carl Tanzler was a savvy con man who got jobs he was certainly unqualified, abandoning his wife and children in the process of taking a job at a hospital in the Florida Keys.
In the 1920’s, Carl, then known as Georg Karl Tänzler, was married to Doris Anna Shafer (1889–1977). Together they had two children: Ayesha Tanzler (1922–1998), and Crystal Tanzler (1924–1934), who died of diphtheria. Carl was so consumed by his visions of an exotic dark haired woman he abandoned them and moved to Key West in 1927, only three years after his daughter Crystal was born. He didn’t get much attention, keeping a low profile at work and in the community. His fantasies became a reality when a 21- year old Cuban dark haired beauty named Elena de Hoyos came to see him. Carl could hardly believe his eyes – the woman from his visions, the woman promised to him by the ghost of the countess, had finally come to his door. His search was over.
Carl’s excitement was dampened when he realized why the beauty was at his office – she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Even knowing the prognosis was grim, Carl became obsessed with Elena. His obsession was so great it would extend past the grave and enter the realm of forbidden love. Before her death, Carl attempted to cure his love, but the prognosis for tuberculosis was grim at the time. Still, he labored Day and night to save her life. No expense was spared, and Carl’s reckless behavior would ultimately lead to his being fired from the hospital. He created homemade potions and tonics, snuck hospital equipment to Elena’s house, and worked tirelessly to save her. All the while, Carl showered her with lavish gifts of clothing and jewelry- attempting to win the heart of the young Cuban beauty half his age.
But Elena’s heart already was pledged to another, even though her rocky marriage existed solely on paper at this point. Her new husband leaving her to start a new life in Miami shortly after Elena miscarried their first child. Elena might have thought life couldn’t have gotten any worse, but she would have been wrong. She lost her unborn child, husband, and finally her health. Still, this was the tip of the nightmare that was to come.
Although Carl routinely professed his love, Elena never reciprocated the affection. It was no wonder: what love could she feel for a man that left his own family just like her husband had left her? In 1931, despite the best efforts by Carl, Elena succumbed to tuberculosis – as would many in her family. Carl insisted on paying for her funeral- her family extremely touched by his love and generosity for their daughter. He had permission from her family to build a custom mausoleum in the Key West cemetery. Carl also hired a mortician to fix up her body before it was entombed into the expensive stone tomb. This was no ordinary mausoleum – Elena’s mausoleum was specifically built with some secrets. He installed electricity inside her tomb and affixed a telephone system. Carl visited his love nightly, speaking sweet nothings to her through the phone, perhaps as an attempt to communicate without the horrific smells of decomposition. Carl would bring his love gifts and flowers, attempting even after death to win her affection. He would serenade the corpse of Elena with her favorite Spanish songs. Carl was also the only person with a key to the mausoleum – a fact even her family was unaware of.
One night, in April 1933, Carl imagined the ghost of Elena agreeing to marry him. He said her spirit begged him to take her from her grave. He was elated – he had come to her tomb every night for two years, attempting to win her love. He had finally done it – and hatched a plan to finally bring his bride home to his marriage bed. He gingerly removed her fragile body, now heavily decomposed after two years in the hot Florida weather, using a toy wagon to transport it home.
Once home safe, Carl and his new bride enjoyed their first few days together in wedded bliss. Typical honeymoon it was not, with Carl carefully stringing her bones together with wire and coat hangers. He replaced her shriveled eyes with glass ones – being able to gaze into her beautiful eyes was more than he could possibly bear. He carefully fitted a paper tube into her vagina so they could finally be united at husband and wife. It had been over five years since they met, two since she joined the land of the spirits and the time was finally here for them to share the marriage bed.
Carl took great care of his frail new bride. As hair fell from her scalp, Carl created a wig using hair that had been taken from Elena’s corpse before burial. He didn’t scold her for the various odors and scents coming from her body – it was only natural, after all. He used various perfumes to help mask the odors and other agents to attempt to slow the decomposition process. Carl filled her chest cavity with rags to keep her womanly shape and dressed the corpse in clothes, stockings, jewelry and even covered her hands in gloves.
Finally, Carl covered her decomposed face with a specially made mask.
For seven years, Carl enjoyed wedded bliss with his beautiful bride. Although some might have been disgusted at the thought of sleeping in the same bed with a severely decomposed corpse, Carl enjoyed every minute he had with his darling. Spoiling her with gifts and new jewelry often.
In October 1940, Elena’s sister, Florinda, heard a ghastly rumor. Carl has disinterred her sister and was living with her corpse. She knew he was eccentric, and confronted Carl about the rumors. Carl was not ashamed of his bride and didn’t deny the rumors. Florinda immediately went to the authorities who arrested Carl.
And yet, this was not the end of the nightmare for the body of Elena. After being rescued from Carl, she was put on public display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral home where thousands flocked to see the body, including many children.
People can from all around to see the woman so beautiful she inspired a man to continue his love affair beyond the grave. Common sentiment viewed Carl as an eccentric romantic.
Carl was evaluated and found competent enough to stand trial. Carl claimed he was planning to use an airship he built to fly his wife “high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form.”
The case against Carl was dropped because the statute of limitation had expired and he was free. Shortly after, he moved away to Zephyrhills, Florida to live close to his living wife, Doris. Doris never divorced Carl, and helped him in his later years.
In 1972, the two physicians who examined the body of Elena after it was discovered at Carl’s house, revealed evidence of the paper tube Carl had inserted into her vaginal area to facilitate intercourse. This changed the perception of Carl from a hopeless romantic to something much more sinister.
Carl died in 1952, discovered at death with a life sized effigy of Elena, taking his obsession with the dark-haired beauty to his grave. Rumor has it, he had secretly switched bodies and died with the real remains of Elena.