Real-Life Corpse Bride: Grim Obsession Of Carl Tanzler

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By: Alex Postrado

The Messed Up Romance Of Carl Tanzler and His Dead Bride

True love is one thing and obsession is another.

But, apparently, not everyone finds it easy to tell those two things apart.

Carl Tanzler is one of those people.

Sometime around 1930, he was so convinced that he finally met the love of his life, only to lose her again in — what felt to him like — the blink of an eye.

While it is painfully difficult losing someone you love, to Carl, it was something that he simply was not willing to endure.

And if truth be told, he was ready to go to great lengths just to console himself in the best — yet, to us, the grimmest — possible way he knows how.

corpse bride portrait

Who is Carl Tanzler?

Born on February 8, 1877, in Dresden, Germany as Karl Tänzler — some sources list the name as Georg Karl Tänzler — Tanzler was said to be quite a curious child.

He spent most of his time growing up in Imperial Germany but eventually moved to Australia right before the outset of the first World War.

Since then, he has been a frequent traveler — visiting several countries across the globe, including Italy and India.

And around this time of his life, he went by multiple variations of his name.

Count Carl von Cosel, Carl Tanzler von Cosel, and Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel were among them.

But, he was best known — even to this day — as Carl Tanzler.

Around 1920, when Tanzler was in his early 40s, he decided to return to his homeland of Germany, where he later married a woman, named Doris Schäfer.

The couple had two children. The first was Ayesha Tanzler — born in 1922 — followed by Clarista Tanzler — born in 1924, but who, at a tender age of 10, died of diphtheria.

Despite having kids to raise, Tanzler frequently left their home for his trips — which, ultimately, caused his relationship with Doris to grow stale.

Still, the marriage went on — at least on paper.

When Tanzler and his family emigrated to the United States in 1926, briefly settling in Zephyrhills, Florida — where his sister had already emigrated not long before — he began to seek a fresh start.

And a fresh start, he got!

After a year of staying in Zephyrhills with his family, he left for the southernmost city of Key West, Florida — going by the name, Carl von Cosel.

Soon, he started working as a radiology technologist at the Marine Hospital Service in Key West.

Little did he know that one fateful day in that job, he was going to meet the person that would set off, perhaps, the most crucial shift in the narrative of his life.

Carl Tanzler photo
Carl Tanzler in 1940

Meeting the “Love of His Life”

The thing about Tanzler is, he was always — for lack of a better word — strange. Even as a kid!

In his later-life travel to Genoa, Italy, he claimed that ever since he was a child, he has been occasionally visited by “visions of a dead, purported ancestor“, called Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel.

In his visions, he alleged that the face of his true love was revealed: A beautiful and “exotic“, dark-haired woman.

All throughout his life, he has been searching and waiting for the arrival of his mystery dream girl.

But, on April 22, 1930, while Tanzler was working his shift at the Marine Hospital, it suddenly felt like the long wait was finally over.

Enter Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, also called Helen.

A Cuban-American woman that was the daughter of local cigar maker Francisco “Pancho” Hoyos and Aurora Milagro.

She had two sisters: Florinda “Nana” Milagro Hoyos and Celia Milagro Hoyos.

On the day Elena was first seen by Tanzler, she was brought to the Marine Hospital by her mother to undergo an examination.

Unbeknownst to them, that unexpected brush with Tanzler was enough for him to immediately relate Elena to the beautiful woman from his visions.

To be fair, though, Elena was indeed considered “a local beauty” around Key West.

However, the feeling that Tanzler had for the then-21-year-old woman was far from the usual “crush“.

Accounts say that it was more like a serious case of infatuation that soon developed into a full-blown obsession.

An obsession that carried on well after Elena’s death.

The Obsession that Death Could Not End

It was later discovered that Elena was suffering from tuberculosis — an infectious disease that, while now can be cured was once notably fatal.

With his “self-professed medical knowledge“, Tanzler offered Elena all the help he could give.

He attempted to treat Elena with various medicines, as well as with the use of X-ray and other electrical equipment — however, all of which proved to be futile.

On October 25, 1931, Elena passed away.

By that time, the grief-stricken Tanzler — with the permission of Elena’s family — paid for his lost love’s funeral. And he also commissioned the building of a pricey mausoleum, in which Elena’s body would be locked inside, in the Key West Cemetery.

Then began his nightly visits to Elena’s grave.

One thing that the Hoyos family failed to immediately realize was that the only key to their daughter’s tomb would be kept by Tanzler.

Being the obsessive lover that he was, it did not take long before Tanzler started exploiting this privilege.

According to him, in many of his visits, Elena would try to convince him to take her from the grave.

So, one late evening in April 1933, Tanzler stole Elena’s body from the mausoleum and carted it out of the cemetery, into his home, without saying anything to anyone.

The Hoyos family was initially weirded out when they found out that Tanzler ceased visiting Elena’s grave. They also heard that Tanzler was fired from his job, but they eventually decided to dismiss these thoughts.

They had absolutely no idea of the horror Tanzler has committed!

For seven whole years, Tanzler slept in the same bed that Elena’s body was kept in.

Tanzler treated his corpse bride just like how he did when Elena was alive — showering her with gifts and jewelry. He also wrapped Elena’s body in fancy dresses, stockings, and gloves.

However, the real challenge was keeping the decaying corpse intact and in its original form, while also masking the rotting smell of death.

With all that in mind, Tanzler tried many things, including:

Utilizing glass eyes; attaching Elena’s bones together with piano wire; fashioning a wig from her real hair; stuffing the body’s chest and abdominal cavity with rags; replacing the moldering skin with silk cloth, soaked in both plaster of Paris and wax; and dousing the corpse in copious amounts of oil, disinfectant, and perfume.

For Tanzler, his heaven-on-earth affair was fun while it lasted.

After years of living as a recluse with Elena’s corpse, though — regularly buying women’s clothes and perfume, despite being “alone“, as well as allegedly being witnessed once by a local kid dancing with a human-sized “doll — people naturally began asking questions.

The rumors about Elena’s remains, possibly being in Tanzler’s possession, eventually reached the Hoyos family in 1940 — prompting Elena’s sister, Florinda, to confront Tanzler in his home.

carl tanzler and his bride
Does love have a limit?

There, she found out about the grisly truth. With her own eyes, she saw Elena’s crumbling body.

She quickly notified the authorities and Tanzler was arrested for “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave, and removing a body without authorization.”

Tanzler was then examined and was found mentally capable to stand trial.

During a hearing, he confessed that his ultimate plan was to take Elena “high into the stratosphere so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form“.

Apparently, nothing made much sense at the proceedings. Even the fact that the masses of that time largely viewed Tanzler as eccentrically romantic and even sympathized with him doesn’t quite sit well even now.

But, in spite of all efforts of the angered family, the case was dismissed.

The statute of limitations had expired and Tanzler was set free.

Indications of Necrophilia?

During the time of Tanzler’s case, he denied all accusations of necrophilia.

It was also a part of the crime that the media, along with the rather supportive crowd, seemed to not be particularly interested in.

But, in 1972, over three decades after the trials, research revealed that Tanzler indeed performed acts of necrophilia on Elena’s decaying body.

According to this supposed evidence, Tanzler inserted a makeshift tube in the vaginal area of Elena’s corpse to allow intercourse. But, some people remain skeptical about this information, wondering why it never surfaced back in the 40s.

In any case, HBO’s 1999 Autopsy program recounted the necrophilia allegation — cementing it further in the minds of the recent generation.

Life After the Controversy

In 1950, Tanzler officially became a US citizen.

But, since 1944, he has been staying in Pasco County, near Zephyrhills, where his wife Doris still lived. That was where he spent the rest of his days.

If you think he learned anything from his past morbid escapade, though, you’re absolutely mistaken!

Three weeks after his death on July 3, 1952, Tanzler was found with a life-sized effigy of Elena, complete with a death mask.

Some theorize that, back then, Tanzler switched the bodies and successfully kept Elena’s real remains — contained in the effigy that he had when he died.

However, reports from the time of Tanzler’s arrest said that after displaying Elena’s body at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home — viewed by about 7,000 people — it was buried in an undisclosed location, in an unmarked grave to “prevent further tampering”.

Still, up to this day, people wonder about the truth in Carl Tanzler’s messed up “love story“.

But answers remain elusive — at least, at this point.

We don’t even know if Elena ever reciprocated the love, dedicated by Tanzler.

But, as Sharon Needles puts it in her 2013 Tanzler-inspired single, I guess, dead girls can never really say no.


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