Carl Tanzler was a man of many talents. He was a German-born radiologist born in Dresen on 8 February 1877. He was a former submarine captain in World War I and an accomplished inventor with nine university degrees.

​In his early childhood, he claimed to be visited frequently by one of his long-dead ancestors, Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel, who kept showing him the face of his one true love, a dark-haired woman. Tanzler carried the memory of that lovely woman into his adult life.

​ Tanzler, at the age of 43, married a young woman, Doris Schafer, with whom he had two children in his native country before the family emigrated to America in 1926. Soon after the arrival, Carl decided the family life wasn’t for him. He abandoned his wife and children to work in the United States Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida.

After taking the job at the hospital as a radiological technician in 1927, he maintained a low profile and mostly kept to himself. He was known as an eccentric lonely man who was kind and shy until one day at the hospital when a 20-year-old Cuban-American woman, Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos walked in for an examination. Everything changed. Literally.

Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos

Elena was the daughter of a local cigar maker Francisco Hoyos and Aurora Milagro. She was legally married to Luis Mesa on February 18, 1926 but left him shortly after she suffered a miscarriage of the couple’s child.

Her hair was raven-black. He immediately recognised her because her features matched those of the woman of his dreams. Carl became obsessed with her. He learned she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. A fatal disease at that time because a vaccine hadn’t been developed. In fact, the disease claimed the lives of almost all her immediate family.

Carl took an earnest interest in her care, even though he had no idea on how to treat tuberculosis. He’d found his soulmate and was determined to save her life. He dedicated every second of his life to finding a miracle cure while showering her with gifts and continually professing his undying love.

Sparing zero expense and disregarding the hospital procedure and authority, he smuggled illegal x-ray machines and other electrical equipments to Hoyos’ house for home treatment. He administered experimental tonics, medicines and plant extracts to heal Elena. (There was no evidence of Elena reciprocating his feelings)

Sadly, despite Carl’s best efforts, Elena died at the age of 21 on October 26, 1931 at her parent’s home.

Carl was devastated. He took charge of her funeral. With the permission of her family who’d trusted Carl since he was the one who took care of her till death, he commissioned the construction of an above-ground, expensive mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery. He hired a mortician who cleaned and fixed up her body before laying it in the tomb.

the mausoleum

However, her family had not known that Carl’s kind and thoughtful gesture was to make sure he was the only person who had the key to the stone structure. He visited the gravesite every night for two years to spend time with the corpse of his beloved.

Eventually, Carl was not satisfied with just the nightly visits. He needed more quality time with his decaying patient. He removed Elena from the grave, in a red, toy wagon and transported it home – a makeshift lab he had fashioned inside of an old plane. At that time, he’d been fired at his job for generally creeping everyone out with his dead patient obsession. He claimed he’d heard Elena’s voice calling to him to set her free from the stone prison.

glass eyes

At this point, Elena’s body wasn’t holding up so well. Carl used piano wires to keep her together and put glass eyes in her eye sockets. Her decomposing skin, he replaced with wax-coated fabric and held together with plaster of Paris. He stuffed her abdominal and chest cavities with rags and wore on her decaying head, a wig made from her own hair that had fallen off her scalp. He dressed her with her clothes and placed her on his bed. He constantly used disinfectants and oils to mask her rotten smell. This went on for seven years.

Everyone noticed Carl’s visit to the mausoleum abruptly stopped. They found it odd but they were happy, believing he finally moved on. However, it became suspicious when Carl, a single man, who lived alone, was seen about town purchasing women’s clothing, gloves, stockings, jewellery and perfumes at the local store. There were also reports of two shadowy figures seen dancing where the doctor lived.

Rumours began to circulate about Carl sleeping with the corpse of Elena. And a local boy sighted him through the window, dancing with a giant doll that looked like Elena. The word got to Elena’s sister, who confronted Carl at his homewhere she discovered a wax figure of her sister. Carl had willingly invited her inside and showed off what was left of Elena’s body in his bedroom.

a wax dummy of Elena

She went to the authorities, who seized the figure and confirmed it was Elena’s rotten body. Also, while performing the autopsy on Elena’s remains, they found that among the multiple body parts Carl had reconstructed was a paper tube he inserted inside her to serve as a vagina to allow for sexual intercourse.

Carl was arrested. He was psychiatrically examined and found sane and mentally competent to stand trial for wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorisation.  

The trial became a topic of debate as majority of the public, especially women, supported Carl, viewing him as an eccentric romantic. However, at that time, the crime itself had passed the statute of limitations, so his case was dismissed.

Elena’s body was returned to the cemetery in a secret location to prevent further tampering after it was briefly displayed for thousands of locals at a local funeral home.

After his release, he decided to visit Elena’s former grave site. When he realised her corpse wasn’t there, he used dynamite to destroy the mausoleum just before leaving town. Carl asked for Elena’s body back, which was denied. 

In 1944, Carl moved to Pasco County, Florida where he wrote his autobiography. His home was near his wife, who helped him in his later years.

In his final diary entry, he wrote, “Human jealousy has robbed me of the body of my Elena, yet divine happiness is flowing through me for she has survived death. Forever and ever, she is with me.”

a mask of Elena’s face

He made plaster masks of Elena’s face to forever memorialize her beauty. He also crafted a life-sized dummy of her. Some accounts of Carl’s death claimed that he was found deceased on the floor of his bedroom with Elena’s sculpture wrapped in his arms.

32 thoughts on “STRANGE BUT TRUE

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  1. Probably should have done the latter first. Still disturbing but less…wow, I honestly can’t find a word to describe, great read!

    Liked by 5 people

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