Elena Milagro de Hoyos was a beautiful young Cuban-American woman living in Key West when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1931. Her mother brought her to the U.S. Marine Hospital for treatment, and as fate would have it, unwittingly introduced a madman into her daughter’s life…and death.
Carl Tanzler was a German immigrant who worked as a radiology technician at the hospital and went by the name of Count Carl Von Cosel. He lived in a fairy tale world of his own imagining. In addition to granting himself the aristocratic title of Count, he also claimed to have earned nine university degrees, to have been the captain of a submarine and to be an inventor. (The last claim at least had some truth to it.) He did not share his true past with anyone in his new home town, that he had immigrated to the United States with a wife and two daughters whom he had abandoned hundreds of miles north in Zephyrhills, Florida.
The phony Count saw Elena when she came to the hospital for treatment, and fell madly in love. He believed young Elena was a woman he had had visions of years previously. Though at the time there was no cure for tuberculosis, he convinced her desperate family that he could help Elena through special x-ray sessions and tonics of his own concocting. While he cared for her, he showered Elena with gifts of jewelry and clothes, and even offered marriage…apparently neatly forgetting that he was still legally wed. Ironically, Elena too was already married; her husband had deserted her years earlier, but never divorced her. Her wedded state notwithstanding, Elena was not interested in the elderly Count for romantic purposes; she only wanted to survive the dreaded disease she had contracted. Sadly, it was not to be. Elena succumbed to her illness on October 25, 1931 at the age of 22.
After her death, the Count persuaded Elena’s family to allow him to build her a mausoleum, so she could be buried in style. He had a key made to the crypt and used to visit her grave almost daily, bringing flowers and other offerings. Two years after Elena’s death, the Count snuck her decayed corpse out of her tomb and brought it to his “laboratory”. There he rebuilt her body, using padding and mortician’s wax to fill out her form, oils and chemicals to keep what was left of her skin supple and glass eyes and a wig of Elena’s own hair to finish her look. He used silk fabric to replace her skin in areas where it had rotted away. In addition to the oils, herbs and embalming chemicals he lathered on the poor cadaver, he also liberally sprinkled her with perfumes, since after all, she was a corpse and corpses will smell.
For seven years he lived with Elena as his secret wife. He slept next to her in his bed. A newspaper boy even mentioned around town that he had been creeped out when he spied through window, the Count dancing with a life-sized “doll”. Finally, the townspeople put two and two together (why was this single, elderly man buying perfume and women’s clothing?) and the rumors started flying.
Elena’s family had been decimated by the same disease that had killed her, but her sister Nana was still alive to hear the whisperings. First she had Elena’s mausoleum opened, and when they found it without its occupant, she stormed the Count’s lair and discovered the horrid truth. Nana promptly went to the police, who then arrested Von Cosel.
During the time he was incarcerated and the matter was being mulled over by authorities, the locals were of mixed minds. Many considered what he did to be the height of romanticism. Others thought Von Cosel was sick in the head. The public furor over the matter was so great that the powers that be thought it would be a good idea to put the poor girl’s rebuilt body on display at the local funeral parlor. Thousands of gawkers, including children, filed past the coffin where the waxy image of a once vibrant, beautiful girl lay. Around the same time, (either before the viewing or after, I am not sure), an autopsy was done on the remains. Eventually her body was re-interred in a secret location, so Elena could finally rest in peace.
In the end, the case against Von Cosel was dismissed since the statute of limitations for his crime (grave robbing and desecrating a corpse) had expired. Freed from jail Von Cosel may have been, but his sensitivities were offended…he felt he had been treated horribly, and he couldn’t stay in Key West any longer. He relocated to Central Florida to live not far from his estranged wife and family. Rumor says that the night Von Cosel left Key West, there was an explosion at Elena’s former mausoleum. Von Cosel lived the remainder of his life with a new effigy he had fashioned of Elena, using a death mask of her face as a model. He died in 1952.
In 1972, two decades after Von Cosel’s death, one of the doctors who performed the autopsy on Elena’s body came forward with the further disquieting fact that Von Cosel had been having intimate relations with Elena’s body during the seven or more years he had lived with it. So disturbing was that discovery that the doctors decided not to make that information public while Elena’s family members still lived.
Poor Elena, given notoriety in death, through no fault of her own, due to the horrid actions of a madman. Rest in peace, Elena.
Special thanks to Charlie Carlon’s book Weird Florida, which was instrumental in my choice of topic for today’s blog.