This week on Weekly Dose of Weird, we’re following a love story. This love story isn’t exactly rom com fodder, though. In 1930 Carl Tanzler was working in a hospital in Key West when he met the twenty-one year old Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, called Helen or Elena. She was sick with tuberculosis, which killed most of her family, and eventually killed her as well. But her story didn’t stop when she died.
Carl Tanzler was raised in Germany, but moved to the United States in 1926. While he was living in Europe, he claimed to have had visions of an ancestor, Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel, who showed him a beautiful dark-haired young woman who would be his one true love. Despite these visions, he got married in 1920 to a woman named Doris, they then had two daughters Ayesha and Crystal. The whole family emigrated to the US together, to the same town in Florida where Tanzler’s sister lived.
Tanzler had few friends or acquaintances outside of the hospital where he worked, and many of those acquaintances were patients, who died from tuberculosis. Losing so many of his friends must have taken quite a toll on Tanzler’s emotional state, given what would happen with Elena de Hoyos.
When Tanzler met de Hoyos she was already ill, but he became infatuated with her. According to Tanzler, de Hoyos was the dark-haired woman that his ancestor had shown him years before. She was a lovely woman, and though Tanzler treated her to the best of his ability - often using unorthodox and experimental treatments - she died young in 1931. Her family gave Tanzler permission to build an above-ground mausoleum for her body when he brought them concerns about groundwater contamination. He then visited her regularly. Her family never found this suspicious, since he had tried so hard to keep her alive. What they perhaps did not know was how far he had gone. Tanzler preserved de Hoyos’ body with formaldehyde and spent most nights by her side, talking all night long. For the nights when he couldn’t be there in person he had a telephone installed in her mausoleum. He claimed that her ghost visited him all the time, and that she begged him to take her body from the mausoleum.
In 1933, he did. Tanzler took her body to his home, and lived as if they were in a relationship. Sometimes he would even play her songs on his organ. Of course, by this time Elena de Hoyos had been dead for two years. Though Tanzler had tried to preserve her body with formaldehyde when she first died, the preservative just wasn’t working anymore. He used buckets and buckets of preservatives to stop her from decomposing any more than she already had, and poured bottle after bottle of perfume on her to try to keep her from smelling like a corpse. But to no avail.
After all of the time that Elena de Hoyos had been dead, there wasn’t much that could be done about her condition. That didn’t stop Carl Tanzler from trying though. As she decayed he began replacing parts of her body. When her skin began to peel away, Tanzler replaced it with silk soaked in wax and plaster - a false skin of his own design. As the tendons and ligaments holding her together fell apart, he used piano wire to hold her bones in place. When her eyes decayed and became slush, he replaced them with the type of glass eyes used in blind patients at the time. Elena’s hair fell out, and Tanzler made it into a wig. When her organs decayed, he filled her body with rags to keep her shape. Some later accounts also say that he installed a false vagina, but these did not begin to surface until the 1970s and no earlier evidence exists of this. Over time, Tanzler’s obsession transformed the remains of a lovely young woman into a morbid caricature of her living self.
Nine years after Elena de Hoyos died, in 1940, there were rumors about Tanzler and her body. Elena’s remaining sister confronted him about it, and found the body. Tanzler was arrested and psychologically evaluated; he was found fit to stand trial. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations on grave-robbing was long expired, so he couldn’t be convicted.
Media attention following the trial was enormous, but oddly much of it seemed to be favorable to Tanzler. Many articles referred to him as an eccentric romantic. That may have been racially motivated, as Tanzler was white and Elena de Hoyos was hispanic.
After the trial and media circus, Elena de Hoyos was reburied in a private unmarked grave so as not to tempt Tanzler again. He also wrote an autobiography which, oddly enough, appeared in a fantasy and science fiction magazine. Unfortunately, Tanzler’s obsession didn’t end with Elena’s corpse being reburied. He had a death mask of her, and used it to create a new replica, which he dressed in her clothes and kept with him until he died in 1952.
Two museums in Key West have exhibits highlighting this story, including the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, which has a replica of Elena’s body.