Why you should care
Dr. Carl von Cosel’s obsession with a former patient didn’t stop when her heart did.
The body of Elena Milagro de Hoyas went on display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home in Key West, Florida, in 1940. But the onlookers who flocked to view the body, covered in mortician’s wax and paper-mache, weren’t drawn by the morbid curiosity that led crowds to famous corpses like the Elephant Man or the deformed fetuses in formaldehyde jars that were common oddities in the 19th century. Instead, it was a story.
It was framed as a love story between Elena and her doctor, Count Carl von Cosel. And like most good stories, this one had a twist: It all took place after Elena’s death. The strange amalgam of synthetic and decayed organic parts that visitors to the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home paid to see lived with Dr. von Cosel for seven years, sitting down with him for dinner, dancing with him by the fireside, even sharing his bed.
Born Carl Tanzler in Dresden, Germany, the good doctor had fabricated his aristocratic last name along with his title. He claimed to have been a submarine captain in World War I and an accomplished inventor. He also claimed to have held nine university degrees — accomplishments that are now considered embellishments of the truth at best. One thing that is known: At the age of 43, while still in his native country, Tanzler married a young woman with whom he had two children. The family emigrated to America in the mid-1920s, changing their last name to “von Cosel” in the process.
But soon after arriving at their final destination of Zephyrhills, Florida, Dr. von Cosel decided that family life wasn’t for him and promptly abandoned his wife and children. In 1927, he took a job as a radiological technician at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West, where he kept mostly to himself and was known as a kind, shy eccentric. That all changed on April 22, 1930, when a 20-year-old Cuban emigré, Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyas, was admitted to the tuberculosis ward.
To von Cosel, it was a meeting of two souls. But two obstacles stood in the way of their love: First, Elena — a known beauty with raven black hair in which she often wore a rose — was utterly unaware of the doctor’s infatuation, and second, she was dying of tuberculosis. Unable to bear the thought of losing the love of his life, von Cosel dedicated every waking moment to finding a miracle cure. Ignoring hospital procedure, he administered homemade tonics and medicines to Elena, and even made house calls at the de Hoyas’ family home, attempting to cure her with electrical equipment of his own devising. Despite his best efforts, Elena succumbed to the illness on Oct. 25, 1931, at the age of 21.
Von Cosel, devastated, paid for her remains to be placed in an opulent stone mausoleum at the Key West Cemetery. Without fail, the doctor visited Elena’s gravesite every day for two years. Her family saw his grief as that of a dedicated physician, destroyed by his inability to save her. But von Cosel did not simply lay flowers at the tomb’s doorstep and weep. He had a key — the only key, in fact — and would enter under cover of darkness to spend time with the corpse of his beloved.
Two years after Elena’s death, von Cosel’s nightly visits to the mausoleum abruptly stopped. The Hoyas family found this odd, considering his apparent dedication to the memory of their daughter, but they were happy that he was finally moving on. He could be seen about town, buying women’s clothing, jewelry and perfume at the local shops. His neighbors even reported seeing two shadowy figures dancing in the doctor’s foyer. It seemed that von Cosel finally had a new woman in his life.
But in October of 1940, Elena’s sister decided to pay von Cosel a visit and discovered the identity of the doctor’s mysterious love interest: the corpse of her long-dead sister. Horrified, she immediately alerted the local authorities who determined that von Cosel had stolen Elena’s body from the cemetery and had been living with it for seven years.
In 1933, the doctor had removed Elena’s corpse from the mausoleum and transported it via a toy wagon to a makeshift laboratory he had built inside of an old airplane. There, he “resurrected” his lost love with the help of paper-mache, mortician’s wax and rags. He placed glass eyes in her empty sockets and inserted wires into her limbs so that he could easily manipulate her posture. Upon closer inspection, investigators found a carefully placed cardboard tube in Elena’s genital region, the use of which is best left to the imagination.
As the years went by, von Cosel’s postmortem bride continued to decay, but the doctor devised an array of methods to subvert this natural process. He doused Elena’s body in oils and disinfectants to mask the smell of rotting flesh and replaced her now bare scalp with human hair. By the time Elena’s sister arrived for her fateful visit, the corpse looked like nothing more than a life-size paper-mache and wax doll.
Instead of a depraved necrophiliac, the public saw von Cosel as a lonely and sad romantic.
Von Cosel appeared in court on Oct. 9, 1940, for “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization,” but the charges were eventually dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Questioned during the hearing, von Cosel revealed plans to finish the airship that would transport Elena’s body “high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form.”
Though the case turned into a media circus, the general public was surprisingly sympathetic toward the demented doctor. Instead of a depraved necrophiliac, they saw him as a lonely and sad romantic. “I think the most fascinating reaction to this strangest-of-the-strange story was the overwhelming public support for Count von Cosel,” says Ben Harrison, author of Undying Love, a book about von Cosel and Elena’s “love” story that was adapted into a musical.
After the frenzy of the court case, Elena’s corpse was transported back to Key West Cemetery, but not before von Cosel asked that it be returned to him. The request was denied, and her remains were hidden in an 18-inch casket buried in a secret spot to keep anyone from disturbing them again. Von Cosel constructed a life-size effigy around Elena’s death mask and lived with it until he died on July 3, 1952.