real life

The disturbing true story of a man and his undying love for his 'corpse bride'.

The true story of Carl Tanzler and his ‘corpse-bride’ is one that’s truly stranger than fiction.

It’s about a mad scientist who fell in love with a beautiful, terminally ill young woman, and whose obsession only escalated after her death.

More than 85 years on, the bizarre, one-sided love story is still as engrossing as it is straight-up gross.

Tanzler — sometimes known as “Count Carl von Cosel” — was aged in his 50s when he first set eyes on Elena Hoyos.

He was working at the Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida, when the Cuban-American woman was brought in to see him by her mother in April of 1930, suffering from tuberculosis.

Tanzler recognised her immediately. He had been plagued by “visions” of the dark-haired beauty throughout his childhood in Germany, and with self-possessed medical knowledge, desperately tried to save her life, all the while becoming increasingly besotted by her.

Elena Hoyos at 17 in 1926. Source: Florida Keys Public Library/Stetson Kennedy

But while he showered the young woman -- who was married to another man -- with gifts, countless proposals, and declarations of his undying love, the feeling was never mutual.

In fact, according to a Miami Herald article referenced in a recent episode of This American LifeHoyos thought of her ageing suitor as "a grandfather".

"She never loved him. She was only nice to him because my mother told her she should be kind to those who were kind to her," Hoyos sister, Nana Medina, told the newspaper.

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"She looked upon von Cosel as a grandfather. And when he proposed marriage, she always told him 'You are too old. Why, you are old enough to be my grandfather. What's more, I do not love you.' He became so persistent that we asked him to stay away from the house."

When Hoyos dies, aged 22, around a year and a half after the pair met, Tanzler was devastated.

He paid for her funeral and -- with permission of her family -- commissioned a mausoleum to be built above her grave in the local cemetery, which he visited almost every night.

Carl Tanzler. Source: Florida Keys Public Library/Stetson Kennedy

Not content to leave the object of his love to decay underground, however, in 1933, in the middle of the night on a new moon (a reference to Cuban folk song), Tanzler got a wagon, dug up Hoyos' corpse and took her home.

He used coat hangers to hold her bones together, preserved her face with a mixture of gauze and wax and as her skin began to decompose further he would replace it with silk and plaster of Paris.

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Hoyos wore a wig made of her own hair, which had been collected by her mother at the time of her death.

Her body, which was filled with rags so it would hold its shape, was dressed in stockings, jewellery, and gloves, and doused in perfume.

For seven years Tanzler kept his "living doll", celebrated Christmas with her, slept with her and conducted Frankenstein-esque experiments including radiotherapy to bring her back to life.

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Eventually, as rumours of the necrophilia spread, Hoyos' sister began to suspect something was wrong and asked for access to the mausoleum. Tanzler, of course, refused.

Elena's preserved body. Source: Florida Keys Public Library/Stetson Kennedy

Fed up, Medina showed up at his house in October 1940. She was horrified to discover her sister's painted corpse, and immediately alerted the authorities.

"I did not want one so beautiful to go to dust," was Tanzler's excuse given to a local newspaper in the months after his arrest.

And, oddly enough, people were sympathetic to him. Many commented on his skill, while some suggested Hoyos' be turned into a "Sleeping Beauty attraction", which is basically what happened to her when police allowed the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home to display her body, before she was eventually returned to the ground.

Tanzler stood trial for "wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorisation" but the charges were eventually dropped and he lived out the rest of his days in Pasco County, Florida.

He died in 1952 and, according to some reports, his body was found holding an effigy of his late sweetheart.

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, Tanzler's story -- though it became the subject of an unflinching book -- is often retold as one of eccentric romance, rather than unhinged and harmful obsession.

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