There once was a man, a rather odd man, who went by the name of Carl Tanzler. The background of Carl Tanzler is a bit foggy, as he changed his backstory often and went by several different names. Among these are Karl Tanzler, George Karl Tanzler, and Count Carl Von Cosel. He moved from Germany to Key West Florida sometime in the 1920s. He claimed to have many more degrees than he actually did-depending on who you ask, he either ‘had’ nine, or nineteen. In the past, he had also supposedly traveled to Australia and India, been a submarine skipper, purchased an island and several boats, built a plane capable of traversing across the ocean, did a bit of electrical work, and supposedly had been jailed by British authorities in World War I. None of these things are proven though. The only thing known for certain about Tanzler’s past was that he had been an X-ray technician in Germany, before leaving his wife and two children behind for Florida.
Once arriving in Florida, Tanzler decided it was time to find a job. He successfully found one in the Tuberculosis Ward at Key West Hospital. He had no true experience as a doctor, so one has to wonder how he got the job, however the point still stands that he did. Whether or not he was a good doctor, he kept the job long enough to bring his wife and children over the ocean. Shortly after, Tanzler and his wife separated. Not long after that, a young Cuban woman named Elena came in to the Tuberculosis Ward. Tanzler later claimed that he recognized her on the spot. He said that when he was a child his ancestor would visit him and had showed him a vision of his true love. He claimed that the face he was shown was Elena’s.
Elena and her family, of course, knew none of this. One has to wonder exactly what they thought when Tanzler began attempting to court a dying woman 30 years his junior. He told her that he could cure her, and began attempts at an early untried version of chemotherapy, which consisted of him testing chemicals on her and using X-rays and radiation. He also began giving her expensive gifts of clothing, perfumes, jewelry, whatever he thought she may want. There is no evidence that Elena ever returned Tanzler’s love.
Unfortunately for Tanzler, Elena never even got the chance to reciprocate his love. Elena died not long after Tanzler met her. Elena’s family, the Hoyos, agreed to let Tanzler pay for the funeral and to erect an above-ground mausoleum to hold her body. They knew of Tanzler’s love, but not his obsession, and displaying an unusual amount of trust in a man they knew for less than half a year, they let him attempt to preserve her body by placing it in formaldehyde inside of the mausoleum. It is also claimed that Elena’s mother gave Tanzler some of Elena’s hair. Why she had the hair, and why she felt the need to give it to him is an unanswered question.
Tanzler visited her resting place every night. He claimed that her ghost would appear when he serenaded her corpse with her favorite songs, and that they would talk for hours. He claimed that the ghost had expressed her love for him. Two years after Elena’s death, Tanzler had enough. The commute was too long, and so he made a decision. Tanzler took Elena’s corpse and put it in a toy red wagon before wheeling it home with him.
There was, however, an issue. Elena was decaying and no longer looked how she had looked in life. Tanzler decided to restore her to her former glory. He used chemicals and oils to slow the decay. He used disinfectant and copious amounts of perfume to disguise the scent of death. He used wax and made a death mask of her face and put in glass eyes. He used the hair that Elena’s mother had given him from Elena’s head to make a wig for her. He kept her body together with clothes hangers and piano wire, and replaced her skin with silken cloth soaked in wax.
Tanzler kept Elena’s body in his bed for years. Around seven years, to be exact, which was when Elena’s sister became suspicious. It had been reported that her sister’s casket was missing, and Carl had stopped visiting after stealing away with her body. There had also been strange rumors circulating around his house. Carl had been buying women’s clothing and perfume, which was suspicious enough, without a report that Carl had been seen dancing with a lifesize doll through the window. Elena’s sister immediately went to Tanzler’s home.
Tanzler happily showed her what was left of Elena’s body, telling his unofficial sister-in-law that he and Elena were happily in love, and that she should visit again. Elena’s sister notified the authorities, horrified, and Tanzler was arrested for desecration of a grave. Grave robbing was not illegal at that point in time though. Tanzler was looked at by a psychiatrist and it was decided that he was sane and fit to stand trial.
Upon having the preliminary trial though, it was revealed that the statute of limitations had passed, and thus Tanzler could not be charged. This was much to the relief of the local population, particularly the women, who thought that what Tanzler had done was romantic and a sign of true love. Elena’s body was taken away, much to Tanzlers protestations, and autopsied by scientists.
The case was given so much attention that Elena’s body was put on display for a couple of days. Around 8,500 people showed up, and schools let out early so that the children could go and see the rather horrifying corpse. After this, Elena’s body was buried in an unmarked grave so that Tanzler could not steal it once more. According to some versions of the story, Tanzler asked for the corpse back, emboldened by the support. His request was denied. In addition, some versions say that he proceeded to blow up the mausoleum he had built in an act of pettiness. Whether or not that part is true remains to be seen.
Tanzler built a life sized dummy of Elena after the body was taken from him, and it kept him company in his bed until he died nearly 12 years later. Tales like to claim that he died in the dummy’s arms, but the autopsy report says that Tanzler was found on the floor next to his bed.
Some people just want to love and be loved by someone, and Carl Tanzler was one of those people, no matter how odd his love was.