They say love never dies. Carl Tanzler took that to heart — maybe too literally. When his beloved patient, Elena Milagro de Hoyos, died in 1931, he couldn’t bear it. After two years of visiting her in her tomb, he stole her decaying body and brought it home, where he did his best for seven years to preserve it.
Carl was an odd bird even before he became a grave robber. First, there’s the issue of his name. When he immigrated from Germany with his wife and his two children, he was plain old Carl Tanzler. But in the New World he became an aristocrat, calling himself Count Carl Tanzler von Cassel.
He wasn’t a count. He also wasn’t a doctor, but that didn’t stop him from taking Elena Milagro as a patient. When he met the young woman who would become his life (and death) obsession, he was in his 50s and living in Key West, Florida. His wife had left him. He was working as a radiology technician at the U.S. Marine Hospital.
Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos was a 21-year-old Cuban American beauty. She had come to the Marine Hospital for treatment of tuberculosis. Tanzler had had visions since childhood of a dark-haired woman who was destined to be his true love. He believed he had finally found her in Elena.
In 1930, tuberculosis was an often fatal disease. Bypassing all hospital rules, Tanzler set about saving her life. He invented a bizarre regimen of homemade tonics and x-ray treatments using equipment he smuggled from the hospital to her parents’ home.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Elena died on October 25, 1931. Tanzler used his own money to build an elaborate stone mausoleum for her — with her family’s approval. But he kept the key. For two years, he visited her nightly in her above-ground tomb. Then he decided the next step was to bring her back to life.
He built a laboratory for the purpose, and late one night he stole Elena’s body, bringing it to his lab in a toy wagon. Tanzler used mortician’s wax, plaster of paris and wires to hold the rotting corpse together. He bought it perfume and clothing. He even put a wig made of Elena’s own hair on the corpse’s head.
He also shared a bed with it. It is not clear whether or not he had sex with his dead bride, but a paper tube was reportedly discovered in her vaginal cavity. Tanzer later revealed that his ultimate plan was to fly Elena high into the stratosphere where radiation from outer space would “restore life to her somnolent form.”
He never got the chance. After seven years of blissful life with his mummy, neighbors began to get suspicious. Why was he buying women’s clothes? Why wasn’t he visiting Elena’s tomb any more? When one local spotted him through the windows dancing with a giant doll, they came to investigate.
Elena’s mummified corpse was put on display in a funeral home where more than 6,000 people viewed it before it was returned to the Key West Cemetery. It was put in an unmarked grave to prevent any more tampering.
Tanzler was put on trial for grave robbery, but as the statute of limitations had expired, he went free. Surprisingly, he was not despised in the community. Many people, especially women, saw him as an eccentric romantic. He even asked for Elena’s body back. That request was not granted, but Tanzler did build a model of his love and made do with that for the rest of his life.
Rumors persist to this day that he actually switched the model and the mummy at the last minute, and lived out his days with Elena’s corpse.