Strange States: Florida's Corpse Bride

Image credit: 
Flickr.com/KeysLibraries

Two Strange States entries simply weren't enough to contain the oddities in America’s favorite vacation destination. Here's another. Warning: You probably shouldn't read this one while you're eating lunch.

The Morbid Obsession of Carl Tanzler

Love for a woman inspired Edward Leedskalnin to create the beautiful Coral Castle. But for Leedskalnin’s Florida contemporary, Carl Tanzler, infatuation led him down a much darker, more disturbing path. 

Tanzler, also known as Count Carl von Cosel, was a German immigrant who came to Zephyrhills, Florida with his family in 1926.  However, he soon left his wife and children to take a job in Key West as a radiologist for the U.S. Marine Hospital. While there, he met a beautiful young woman 32 years his junior named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, better known as Helen (top, in a photo courtesy of the Florida Keys Public Library). Helen had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and Tanzler visited her at her family’s home often, attempting to treat the disease with x-ray machines and other forms of untested science. Later, Tanzler professed his love for her, declaring that he had been searching for her his whole life.

Since he was a boy, Tanzler reported having visions of his ancestor, Countess Anna Constantina von Cosel, who died in 1765.  Tanzler claimed the Countess sent him an image of his one true love: a dark-haired woman, whom Tanzler said matched Helen exactly.

Sadly, Helen died in 1931. Her funeral was paid for by Tanzler, as was the mausoleum he convinced the family to build instead of having her buried. This allowed him the chance to visit her graveside every evening and sing her favorite Spanish tunes to her. While there, he claimed that Helen often spoke to him, calling to him from beyond the grave, begging him to take her home. And so he did, sometime in April 1933.

It wasn’t long after being exposed to the elements that Helen’s body began to decompose. After placing her in his bed, Tanzler tied her bones together using piano wire and clothes hangers. Later, he replaced the eyes with glass orbs, made a wig out of her hair as it fell out, and replaced her skin with a combination of plaster of Paris and silk soaked in wax. To help the torso keep its form, he stuffed it with rags. He put her in a dress, stockings, and gloves, and applied makeup to give her a more lifelike appearance. In order to mask the smell of the body, he regularly doused her in perfume. 

Tanzler lived with the corpse of his beloved for seven years, sleeping next to her every night. It wasn’t until 1940, when Helen’s sister heard rumors that Tanzler might have her sister’s remains, that the authorities were called in to investigate. Helen’s body was found and an autopsy was performed after which, as if she hadn’t already suffered enough indignities, her body was put on public display for three days and was viewed by over 6000 Floridians. She was later buried in an unmarked grave. 

In 1972, a doctor that attended the autopsy would make one final, disturbing revelation about the body—a tube had been found inserted in the vaginal area so Tanzler could simulate intercourse. This fact was not mentioned when Tanzler was arrested and charged only with “maliciously disturbing” Helen’s grave. It’s hard to believe, but many people at the time felt sorry for him, saying he was just “an eccentric romantic.”  Maybe if they’d been given the whole story...

Shortly after his arrest, the charges against Tanzler were dropped because the statute of limitations for his lesser crime was only two years. Following his release, Tanzler moved back to Zephyrhills where he spent the rest of his life selling postcards of pictures of Helen, telling curious tourists about his exploits, and showing off a wax copy of his beloved’s death mask. In a final creepy twist, Tanzler was found dead in 1952, near a life-size effigy of Helen wearing the wax death mask.

Believe it or not, there’s even more strangeness in Florida, so we might have to run another entry tomorrow. In the meantime, check out our Strange States archive here.

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October 17, 2013 - 1:00pm
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