In Bed with Death: A Story of a Man Who Lived with the Body of His Loved One for Seven Years
Silk soaked in wax and plaster that replaced the decayed skin, bones connected with piano strings and wire, body stuffed with rags, a wig from hair cut before death and glass eyes — this was what Carl Tanzler’s love looked like for the seven years he lived with her after her death, before the idyll was destroyed by angry relatives of the deceased woman.
Her name was Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos. A young black-haired Cuban woman and Tanzler met for the first time in 1930 in the Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida. The young woman’s mother brought her in to see a doctor: at 21, she was dying of tuberculosis. After their first meeting Tanzler got sick, too: from then on and to the end of his days he was lovesick for this woman.
Tanzler was born in Dresden in 1877. After graduating from a medical university, he left for Australia, where during WWI he ended up in an internment camp. After the war, former prisoners were not allowed to stay in the country, so he was deported to Holland.
Tanzler saw no prospects in post-war Europe, so he decided to emigrate to the States — his sister already lived in Florida. In 1926, Carl with his wife and two daughters moved to Zephyrhills. When he submitted documents for US citizenship, he called himself Carl Tanzler von Cosel. This was not an accidental choice of name — Tanzler loved telling the story that he was supposedly a relative of Countess von Cosel and claimed that the ghost of the eminent relative had visited him his entire childhood. According to him, during those visions he also saw a face of a dark-haired young woman that was supposed to become the love of his life.
In 1927, he left the family in Zephyrhills and got a job as an X-ray technician in the Marine Hospital on Key West. Having met Elena de Hoyos after three years, Tanzler realized: this is the image of a loved one from his childhood visions. Von Cosel showered Elena with gifts and tried to cure her, but in vain. The illness won over the passion — on October 25, 1931, the young woman died of tuberculosis complications.
Cosel was inconsolable. He paid for the funeral and talked relatives into building a crypt with his money, but for some strange reason ordered only one key — for himself. For two years, he visited his love every day, but in 1933, when he was fired from the hospital, his visits stopped.
This sudden change surprised Elena’s relatives. The reason for this change that was discovered after seven years turned out to be even stranger. Elena’s sister who was tired of suspicions and rumours came to von Cosel when he was not home and he had to stand in court for desecration of a grave and abduction of a corpse.
Soon after he was fired, during one of his night visits a lovesick doctor took the body of his loved one from the crypt on a toy trolley. With the help of wax, plaster, hooks and strings he made her remains look like a living person, and didn’t save on dresses or perfume — he had to deal with the smell of the decay all the time. Since then and until his arrangement was uncovered in 1940, von Cosel had never slept alone — he shared the marital bed with Elena’s body. Later examination of the body showed to what extent had gone in his attempts to be close to her: a paper tube that made penetration easier was discovered in the woman’s vagina.
When the doctor was exposed, the body of the woman was displayed for the public, and the details of the trial were widely covered in the press. Contrary to expectations, many contemporaries were compassionate to the lovesick necrophile: women called him an eccentric romantic, and the trial dropped charges in relation to the statute of limitations. To protect Elena’s remains from the new possible endeavours of the man, this time her relatives buried her in an unmarked grave. Four years after the trial, von Cosel moved to Pasco County in Florida, where he wrote his autobiography titled Fantastic Adventures. According to legend, until his death in 1952 he kept a full-size wax doll with Elena’s likeness including a plaster cast of her face.