It was 1930 in sunny Key West, Florida, and Maria de Hoyos was dying of tuberculosis. Victorians described consumption as an illness that heightened the elegance and refinement of its victim, and that it was tragically beautiful to waste away with pallor and fragility. Maria would soon become the object of somebody’s very morbid obsession.
Maria was 21 years old, and the daughter of a Cuban cigar maker, whose life was already marred by tragedy. By all appearances, she was an attractive dark haired beauty queen who often wore red roses in her hair, drawing the attention of strangers who desired to photograph and court her. But death was creeping up close and fast.
Maria’s two sisters would later go on to die of tuberculosis, and her brother-in-law died while trying to save a construction worker from electrocution. Maria was married at the age of 16 to a man named Luis Mesa, who abandoned her after she miscarried their child. She would remain legally married to Luis until her death.
Maria’s life was not going well. And when she fell ill and her mother brought her into Marine Hospital in April of 1930, the disease would prove to be fatal. In the early 1900s, approximately 110,000 Americans would die each year from tuberculosis. The prognosis did not look positive for poor Maria.
Enter Carl Tanzler von Cosel, a German-born radiology technician who worked at the hospital. He was a cultured and intelligent man who had traveled across the world, to countries like Italy, India, Australia, Cuba and the Netherlands.
In fact, he had escaped from an Australian internment camp during WWI by building a makeshift sailboat after secretly studying engineering books. He claimed to have 9 academic degrees (most likely false), and was also purported to have aristocratic blood, going by the title of Count whenever he could get away with it.
Although he was already married with 2 daughters, Carl was immediately struck by Maria’s appearance. He recognized her from a vision he had many years ago, when his dead ancestor Countess Anna Constantia von Brockdorff came to him in a dream and showed him the face of his true love and soulmate: a gorgeous dark-haired woman who looked exactly like Maria.
The Countess had an interesting story herself; being the mistress of 18th century King Augustus II of Poland. When the King grew tired of the feisty and headstrong Countess, he had her exiled, and she stayed that way for 49 years until her death. Historically, the Cosel family seemed to be haunted by bad luck.
Back to Carl: despite being in his 50s and resembling Sigmund Freud, he did not inhibit himself from making strong advances towards young Maria. He dedicated all his time to curing her, or at least attempting to do so.
Like some medieval wizard, Carl conjured up odd concoctions, potions, tonics, elixirs, and herbs in order to treat her TB. He made house calls to Maria’s home, stealing the hospital’s x-ray machine to monitor her progress. He lavished her with gifts, and professed his undying love, telling her he would love and care for her even if she died.
Unfortunately for Carl, Maria did not reciprocate his romantic feelings, and turned down his proposals of marriage. Carl simply did not care, and continued indulging himself in unrequited love.
On October 25, 1931, Maria finally succumbed to TB, after struggling against the illness for a year and a half, which was how long Carl had spent orbiting her. She was only 22. He was devastated.
Before she died, Carl wrote in his journal how he “had hopes that, despite the extensive damage, the lesions would heal again. I had hopes that, when Elena was out of danger, we would get married. As long as she lived I never abandoned hope.”
Sadly, the story does not end here, and it takes a Weekend at Bernie’s sort of twist, but with some added necrophilia. Carl could not get over Maria’s death, so he decided to pursue her from beyond the grave.
With the consent of her family, Carl paid for Maria’s funeral and erected an elaborate mausoleum for her corpse. He had her coffin lined with formaldehyde and other preserving agents, and had a special key made for himself so he could come and go as he pleased. Carl spent hours at Maria’s gravesite everyday, talking to her corpse, singing songs to her, reading stories, and other crazy activities that are best left unspoken. This went on for two years.
Eventually, this was not enough. Carl claimed Maria began talking to him from the other side, telling him she was afraid of decaying and rotting. One night in 1933, he snuck her body out from the mausoleum in a toy wheelbarrow, and took her home with him. Maria’s family soon became puzzled when Carl stopped visiting her grave, but they just assumed that he had finally moved on. Little did they know…
Carl wrote in his memoirs:
“Elena, my darling, we are alone on this shore. He who has given you to me, will not reject our souls, united as they are in His undying love.”
Strong words from a man who was already technically rejected by Maria several times. Now that she was dead, she could not protest. Her body belonged to him. At home with her corpse, Carl set to work repairing the damage done by decomposition.
He replaced Maria’s brittle broken bones with coat hanger wire, and stuffed her torso with rags to keep her body in its original shape. He inserted glass eyes into her orbitals, and replaced her rotting skin with silk cloth coated by plaster of paris and wax.
For some reason, Maria’s mother possessed a wig made out of her daughter’s hair, and she gifted this to Carl. He would use this wig on Maria’s corpse, as the decomposition process had caused her hair to fall out.
Carl had to continuously preserve Maria’s decaying body, and mummification isn’t easy. He constantly applied disinfectants, deodorizer and formaldehyde to counteract the smells of putrefaction.
Now the big necrophilia question arises: did he or didn’t he? Surprisingly, there are no contemporary sources that mention anything about necrophilia. All of the sources that make claims about this are modern. In 1972, two doctors who were present at Maria’s 1940 autopsy recalled how Carl had inserted a paper tube into the corpse’s vaginal canal to facilitate intercourse. There are no photographs or other sources to prove this.
In Carl’s autobiography, he does confess to kissing and cuddling Maria’s cadaver. He slept with the body in his bed, but he kept a curtain between them because he was an extreme gentleman. It isn’t very far off to believe that necrophilia played a part in this twisted romance, but it’s important to remember these claims are not fully proven.
At this point, Carl had lost his job at the hospital and was living in a remote shack which also housed his laboratory. His behaviour became too erratic to hold a job, and the hospital had found out he was stealing medical equipment from them.
Carl had basically abandoned his wife and children, and was more content living with a dead body than a live woman. For some reason, his wife Doris took pity on him and regularly mailed him money to help him survive his destitute situation.
He was seen shopping for women’s clothing, jewelry and perfumes, and everybody assumed Carl was seeing someone new and had finally moved on. Nosy neighbours who peered through Carl’s window saw him dancing with the figure of a woman, and some thought it was a large doll. However, he managed to keep Maria’s body in his home for seven years without being discovered.
In 1940, it was finally over. Maria’s sister heard weird rumours about Carl. She went over to his home to confront him, and found out his terrible secret. She reported him to the police, and Carl was arrested. He was charged with “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization,” but the statute of limitations saved him from prosecution.
Surprisingly, a psychiatric evaluation by the court found Carl to be mentally competent. That seems extremely dubious.
As if this case wasn’t already bizarre enough, it takes an added sci-fi turn. Authorities found a homemade spaceship outside of Carl’s lab. Being a radiology technician, he of course had to go full mad scientist and attempt to go “high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form.” Is necrophilia legal in outer space?
The jig was up, and authorities confiscated the corpse. Carl had the nerve to ask them to return it back to him, but his request was rejected.
Instead, Maria’s mummified remains were put on display at Dean-Lopez Funeral Home. The case was now the center of a media circus, and 6,800 spectators came to gawk at the macabre spectacle, paying $1 each for the privilege. After this, Maria was finally laid to rest at Key West Cemetery in an unmarked grave, to deter Carl from disturbing her eternal rest.
Oddly enough, the public found Carl to be a sympathetic figure; a tragic romantic who had lost his beloved to cruel fate. They either ignored or were unaware of the necrophilic aspects of the “relationship.”
A defeated Carl shuffled off to Pasco County, Florida to patch together some semblance of a life. Before leaving, he dynamite bombed the mausoleum he had created for Maria, to spite authorities.
Not surprisingly, he was still obsessed. He created a life-like effigy and mask of her face, to replace the confiscated cadaver. He wrote his autobiography in 1947, and received American citizenship in 1950, because what’s more American than defiling a dead body? Doris continued to support her deranged and estranged husband financially.
Carl died alone in 1952, at the age of 75. His body was not discovered until three weeks after his death. Ironically, the man who prevented Maria from decomposing was himself rotting alone on the floor of his home for several weeks.
For his final diary entry, Carl had written:
“Human jealousy has robbed me of the body of my Elena, yet divine happiness is flowing through me for she has survived death. Forever and ever, she is with me.”
Standing above him as he died was a wax figure of Maria. From 1930 to 1952, he had endlessly obsessed over this woman. For nearly 22 years, she had been the focus of his life, alive or dead. To some, it is the ultimate romance, and to others, it is a grotesque tale of violation.
Maria Elena lies in some unmarked Floridian grave, in an 18 inch casket. The former corpse bride is now at rest.