A German immigrant, Karl Tanzler of Dresden, Germany, abandoned his wife and children in 1926 to relocate to Key West, Florida, where he changed his name to Carl Von Cosel and added "Count" as a nifty title. He claimed 19 different degrees, none of which were ever substantiated. Von Cosel worked for several years in a hospital that specialized in Tuberculosis, a then fatal and incurable affliction as a Radiologist.
In 1933, an attractive, 22 year-old Cuban-American girl, Elena Hoyos was admitted as a patient to the hospital by her mother with the hopelessly incurable disease, Tuberculosis, of course. She immediately caught the doctor's eye and he fell hopelessly in love. He showered the lovely girl with gifts of jewelry and clothing, and allegedly professed his love to her, but no evidence has surfaced to show that any of his affection was reciprocated by Hoyos.
He did all he could to try to rescue her form her most grave condition, but as aggressive as his treatments were, he was unable to save her from her dire fate. They young, beautiful woman died.
The Radiologist also paid for her funeral, and with the permission of her family Von Cosel got permission from her family to place Elena's body in a coffin that pumped constant doses of preserving formaldehyde to keep her tender flesh young ans beautiful for as long as humanly possible in a costly mausoleum so "the good doctor" might be able to gaze on her beauty for as long as time might allow.
People definitely noticed his evening visits and that the doctor creepily spent most of his time with the slowly decaying corpse. Oddly, or maybe not so much so, Dr. Von Cosel stopped coming to visit the deceased girl.
A private man, Von Cosel lived in a small house by the sea. He played his organ late into the night and came into the house often carrying large packages of perfumes and preservatives. Elena's sister grew suspicious and sought out Von Cosel when the cemetery reported that her coffin was missing.
Confronting the doctor at his home, she demanded to see her sister's body. He led her to it in his very own bridal chamber in his home. Karl had attached Elena's corpse's bones together with piano wire and fitted what was left of her face with glass eyes. As her skin decomposed, he replaced it with silk cloth soaked in wax and Plaster of Paris. As the hair fell out of the disinterred corpse's scalp, the clever Radiologist fashioned a wig from Hoyos's own hair that had been collected by her mother and given to him prior to her burial in 1931.
He filled her corpse's abdominal and chest cavity with rags to keep its form, dressed her remains in stockings, jewelry, and gloves. He used copious amounts of perfume, disinfectants, and preserving agents to mask the odor and counteract the effects of her corpse's decomposition. He created a death mask in the likeness of her face as to preserve her beauty from beyond the grave.
During his childhood in Germany, and later while traveling briefly in Genoa, Italy, Tanzler claimed to have been visited by visions of a dead ancestor, Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel, who revealed the face of his true love, an exotic dark-haired woman, to him.
After Von Cosel's confrontation with Elena's sister, who survived her, he was subsequently arrested and given a psychological evaluation by Florida's appropriate authorities. He was found sane. He was never prosecuted as the statute of limitations on abuse of a corpse was only two years. It had been seven years.
Shortly after the corpse's discovery by authorities, Hoyos's body was examined by physicians and pathologists, and put on public display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, where it was viewed by as many as 6,800 on-lookers.
In 1972, it was made public that Von Cosel had stolen Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos' body and taken it home, where the whole debaucle with her sister happened. The dead girl's body was reburied and encased in cement in an undisclosed, unmarked grave where Von Cosel couldn't find her again. The death mask was put on display in a local museum when the case became local folklore. It was stolen some time later and turned up in 1952 on the floor of Von Cosel's home lying next to his dead body.
Dr. DePoo and Dr. Foraker, who attended the 1940 autopsy of Hoyos's remains recalled in 1972 that a paper tube had been inserted in the vaginal area of the corpse that allowed for intercourse. Others contend that since no evidence of necrophilia was presented at the 1940 preliminary hearing, and because the physicians' "proof" surfaced in 1972, over 30 years after the case had been dismissed, the necrophilia allegation is questionable.
In 1944, Tanzler wrote an autobiography that appeared in the Pulp publication, Fantastic Adventures, in 1947. His home was near his wife Doris, who apparently helped to support Tanzler in his later years. Separated from his hot young corpse, Dr. Karl used a death mask to create a life-sized effigy of Hoyos, and lived with it until his death on July 3, 1952.
He was 75 years of age when he met his maker in Pasco County, Florida. His obituary recounted: "a metal cylinder on a shelf above a table in it wrapped in silken cloth and a robe was a waxen image".
Several bands have released musical interpretations of the Tanzler story. The Black Dahlia Murder released a song titled Death-mask Divine which tells the story.
The Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum in Key West, Florida, has an exhibit recreating Elena's body being cared for by Tanzler. Portions of the original memorial plaque that was commissioned by Tanzler and affixed to Elena Hoyos's mausoleum have been reassembled and are on display at the Martello Gallery-Key West Art and Historical Museum in Key West.