Carl Tanzler, also known as Georg Carl Tanzler, was consumed by a dangerous obsession. As a radiology technologist at the Marine Hospital Service in Key West, Florida, he fell deeply in love with a young Cuban-American tuberculosis patient named Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos.
Despite her untimely death in 1931, Tanzler’s obsession with her only grew stronger with time.
In a twisted desperation, Tanzler took matters into his own hands. In 1933, he snatched Elena’s lifeless body from its tomb and brought it to his home, where he lived with her corpse for seven long years. As the years went by, Tanzler’s sanity slipped further and further away until he was lost in a world of his own making.
But all things must end, and Tanzler’s sick and twisted secret was discovered by Elena’s horrified relatives and the authorities in 1940. What they found inside Tanzler’s home was beyond comprehension – the mummified corpse of a young woman, preserved by Tanzler’s twisted love and delusion.
Carl Tanzler’s story is a cautionary tale of obsession, madness, and the depths to which the human mind can sink. It serves as a reminder that even the most innocent and pure emotions can become corrupted by the darkness within us all.
Who was Carl Tanzler, and What did he Do?
Carl Tanzler, born on February 8, 1877, had a life shrouded in mystery and darkness. Tanzler’s fascination with death and the supernatural began at a young age. He claimed that as a child in Germany and later during a brief stay in Genoa, Italy, he was visited by visions of a dead ancestor named Countess Anna Constantia Tanzler.
According to Tanzler, the Countess revealed the face of his true love, an exotic dark-haired woman.
Growing up in Imperial Germany, he found himself drawn to the far reaches of the world, eventually making his way to Australia just before the outbreak of World War I.
During his time in Australia, Tanzler’s true nature revealed itself. His twisted mind and dark desires led him down a dangerous path, culminating in his internment during the Great War.
But even after the war ended and Tanzler was able to return to Germany, the darkness that haunted him never dissipated. It followed him like a shadow, driving him further into the depths of his twisted obsession until it consumed him entirely.
Tanzler was an adventurer in his early years, traveling the world in search of new experiences and excitement. He set his sights on the South Seas Islands and prepared to journey when he became sidetracked in Australia. There, he became interested in engineering and electrical work, purchasing property and boats, and even an island in the Pacific.
However, fate had other plans for Tanzler. When World War I broke out, the British military authorities placed him in a concentration camp, along with other prisoners of war from India and China. Eventually, he was transferred to Trial Bay, a castle-like prison on the cliffs, where he spent his time honing his skills and talents.
After the war ended, Tanzler was not permitted to return to his former life in Australia and was shipped to a prisoner’s exchange in Holland. He reunited with his mother, whom he had not seen since the beginning of the war, and stayed with her for several years, witnessing the chaos that followed in the wake of the conflict.
He married Doris Schäfer around 1920. They started a family together, with two children: Ayesha Tanzler and Clarista Tanzler.
Tragically, their daughter Clarista passed away from diphtheria at the young age of ten. This was undoubtedly a difficult time for the family, and it may have contributed to Tanzler’s later obsession with the deceased tuberculosis patient Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos.
Despite this loss, Tanzler continued to lead a seemingly everyday life, working as a radiology technologist at the Marine Hospital Service in Key West, Florida.
Tanzler’s mother suggested he travel to the United States to reunite with his sister. And so, after years of wandering the world and experiencing its trials and tribulations, Carl Tanzler set his sights on a new adventure in a new land.
In 1926, Tanzler left Germany and started a new life in the United States. He set sail from Rotterdam on February 6, 1926, eventually arriving in Havana, Cuba. From there, he went to Zephyrhills, Florida, where his sister had already emigrated.
Tanzler’s wife and two daughters joined him in Zephyrhills. Still, he eventually left them behind to work as a radiology technician at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida. At this hospital, he developed an obsession with a young tuberculosis patient named Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos, ultimately leading to his downfall.
Carl Tanzler Meets Elena
It was a typical day at the Marine Hospital in Key West, and Georg Carl Tanzler was doing his radiology technician business. But then he saw her – Maria Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos. She was the woman of his dreams, literally. Tanzler had seen her face before in his visions, and now she was in the flesh.
By all accounts, she was a beauty, and Tanzler was smitten. But little did anyone know, this was just the beginning of a dark, twisted obsession that would last long after Hoyos’ death.
Elena was the child of Aurora Milagro and Francisco “Pancho” Hoyos, a local cigar maker. She had two sisters: Florinda “Nana” Milagro Hoyos, who wed Mario Medina, and Celia Milagro Hoyos, who also died of tuberculosis.
Elena wed Luis Mesa, the son of Caridad and Isaac Mesa, on February 18, 1926. Soon after Elena miscarried the couple’s kid, Mesa relocated to Miami and abandoned Elena. At the time of her passing, Elena and Mesa had a valid marriage license.
After receiving a tuberculosis diagnosis, which at the period was almost always deadly, Elena’s immediate family finally perished. Tanzler, who claimed to be a medical expert, brought various medications, X-rays, and electrical equipment to the Hoyos’ house to treat and cure Elena.
Tanzler supposedly expressed his love for Elena and showered her with presents of jewelry and clothing, but there is no proof that Elena felt the same way about him.
Elena passed away from tuberculosis on October 25, 1931, in her parents’ Key West house, despite Tanzler’s best attempts. Tanzler paid for her burial and, with her family’s consent, commissioned the building of an above-ground mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery, where he frequented nearly every evening. Tanzler also paid for her funeral.
In the dead of night in April 1933, Tanzler sneaked through the cemetery where Elena was interred, stole her body from the mausoleum, and carried it to his house on a toy wagon. He allegedly said that when he would sit by Elena’s grave and sing a favorite Spanish song to her corpse, Elena’s soul would communicate with him.
He added that she frequently requested that he return her from the dead.
Tanzler fitted the face with glass eyes, and the piano wired the corpse’s bones together. Tanzler replaced the corpse’s skin as it disintegrated with silk material that had been waxed and plaster of Paris. Tanzler made a wig from Elena’s hair, which he had taken from her mother, as the hair fell out of Elena’s rotting scalp.
Tanzler dressed Elena’s corpse in stockings, jewels, and gloves, kept it in his bed, and filled the corpse’s abdomen and chest cavity with rags to maintain its original shape. Tanzler also used a lot of perfume, cleaners, and preservatives to cover up the smell and prevent the corpse’s decomposition.
Elena’s sister Florinda visited Tanzler at his house in October 1940 after hearing allegations that he had been sleeping with Elena’s disinterred remains. Then, Elena’s body was eventually found (he was also caught dancing with her corpse in front of an open window).
Tanzler was detained after Florinda alerted law enforcement. Tanzler was charged with “wantonly and deliberately damaging a grave and taking a body without authorization” and was deemed mentally fit to stand trial after undergoing psychiatric evaluation.
Tanzler was held to answer the charge during a preliminary hearing on October 9, 1940, at the Monroe County Courthouse in Key West; however, the case was later dismissed, and he was freed since the crime’s statute of limitations had passed.
Elena’s body was discovered by authorities not long after. After being examined by doctors and pathologists, it was displayed for viewing by the public at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home and saw as many as 6,800 visitors. Elena’s body was subsequently brought back to the Key West Cemetery to prevent future tampering, and her remains were interred there in an unmarked grave.
The case’s facts and the preliminary hearing attracted considerable media attention at the time (especially from the Key West Citizen and Miami Herald). They also caused a stir among the people locally and nationally. Tanzler, who many people perceived as an eccentric “romantic,” was generally supported by the general public.
Even though Tanzler’s necrophilia with Elena’s corpse was not immediately published, research (most notably that of authors Harrison and Swicegood) has shown proof. Elena’s bones were autopsied in 1940, and two doctors (Dr. DePoo and Dr. Foraker) in 1972 recalled that a vaginal tube had been put in the corpse’s vagina to facilitate sexual activity.
Others argue that the necrophilia claim is dubious because there was no proof of it during the preliminary hearing in 1940 and because the physicians’ “proof” didn’t come to light until 1972, more than 30 years after the case was dropped.
Although neither current images of the autopsy nor images from the public exhibition depict a tube, the HBO Autopsy program in 1999 maintained the assertion that necrophilia took place.
Tanzler relocated to the nearby town of Zephyrhills in Pasco County, Florida, in 1944, where he began writing an autobiography published in the pulp magazine Fantastic Adventures in 1947. He lived close to his wife Doris, who reportedly assisted Tanzler in his later years by providing financial support. In Tampa, Tanzler attained American citizenship in 1950.
Tanzler, freed from his addiction, used a death mask to make a life-sized effigy of Elena and continued to live with it until his death on July 3, 1952, at 75. His body was found in his house three weeks after his passing.
Tanzler’s obituary stated that he passed away on the floor behind one of his organs, even though it has been said that he was discovered in the arms of Elena’s effigy when his body was discovered. According to the obituary, “a waxen picture was contained in a metal cylinder on a shelf above a table and was draped in a robe.”
According to reports (most notably by Swicegood), Tanzler exchanged the bodies (or had Elena’s remains discreetly returned to him) and passed away, holding Elena’s actual body.
In the years after his passing, the Tanzler and Elena story would be reprinted in pulp periodicals, with various parties contributing fresh information to the case. According to a Michelfelder article from 1982, restoration workers discovered a note reportedly written by Tanzler confessing to poisoning Elena and killing her:
I kindly gave this to her, and she died as a result. I combined diluted aconite with monkshood, or wolfsbane, root. It was agreeable on October 25, 1931, and my loved one left this horrible planet. Elena, please stop suffering. With my golden elixir, I have dispatched you to the angels.
Moreover, Tanzler allegedly promised Perez that he “would kill Elena if necessary to fulfill his destiny” at some point.
Ultimately, Carl Tanzler’s madness and delusion led him down a dark, twisted path that ended in tragedy and infamy. His twisted love for Elena Milagro de Hoyos had consumed him, driving him to desecrate her body and violate the laws of the land.
And although he may have thought he was doing what was best for her, he had only succeeded in defiling her memory and leaving behind a legacy of horror and depravity.
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