But Carl wasn’t actually a doctor or a scientist. He had a shadowy past that he loved to whip up to a grand frenzy. He claimed to have had gotten nine degrees by the age of 24. He was not really a count, of course, and though he claimed his passion was for an unquenchable love, he seemed incapable of loving anyone alive, including his abandoned wife and daughter. When he received notice that his own child had passed away from the same disease, tuberculosis, that claimed his beloved Elena Hoyos, he did not devote his attention to reclaim life for his daughter. He didn’t even seem to waste energy mourning for her. All of his money, time, and effort was sunk into his dream of Elena.
Of course, Carl’s obsession with Elena wasn’t with Elena at all, but with himself, as all obsessions are. Those who romanticized his strivings overlooked that the dead Elena was truly the perfect one for him, not the alive Elena, who was a young woman with a life and interests of her own. Carl von Cosel had no interest in knowing Elena, in letting her be a full person. The light of her internal world was of little consequence for him. He was the creator of who he thought she was. She was a canvas for him to project his wild imagination, to stave off anxieties, to be the person he wished he was.
Elena’s illness made her weak and easily pliable to his care and when she died, she became the perfect object for von Cosel’s affection. He mourned the loss of her beauty, become frustrated with her body’s decay, but meaning and direction in his attempts to preserve her physical form anyway he could. Preserving Elena’s body became his secret life’s work, a Sisyphean task he rejoiced in doing until he, himself died. After his own death, he didn’t seem to be worried what would happen to him or Elena. The physical didn’t seem to matter to him at that point. His writings made it seem like he was trying to keep Elena “alive” only until he could join her in death.
He dreamed of being Dr. Frankenstein but probably would not have liked to have his fantasy come true. Von Cosel’s dream was in the hidden ritualistic nights he spent with the corpse of a young girl, a carbon-based doll. He spent all his money injecting preservatives, waxing lifeless skin, spraying perfume to conceal odors, and sending electrical currents through an organic system long shut down while his living, breathing family had to fend for themselves to survive.
Elena was 22 years old when she met Carl while he was working as an X-ray technician. Tuberculosis was ravaging the once-vibrant young woman, and Carl immediately fixated on her. For years he’d had visions of a bride, and when he saw Elena, he felt he was seeing the woman he had imagined so long ago. His fantasies were further fueled by the knowledge that one of Elena’s favorite songs was a popular Spanish folk song called “La Boda Negra,” or “The Black Wedding.” After Elena’s death, he’d play the song for her body as he literally acted out the lyrics.
“You must listen to a story I was told
By an undertaker of the region
A young man’s lover died before their wedding
Without her love he simply could not reason
At night he would visit the graveyard
And think about the days she was alive
His tears would fall upon her tombstone
The tombstone of hte girl to be his bride
One a night when thunder roared and lightning flashed
He broke apart the tombstone of her grave
And with his hands he dug into the earth
And in his arms he carried her away
By a flickering funeral candle light
On his bed that flowers covered
He gently lay the body of his sweetheart
And said his wedding vows to his dead lover
On her head he place da wreath of flwoers
Full of love he held her close to him
He closed his eyes as he gently kissed her
Never again would he awaken”
After the legend of Carl von Cosel and Elena spread in the forties, many people assumed the song was written about them, but it had actually been written long before they met, in the 1800s. Although he had no real medical training, Carl convinced Elena’s family to try out new treatments on her that he came up with himself. He’d give her doses of radiation and his home-made medicines. He’d also use his treatment appointments to shower Elena with jewelry, flowers, and other expensive gifts.
After she died, he offered to pay to build her a mausoleum, and for the first year and a half after her death in 1931, that’s where he would liaison with her. This first bit of time he did not try to preserve her, but just sat with her in her tomb. He wrote in his journals that he could hear her singing to him in Spanish. He finally schemed to steal her body away, hiding it in his half-finished airplane, another lost dream that would never fly again. He built a hangar on a lonely stretch of Rest Beach, and proceeded to set up his laboratory dedicated to experiments on his stolen bride.
Of course, by that time, Elena had severely decomposed, so he struggled to find solutions. At one point he asked her sister if he could have a bit of Elena’s hair that she saved, and he began his frantic quest to restore Elena’s body. He laid silk and wax on her skin until it became a kind of skin on its own. He replaced her eyes, filled her body cavities with rags, and tried to pump her full of fluids. He’d rejoice in his diary when she would “gain” weight.
Because Carl was able to hide his activities with Elena’s body for nine years, when he was finally found out and charged with “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization,” his case was dropped because the statute of limitations was up. He was, however, examined and found to be mentally competent to stand trial. The case, including the circus of his mental competency hearing, was highly publicized and turned into a quite a side-show spectacle. Elena’s body itself was publically viewed by a stream of curious tourists flocking to the area.
Once Carl was released from jail, he joined in on the show. He published a memoir and charged admission to meet and greet with him. Soon, though, the pressure to live in a constant nostalgic performance of his time with Elena’s body grew too much for him, and he moved from Key West to Zephyrhills, Florida, where his sister and estranged wife were living.
He was distressed that he could no longer live with Elena’s real body, so he built a replacement out of wax, and turned his attention to this facsimile Elena until his death on July 3, 1952. In 1972 two physicians who were present at Elena’s autopsy claimed there was evidence of necrophilia. It’s a bit odd, though, that they didn’t bring this up at the time of Carl Tanzler’s trial.
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