When you visit Key West these days it’s difficult to imagine that events of true creepiness took place there. Today it’s a pretty innocuous place and plenty of fun for cruise passengers and tourists. But one of the creepiest events I’ve ever heard happened right there.
These events took place in the 1930s and 1940s but time has not tempered their horror.
Carl Tanzler was born and brought up in Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1926 and was followed by his family. He had married in Germany and had two daughters. This sounds quite cosy and normal so far – until we read that over the years, Tanzler had received visions of this ‘perfect woman’, the one he should truly love.
And when he was working in the US Marine Hospital on Key West in 1930 that he came across a patient, Elena Milagro de Hoyos, who, he realised, was the woman of his dreams. Literally. Elena was much younger that Tanzler, she was only in her early twenties and Tanzler’s feelings were not reciprocated.
Even though she was much younger than Tanzler he life-expectancy was no match for his as she died of tuberculosis in October of 1931. Tanzler was heartbroken. He arranged and paid for her funeral and, because he couldn’t bear the thought of her body rotting away under the ground, had a mausoleum created for her in the Key West Cemetary.
He visited her there every night. He would enter the mausoleum and sit by her coffin ‘conversing’ with his beloved.
A couple of years later he could bear it no longer. He became a grave robber – he snatched her body from its coffin and took it to his home.
Amazingly, Tanzler kept the body in his house until 1940. At that time, Elena’s sister had become suspicious – there were many rumours doing the rounds.
Sure enough, Tanzler let her into his home and spoke about Elena saying that he was going to resuscitate her by taking her to outer space, forcing huge amounts of electricity through her body or other such weird devices. Needless to say, Elena’s sister went straight to the cops.
Tanzler was arrested and amazingly, astoundingly, astonishingly found to be mentally fit for trial.
Needless to say, Elena’s body wasn’t in very good shape. Tanzler rectified this in his own way by shoring parts up with wire, rags and whatever he could be his hands on. He made a wig to replace the decayed hair and fitted glass eyes into the eye sockets. He filled the cavity with old rags to give the body more stability and shape.
He was obliged to make liberal use of disinfectants and perfumes to disguise the inevitable odours.
He kept the corpse in his bed, And here’s the grossest part of all. In later years, it was revealed that he had fitted a tube travelling from the exterior of the body to the interior – a makeshift vagina. This is still debated – was Tanzler using the corpse for his self-satisfaction?
Just as it was almost unbelievable the Tanzler was found sane enough to stand trial, it’s even more astonishing to learn that he wasn’t jailed or even fined. He got away with it.
We had been charged with grave robbing (actually the exact wording had been ‘wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization‘) and of course, that crime had taken place several years beforehand – so the statute of limitations meant that the case was dropped.
I’m rather amazed that there is no way he could have been charged with ‘stealing a body, rebuilding it with wire and rags, concealing it and keeping it for private use‘ – or something of the sort but there wasn’t. The case was dropped.
However, to return to the travel theme, the Key West Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit and not only because this was where Tanzler’s weird crime started. After her cobbled-together remains had been found, Elena’s body (what remained of it) was buried in an unmarked grave there.
It was deliberately left unmarked – it’s said – to ‘prevent further tampering’. Tanzler lived on until 1952 so maybe the grave was unmarked to prevent him returning and repeating his crime.
Site of the Military Hospital
201 Front St,
701 Pauline St,
JJ is originally from the UK and has lived in South Florida since 1994. She is the founder and editor of JAQUO Magazine. You can connect with her using the social media icons below.