Everyone’s heard the phrase “until death parts us.” Couples make this vow and they promise to love each other for the rest of their lives. However, some people go above and beyond this promise. They vow to stay together, even after death.

That’s what happened between Carl Tanzler and Maria Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos. When she passed away in 1931 from tuberculosis, Tanzler refused to leave her side. But it’s not exactly as romantic as you would think.

He carried on his love affair with her corpse. This turned into one of the most unusual, bizarre stories of all time. If you’re craving for a new Lifetime movie to watch, look no further. But unfortunately, this was a true story. You can’t turn the channel.

Tanzler’s search for his soulmate

Tanzler (born on February 8, 1877, in Dresden, Germany) knew from a young age that he had a soulmate. When he was 12 years old, he dreamed of a woman who would leave an impression on his life forever. She revealed her face to him in his dream, and Tanzler knew at that moment that this was the woman he was meant to marry.

All he had to do was find her. But that’s easier said than done, right?

Von Cosel (Carl Tanzler) in 1940
Von Cosel (Carl Tanzler) in 1940 / Florida Keys–Public Libraries / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Tanzler never met this mysterious woman. He searched for her, but he could never meet the woman he saw in his dream. Eventually, in 1920, he married Doris Schafer and they had two children, Ayesha and Clarista. While he had a family of his own, he was still disappointed that he hadn’t met the woman of his dreams.

Immigrating to America

In 1926, Tanzler emigrated to the U.S. from Germany, where he settled in Zephyrhills, Florida. He was later joined by his wife and children. However, a year later, he left his family behind to work as a radiology technician at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida. He adopted his official nickname, Count Carl von Cosel.

On April 22, 1930, while working at the Marine Hospital, Tanzler met the one person in his life he had been searching for since he was 12 years old: his soulmate.

Maria Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos

Just 21 years old, and 32 years younger than Tanzler, Maria Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos was brought to the hospital for an examination. Her mother was worried about her declining health, but neither of them probably thought Tanzler would take an interest in her.

Tanzler immediately recognized Hoyos as the woman from his dream. She was his soulmate and he would do whatever it took to always be by her side. He was no longer her technician; she was the love of his life.

Hoyos, a local Cuban-American daughter of a cigar maker, had her own unique history. On February 18, 1926, she married Luis Mesa, but he left her shortly after she suffered a miscarriage of the couple’s first child. He moved to Miami, leaving Hoyos behind to her parents. That’s a pretty harsh breakup, isn’t it?

Meeting his soulmate

Hoyos’ examination at the Marine Hospital confirmed her worst nightmare: she had tuberculosis, a fatal disease in 1930 that mainly affects the lungs. The disease would later claim the lives of almost everyone in Hoyos’ immediate family, including her sister, Florinda “Nana” Milagro Hoyos.

Like most patients, Hoyos was scared of the illness and the treatment. She was still so young. How could she possibly have a life-threatening disease?

Tanzler tried his best to cure Hoyos. He claimed he was the most knowledgeable about tuberculosis and he treated her with a variety of medicines, as well as x-ray and electrical equipment. Because of his medical knowledge, Tanzler knew he could save Hoyos.

Over time, his patient learned to trust him, but Tanzler had other motives that a medical professional shouldn’t have with their patient.

Being in love

Tanzler loved everything about Hoyos. Despite her illness, she was still an attractive young woman, and her beauty didn’t go unnoticed by Tanzler. He showered her with jewelry and clothing, and he frequently professed his love to her. He hoped she would return the same feelings.

He even exaggerated his achievements to her parents, claiming he was Count von Cosel (even though he wasn’t a count). He also said he had nine university diplomas.

Tanzler ignored the Marine Hospital’s protocol for relationships between doctors and patients, and he became obsessed with Hoyos. He loved her, but no evidence has surfaced to confirm that Hoyos reciprocated his love. The only thing she wanted from Tanzler was a proper medical treatment.

Maria Elena Milagro’s death

No matter how hard Tanzler tried, he couldn’t save Hoyos. She died at her parents’ home in Key West on October 25, 1931, at just 22 years old. Heartbroken over his loss, Tanzler decided to pay for her funeral, and, with her family’s permission, he commissioned the construction of an above-ground mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery. To her parents, this was a kind gesture, but this was only where the obsession began.

Tanzler made nightly visits to Hoyos’ mausoleum. He reportedly said he felt her spirit come to him when he sat by her tomb and serenaded her with her favorite Spanish song.

To many bystanders, this would seem romantic, but nobody knew he had a key to her tomb and that he was secretly preserving her corpse. In April 1933, he removed her body from the mausoleum and transported it to his makeshift laboratory that also served as his home.

Together again

He claimed she “told” him to take her away from the mausoleum. Whether this is true or not, we’ll never know the answer.

Once home, Tanzler stitched Hoyos’ decomposing body back together, attaching the corpse’s bones with wire and coat hangers. He stuffed her body with rags, waxed the skin with plaster of Paris, and even fitted the face with glass eyes. He wanted his soulmate to always look like the woman he fell in love with — even after death.

‘Living’ with her

Tanzler didn’t seem to get bored living with Hoyos’ corpse. Instead, he found plenty of things to do, including fashioning a wig for her once her hair fell out of her decomposing scalp. Additionally, he dressed her remains in stockings, jewelry, and gloves. He kept her body in his bed, where he slept beside her every night.

Tanzler also used perfume, disinfectants, and preserving agents to mask the odor of Hoyos’ decomposition. He thought of everything to make sure he could continue living with her corpse…for seven years!

Local townspeople in Key West noticed Tanzler was buying women’s clothing and perfumes, but they thought he was in a serious relationship. People would spot him dancing with a woman behind closed curtains inside his laboratory. If they only knew what was going on inside his home.

Finally getting caught

In October 1940, Hoyos’ sister, Florinda, heard conflicting rumors about Tanzler’s budding romance with a mysterious woman. Happy for him, she decided to visit him and congratulate him on his relationship. Of course, she was shocked to find Hoyos’ body and she ran out of the laboratory to notify authorities.

Tanzler was properly examined by a psychiatrist, who decided he was mentally competent to have a court trial. He was charged with “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization.”

Even though people agreed Tanzler committed a crime, many members of the public felt sympathetic towards him. They called him an “eccentric romantic” and felt sorry for his psychological disorder.

However, the case was eventually dropped and Tanzler was released from prison because the statute of limitations for the committed crime had expired. Hoyos’ body was finally buried in a new cemetery at Key West Cemetery. This time, it was unmarked so no one, including Tanzler, could find her body.

Never letting go of his love

Following his sentence, Tanzler asked if Hoyos’ body could be returned to him, but he was denied access. However, he never gave up on his one true love. She was his soulmate, so he created a life-size doll from a death mask that closely resembled his favorite woman. He lived with the doll in Pasco County, Florida until his death on July 3, 1952.

Tanzler’s body was discovered on the floor of his home. He was cradling Hoyos’ doll. His obituary said that a “metal cylinder on a shelf above a table in it wrapped in silken cloth and a robe was a waxen image.”

It has been reported that Tanzler somehow still switched the bodies, or that Hoyos’ remains were secretly returned to him. He died in the arms of Hoyos’ real body. Whether this is true or not, we’ll never know the answer, but it’s not something we want to ponder too closely.

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