During the Great Depression, Count Carl Von Cosel, a fifty-some years old German immigrant worked as a civilian x-ray technician at the U. S. Marine hospital in Key West. Actually he was not a count and his real name was Carl Tanzler but he did come from Germany where his ex-wife and two daughters lived. He made many claims that he had nine university degrees, had been a submarine captain and was an electrical inventor. In truth he was a lonely man living in a fantasy world.
While working in the Marine hospital he met a 22-year old patient named Elena Hoyos. She was a beautiful young Cuban girl who had been an entertainer until contracting tuberculosis. Von Cosel fell in love with Elena even though she consistently resisted his advances. By her x-ray reports Von Cosel knew that Elena only had a short time to live. He convinced the young patient that he could cure her with a special x-ray machine combined with daily doses of a certain tonic made from gold and water.
Count Von Cosel began administering his miraculous treatments to Elena along with a proposal of marriage, which was met with strong disapproval from her father. Von Cosel was obsessed with Elena and willing to do anything to win her affection. He gave Elena’s family many gifts with promises that he could restore her life. In a short time Elena’s disease progressed and eventually led to her death. She was first buried in a common grave but the despondent Von Cosel obtained approval from her family to move her body to a nice stone mausoleum. During the move he found that Elena’s body had never been embalmed and was in a horrible state of decay. Von Cosel hired a local mortician to clean and fix-up the body before placing it in the new tomb. What the family did not know was that Von Cosel had the only key to the crypt.
Von Cosel became so obsessed with his morbid love affair that he secretly visited Elena every night bringing gifts and flowers, and according to some accounts, he installed a telephone in her tomb so he could talk with her. He believed that she could communicate with him through voice and song.
After two years Von Cosel removed Elena’s remains from her tomb and took them to a make-shift laboratory he had built inside the wingless fuselage of an old airplane behind the Marine hospital. There he began work on Elena’s corpse by wiring it together and using wax, plaster of paris, and glass eyes to restore her to “life.” When he learned that the military planned to move the old airplane fuselage, he secretly moved Elena’s corpse to his house on Flagler Street. Here he dressed Elena in a wedding dress and often slept with her as his wife. To keep her body preserved he rubbed on various oils, chemicals and perfume to mask the odor of decomposition. He continued restoring her facial features using mortician’s wax. But local folks became a little suspicious when Von Cosel kept buying perfume and women’s clothing and a paper boy reported that he had seen Von Cosel through a window dancing with a big doll. This started Frankenstein-like rumors circulating around town that Von Cosel was up to something strange in his house. This quickly led to gossip that Elena’s corpse was inside his house. Elena’s sister Nana demanded that Von Cosel tell her the truth about the rumors. Reluctantly, he agreed to show Nana her dead sister’s corpse all dressed in a wedding gown and propped-up in a chair. That was it; Nana immediately went to the police.
Count Von Cosel was arrested and charged with grave robbing and abusing a corpse. He was convicted of grave robbery, but by the time the case went to trial the statute of limitations had expired and no sentence was imposed. During the trial Von Cosel told the court how he had planned to use an airship to take him and Elena “to the stratosphere so radiation could penetrate her tissues and restore her to life.” The trial was so weird that it attracted not only the media but a huge crowd of curiosity seekers. What really outraged the judge was when Von Cosel asked if he could have Elena’s body back!
Because there had been so much publicity about the case that officials decided to put Elena’s corpse on public display at the local funeral home so the curious could view it. Afterwards Elena’s remains were put into a metal box and buried in a secret location. None of this stopped Von Cosel’s weirdness; he began charging tourists twenty-five cents to tour his laboratory. After the weirdo tourists stopped coming for his macabre tours, Von Cosel used dynamite to blow-up Elena’s old mausoleum and left town. For the next decade he resided in Zephyrhills where he died in 1952. When the authorities found him, he was clutching a life-size doll with a face that resembled Elena’s. It was later learned that Von Cosel had made and secretly kept a death mask of his former bride of death.