Written by Kevin Walsh
Introduction and Acknowledgements
I foremost would like to acknowledge writer and historian David L. Sloan. It is through several key pieces of research he came across and our correspondence on these that inspired and made this article a possibility. I also want to give great credit to Ben Harrison as one of the most prominent writers and researchers on this story, he was one of the first to bring it to the modern age with his book Undying Love. Similar credit must be given to Miki Meek for giving a very well researched and academic podcast four years ago for This American Life, and to Tracy Weller of the Mason Holdings group for the podcast The Lost Diaries of Elena Hoyos, which finally revealed much of Elena’s personality and early life. Finally, I want to acknowledge Elena herself. It is a great shame that someone of such beauty and character be made endure the travesties she went through in her brief life and even after it ended. Though the story is known and historical, not all of the events therein are common knowledge and thus, so too is the true extent of the indignity that Elena suffered. This article seeks to bring light to these, with the hope that people will learn what really happened as per these key findings.
Maria Elena Milagro Hoyos (1909 – 1931), more commonly referred to as Elena, was the middle born Cuban-American child of Francisco Hoyos (1883 – 1934) and Aurora Milagro (1881 – 1940) in Key West, Florida. Accounts show she led the normal life of a teenager in the 1920s. She was a devout Catholic who enjoyed Rudolph Valentino movies, cooking for family and friends, dancing at the social club La Brisa and looking forward to the technological developments of the 1930s (Weller 2019). She was said to be extremely beautiful, shy and an accomplished singer, to the point where tourists would ask for pictures with her in the street. At sixteen, she was married to Luis Mesa (1908-?) and they were expecting their first child (Harrison 1996, Meek 2017, Weller 2019).
Unfortunately, this would be the beginning of many tragedies for Elena; she miscarried the child and gradually fell ill with a cough. Her family initially assumed that this illness was sadness due to the loss of her child, but the cough was not moving. Tuberculosis was one of the most prominent causes of death at the time and cigar factories like where Elena’s father worked was where the disease was spreading. Mesa left for Miami, leaving Elena alone as her illness worsened (Harrison 1996).
22nd April 1930 would turn out to be a very fateful day. Elena, having been referred to the Marine Hospital for tests, was overseen by one radiologist, Carl Tanzler (1877 – 1952). As of that day, he was fifty-three years old and Elena was close to twenty-one. Tanzler, an eccentric character, carried himself with a high sense of self-importance. He would briskly stroll around town with a cane and show off wristwatches claiming to be commissioned to him by the Czar of Russia. He also claimed nine university degrees and self-titled himself Count von Cosel, taking the name of an alleged ancestor. However, his wife Doris Shafer (1889 – 1977) and other extended family members would state that Tanzler had no royal lineage whatsoever and that his title was merely one he created himself. The medical degrees, licences and medals bestowed upon him were all proven to be forged, though he was considered well-read on medicine, radiology and x-ray technology (Michelfelder 1982). He was not short on money either, as he had been receiving a pension from the military for his involvement in World War 1. The extent of this has never been revealed fully, only that Tanzler had been interned in Australia as a prisoner-of-war for a time. Tanzler himself would publish an account of this period in a 1939 publication of the Rosicrucian Digest (Tanzler von Cosel 1947, Harrison 1996, Meek 2017).
Tanzler immediately and obsessively fell in love with Elena. Once she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he took it upon himself to do whatever he could to ‘cure’ her and offered services free of charge. As Elena and her family were poor, they were initially willing to accept this offer. Concocting potions and tonics out of gold, Tanzler would shock Elena by connecting electrodes to her body via transformers and then give her ‘medicinal’ wines. He kept a wingless airplane on the hospital grounds that he called ‘Countess Elena’ and claimed they would someday fly away together (he also claimed the plane would be amphibious and that it would sail on water as well as fly). He also made countless proposals of marriage towards Elena, starting the night her older sister Florinda ‘Nana’ Medina (1906 – 1944) was wed. Elena’s mother protested and kicked Tanzler out of the family home (Tanzler von Cosel 1947, Harrison 1996, Sloan 2012).
Turn of Events
Elena did not reciprocate Tanzler’s feelings whatsoever. She repeatedly told him he was too old for her and additionally, she was not yet divorced from her husband (Perez 1952, Harrison 1996, Sloan 2012, Meek 2017). Meek (2017) quotes an interview Elena’s sister Nana gave to the Miami Herald:
‘[Elena] never loved [Tanzler]. She was only nice to him because my mother told her she should be kind to those who were kind to her. She looked upon von Cosel as a grandfather. And when he proposed marriage, she always told him “You are too old. Why, you are old enough to be my grandfather. What’s more, I do not love you.” He became so persistent that we asked him to stay away from the house.’
Elena’s family had instructed Tanzler to stay away following these marriage proposals and also because of their dislike of the unorthodox ‘devil machines’ used by him in his treatments of Elena. They even resisted Tanzler’s ministrations to where they moved house, neglecting to tell him of their new residence. Tanzler was undeterred though and searched the streets every night until a sympathetic neighbour told him of the location. The family, considering Elena was fatally ill at this point, conceded. What followed was an on-and-off relationship where Tanzler’s medical treatments were accepted but his proposals of marriage were sidestepped. It should be stated, he too had a wife and two young kids albeit he neglected to mention this in any of his writings. One even died from diphtheria whilst these events were unfolding (Harrison 1996, Sloan 2012).
There continued to be much conflict between him and Elena’s family. So much so that Elena was said to have died hating Tanzler. A cousin revealed to The Tennessean Sun in 1940:
‘[Elena’s] two rescues from death [via electric shock by Tanzler / von Cosel] had been so painful that… Elena finally died hating her rescuer and… [begged] to be allowed to stay dead. …She forbade the family to let von Cosel know until she was too far across the border to be recalled’ (p.1).
Elena died on 25th October 1931 at the age of twenty-two. Tanzler (1947), in his memoirs, recalled being furious at not being informed sooner:
‘In my desperation, I called out [to Elena’s brother-in-law]: “If only you had come to me half an hour earlier, perhaps it wouldn’t have been too late”. He lost time trying all doctors in town but none at home. Her father… had driven home at breakneck speed instead of driving to the nearby hospital, where we doctors might have saved her life’ (p.34).
According to Michelfelder (1982), Tanzler signed the cause on Elena’s death certificate as ‘[expiration] from a series of violent seizures clinically associated with dormant epilepsy’ (p.9).
This would not be the end of Tanzler’s obsession. His subsequent actions would be the ones that brought this story to public infamy. Shortly after Elena’s death, Tanzler talked the family into giving him residence in her room, paying them a fee of $20 a month (about $345 in today’s money). He also built and interred Elena in an elaborate mausoleum, which he visited every night for two years, constantly bought gifts and even installed a telephone. Elena’s married name (and she was still legally married at the time of her death), Mesa, was not engraved on the tombstone, however, on the bottom corner, ‘Ct. d. Cosel’ was (Harrison 1996, Meek 2017). Harrison (1996) adds that ‘Countess damsel’ (what the Ct. d. stood for) is not an actual title, just something again self-created by Tanzler to further tie Elena and himself together. This engraving with Elena’s name can now be found at the Fort Martello Museum in Key West.
In 1940, nine years after Elena’s death, Tanzler was discovered by Nana to have taken Elena’s body from the grave, ‘reconstructed’ it with plastered wax and kept it at his residences, which included his wingless plane, a shack on the beach and a cottage in Flagler Avenue. Sources differ (Tanzler von Cosel 1947, Perez 1952, Michelfelder 1982, Swicegood 2003) on when exactly he did this but the more respected tellings of this story (Harrison 1996, Sloan 2012) state this occurred in 1933. Tanzler was subsequently arrested on the charge of ‘wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorisation’ so a hearing was held. A psychiatric evaluation of Tanzler stated that he was in a ‘borderline state’ but otherwise sane and mentally competent (Meek 2017). It was the biggest media frenzy of its day. ‘Fans’ of Tanzler travelled to give him treats, public sympathy portrayed him as an ‘eccentric romantic’, an attorney offered to represent him ‘pro bono’ and Elena’s body was put on public display to be viewed by over 6,850 people at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home (Tanzler von Cosel 1947, Michelfelder 1982, Harrison 1996, Sloan 2012, Meek 2017).
The charges against Tanzler were dropped as the statute of limitations on the crime had expired. However, the judge decreed that Tanzler should no longer have possession of Elena’s remains (in spite of Tanzler’s insistence that she should be returned to him). She was then buried in an unmarked grave by undertaker Benjamin Sawyer, cemetery sexton Otto Bethel and chief of police Bienvenido Perez, all of whom have taken this location to their own graves as a secret never to be revealed (Harrison 1996, Sloan 2012, Meek 2017). Tanzler moved from Key West to Zephyrhills near where his wife and sister lived, but not before according to Perez (1952, n.d.), using a time-bomb to blow up the tomb the night he left.
In 1947, Tanzler published his memoir The Secret of Elena’s Tomb in the pulp magazine Fantastic Adventures which was then used as the basis for the books Undying Love by Ben Harrison (1996), The Lost Diary of Count von Cosel by David Sloan (2012) and Von Cosel by Tom Swicegood (2003), all of which represent the majority of established literature on this subject. Tanzler would extensively claim in this memoir, as well as during his 1940 court hearing and in numerous newspaper interviews that he had been seeing apparitions of Elena ever since he was a child, and it was the ghost of Elena that instructed him to enshrine her body in his home. In 1952, Tanzler was found dead by police on the floor of his home next to a wax replica of Elena. All of Elena’s immediate family had also passed away from tuberculosis by this point (Harrison 1996).
Twists in the Tale
While the story was first presented in the media as a tragic love story, something played up to a great extent by Tanzler, more information has slowly come to the surface in the eight decades since Elena’s final burial that has given it a much darker turn. The first of many details was revealed by Dr. Julio DePoo in 1972. The findings of which were most prominently reproduced in an episode of HBO’s Autopsy series: ‘I found a tube [in Elena’s vagina] wide enough to permit sexual intercourse. At the bottom of the tube there was cotton and in an examination of the cotton, I found there was sperm’ (HBO Autopsy 1999). Michelfelder (1982) stated that DePoo ‘never explained why he kept his autopsy [findings] secret’, (p.61) but Harrison (1996) later speculated that he did not reveal this at the time in order not to cause uproar in an already scandalous plot and to keep things dignified for Elena’s surviving family members.
Bienvenido Perez, in a later interview for Men True Adventure magazine (n.d.), would reveal much darker intentions on Tanzler’s part.
‘Von Cosel had told me once: “I have spent my whole life. I have roamed the earth searching for Elena! Fifty years ago she appeared to me in a vision, and she promised then to be my bride. Now I’ve found her, and I’ll kill her, if necessary, to fulfil my destiny!” (p. 68)
There was this and another statement from Nana Medina in the Miami Herald where she told of how Tanzler had warned her father if there was not a wedding in the family soon, ‘there would be a funeral’. However, no other evidence had ever come to the fore, apart from these threats, suggesting that Tanzler may have committed murder. Not until recently…
In Episode 44 of the NightMerica podcast, released 3rd February 2021, David L. Sloan gave an interview to Aaron Sagers about the story, and discusses an article he found in the Detective Cases magazine, published in 1982.
‘[The magazine] has a story called Florida’s Dr. Frankenstein and his Laboratory of Love. …Normally you don’t get any new information [about the story]. This one had a story in it… somebody was renovating a cottage and when they tore down the wall, they found… a confession note. …It seemed to be someone admitting to killing someone’.
The article in question, written by William Michelfelder (1982), opens as follows:
‘…the first page [of the journal] read clearly “She died because I gave this to her mercifully. I mixed the root of wolfsbane (monkshood) with aconite diluted. It was palatable and my loved one departed this miserable world on October 25, 1931. Suffer no more, sweet Elena. I have sent you to the angels with my golden elixir’ (p. 7 – 8).
Aconite is a plant native to Northern Asia and Europe. Its two associated names, monkshood and wolfsbane, come from its appearance and its use by shepherds to kill wolves respectively. The name aconite itself is derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘akontion’, meaning dart, as arrows were often mixed with aconite to create a poisonous weapon. Considered one of the most toxic herbs, it has been used as a deadly poison throughout history (Wood, Coulson, Thompson and Bonner 2020). In their case report of an aconite overdose, Wood et al. (2020) noted that the patient at one point suffered a seizure, much like how Michelfelder (1982) notes the police log where Elena experienced ‘violent convulsions’ before her death (p. 9).
Michelfelder (1982) goes on to describe how the demolition worker and his supervisor found bottles full of this golden elixir fallen from the collapsed wall of Tanzler’s former residence. They found police logs from the period which described the aforementioned seizure, Tanzler’s threat to Elena’s father and testimonies from people in her neighbourhood that in the week before Elena’s death, he had persuaded her to swallow double doses of his elixir, whichMichelfelder (1982) writes to have contained: ’70 percent distilled water, 20 percent gold shavings, fruit favouring and just enough deadly poison to effect [sic] a slow death’. (p. 54).
It is also worth noting that Elena’s body was not autopsied (Michelfelder 1982) and Tanzler (1947) specifically recounts ‘[after Elena’s funeral was over], some Cuban who I had never seen before, indulged in a piece of fiery oratory wherein he demanded punishment for “the person responsible for her early death”. Whether he meant me I did not know and cared less…’ (p. 37).
Sloan (NightMerica 2021) elaborates:
‘This [incident] makes so much sense. The Count [Tanzler] is in love, he’s a much older man in love with a young girl who wants nothing to do with him. She’s not dying fast enough. He’s got this plan to be with her after she’s dead. So what does he do? He poisons her… he poisons her to kill her quicker so he can have her as his own’.
Dr. Peter Morrall (2006) broadly summarises that ‘motives for murder can be condensed into four sets of “Ls:” Lust; Love; Loathing; and Loot’. The former three, as he describes them, are quite applicable to Tanzler.
‘Lust: a lover kills a rival for his/her object of desire; the “thrill-killer” who murders people because he gains a sexual payoff’
Love: the “mercy killing” of a baby with a major deformity or partner with incurable cancer.
Loathing: Lethal hate directed towards one person, group, culture or nation…’ (Morrall 2006, p. 36)
Tanzler was evidently consumed by obsessive lust for Elena. It motivated many of his actions from the day he met her to the day he died; giving her free and unproven ‘medical’ treatments, naming his wingless plane after her, building the mausoleum, taking her body, trying to reconstruct and restore it to life, even using the tube for intercourse as Dr. DePoo revealed (a sexual payoff), publishing a memoir, being found dead with a wax replica.
The list is numerous and was all justified by Tanzler in the name of ‘love’. Interestingly, Morrall (2006) uses the word ‘mercy’ in ‘love’ as a motivator for murder, as does Tanzler in the confession note ‘I gave this to her mercifully’ (Michelfelder 1982, p.8). Tuberculosis was after all, considered an incurable disease in 1931 and it was the number one cause of death in Key West at the time (Harrison 1996). Was this act of murder justified by Tanzler as a ‘mercy killing?’
While there is not much written in the way of Tanzler feeling anything described as ‘loathing’ towards Elena directly, (‘extreme disgust’ as per the Merriam-Webster dictionary), his relationship with her family was often very adversarial. Tanzler (1947) tells of many arguments he had with Elena’s parents about her condition, the Cuban culture of smoking cigars, having numerous visitors at the house and taking Elena for car rides. He once shouted at her parents, ‘Will you take the responsibility to let your daughter die through your stupidity?’ (p. 32) and on finding their new residence recalled, ‘if anyone had tried to stop me [from entering], I think, I would have used violence’ (p.28).
In 1940, when her sister Nana confronted him about taking her body, Tanzler as equally as vehement, making statements such as, ‘[Elena] is an angel, but not you’ (p. 68), ‘You never looked after her for the past nine years, she has been under my care all these years. I have paid for all her expenses, not you! …I own that tomb and everything that is inside, not you!’ (p.70). Additionally, there is his threat towards Elena’s father ‘if there is not a wedding before Christmas, there will be a funeral…’ (Michelfelder 1982, p.56) and his declaration to Perez that he would ‘kill Elena if necessary…’ (n.d., p 68). There is sufficient evidence to state that Tanzler, if not experiencing ‘loathing’ towards Elena herself, experienced much ‘loathing’ towards the people and situations around her.
For the past eighty years, the story of Elena Hoyos has been told primarily through the point-of-view of Carl Tanzler, a man who portrayed himself as so in love he could not bear to live without her. As Meek (2017) puts it, ‘[Elena is] paradoxically at the center of this story and utterly left out’. It was told back then and is still revered now as a ‘love story’, even with the more sinister evidence of necrophilia that came out after Tanzler’s death.
The additional findings presented in this article elevate this sinisterness yet again, as now there is evidence which strongly suggests that Tanzler had actually killed Elena himself. This is a time where there are many cases in the media coming out about victims having suffered clandestine abuse from people in positions of power, especially of women by men in the media industries of music and movies, but also in educational and religious institutions. These transgressions, like the ones committed against Elena, have been shrouded in secrecy due to the cultural biases towards and positions of the instigators involved. It is hoped that the findings presented here will contribute towards the continuation of this cultural shift, and bring more empathy and understanding towards Elena rather than the man who pursued, poisoned and exploited her in life and death.
Bibliography and References
Ginsburg, Arthur, director. Autopsy 6: Secrets of the Dead. HBO, 1999.
Harrison, B. (1996). Undying Love: The True Story of a Passion That Defied Death. St. Martin’s True Crime Classics.
“Immortal Kisses Were His Goal”. Tennessean Sun. p. 1 + 19.
“Loathing.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/loathing. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.
Meek, M. “610: Grand Gestures”. This American Life. 17 Feb. 2017, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/610/grand-gesture
Michelfelder, W. “Florida’s Dr. Frankenstein and His Love Laboratory”. Detective Cases, Jun. 1982, pp. 7 – 9, 54 – 61
Morrall, Dr. P. “Murder and Society: why commit Murder?” Criminal Justice Matters, 66:1, 2006, pp. 36 – 37.
Perez, B. “Police Officer Bienvenido Perez Only Living Person Who Knows Where Elena Buried”. The Key West Citizen, 15 Aug. 1952, p. 1 + 4
Perez, B. “The Mad Scientist of Key West”. Men True Adventure, n.d, pp. 28, 67 – 69
Sagers, A. + Sloan, D.L. “The Living Doll of Key West: Elena Hoyos & Count Von Cosel”. NightMerica. 3 Feb. 2021, https://redcircle.com/shows/nightmerica
Sloan, D,L. (2012). The Lost Diary of Count Von Cosel. Phantom Press.
Swicegood, T. (2003). Von Cosel. iUniverse.
Tanzler von Cosel, K. “The Secret of Elena’s Tomb”. Fantastic Adventures, Sep. 1947, pp.10 – 69.
Weller, T. “The Lost Diaries of Elena Hoyos” Vols. 1 and 2. Mason Holdings Radio Hour. April – October 2019. https://masonholdings.org/radio-hour/
Wood, C. Coulson J. Thompson S. + Bonner, S. “An Intentional Aconite Overdose: A Case Study”. The Journal of Critical Care Medicine, vol. 6, no. 2, 2020, pp. 124 – 129.
Image credit: Florida Keys–Public Libraries, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons