Before I start, I feel that I should mention that this is a fairly well-known story. No one that I know seems to have heard it before, but if you have, I hope that I can shed some new light on the story.
Our story begins in 1926 when a 50-year-old man named Karl Tanzler sailed from Germany to his new home in the United States. Somewhere along this journey, Georg Karl Tanzler had metamorphosed into Count Carl von Kosel, a title that he claimed to be born with. Whether a descendant of nobility or not – most likely not – his destination was not some grand castle or a grand estate. Instead, he was headed for his sister’s farm in Zephyrhills, Florida.
Karl left his wife Doris and two daughters behind in Dresden, and they eventually followed him to the US the following year, but their reunion was brief. The lives of Karl and Doris would collide again years later, but they were never to live under the same roof again.
Upon entering the US, Karl obtained a job at the Marine Hospital in Key West. He was initially hired as a part of the custodial staff but quickly moved into a position as an x-ray radiologist and pathologist. What made him qualified to do so? No one knows for sure.
Basically, his biography prior to coming to the US is one big mish-mash of half-truths and lies. He claimed to have graduated from the University of Leipzig with nine different degrees and to have mastered the English language while living in Australia. He introduced himself to others as a medical doctor but was not.
While the Marine Hospital was a military operation, it was the only hospital in the region and, as a result, also provided health care to the general public.
And this is where von Cosel met the girl of his dreams. She was a young woman named Elena Milagro Hoyos Mesa, who had recently suffered a miscarriage and whose health seemed to be slipping away. Elena’s family took her to the hospital to undergo some tests. The Count was called in to take a blood test and was immediately and forever cast under her spell. In the Count’s eyes, Elena was the perfect woman and it didn’t matter that both Elena and he were married to others at the time.
The suspected cause of Elena’s illness was tuberculosis, which was incurable at the time, and soon confirmed by the various tests done by the Count. While it was certain that she would soon succumb to the effects of the disease, Count von Cosel was determined to save her life using every resource that was available to him at the time.
Elena’s parents became quite suspicious of his actions and stopped bringing her to the hospital for treatment. So, he figured it they wouldn’t bring Elena to the hospital, he would bring the hospital to her. Initially, they forbid him to do so, but as Elena’s health deteriorated, her family, being quite poor, became desperate and ultimately had to accept the Count’s offer of free medical service.
The treatments were basically shock therapy – sending extremely high voltages surging through Elena’s body. Keep in mind that this was a time when x-rays, electricity, and radiation were relatively new and the so-called “experts” claimed that these new technologies could cure just about anything. All the while, Elena slept in a beautiful mahogany bed that von Cosel had purchased for her.
The Count claimed that as she neared death, Elena, with her husband long gone, agreed to marry him. In return, the Count assured Elena that he would always take care of her, even if her spirit was taken from this Earth.
On each visit, the Count flowered her with gifts of affection, which included fresh flowers and fruit, jewelry, and silk dresses and stockings. Then he proceeded to treat her with bolts of high voltage electricity that sur ged through her young body. Add to that the radiation treatments that lasted up to a half-hour in length. Does not sound like fun.
All the while, the Count had an old wreck of an airplane that he had christened the Contessa Elena sitting on the grounds of the Marine Hospital. It had no wings, so it wasn’t going anywhere. But, he planned to fix it up so that they could fly off together into the heavens.
As was expected, Elena died on October 25, 1931. She was just twenty-two years of age.
And in death, the Count still continued to take care of beloved Elena. He picked up the tab for the beautiful casket that was lowered into the ground the next day. He visited her at the cemetery every day and grew increasingly concerned that the groundwater would destroy her heavenly body.
He knew exactly what to do – he purchased the cemetery plot adjacent to her existing plot, had her body removed from the ground, and arranged for a crypt built in that very spot. The construction took three months, at which time Elena was transferred to a new casket. The Count was appalled by the amount of decay that Elena’s body had endured while buried. He attempted to treat her body by placing it in a homemade incubator tank.
And this was the point where his affection turned into a morose obsession. The Count continued to visit her tomb every night for the next eighteen months, sitting in a chair next to her coffin.
But this concrete prison just wasn’t good enough for his dear Elena. He just had to get her out of there. So, one dark night he loaded her casket onto a small wagon, trucked her out of the cemetery, and ultimately placed her inside the cabin of his so-called airplane.
Once there, he took her body out of the casket and was disheartened by what he saw. The 18 months in the coffin had done quite a number on her body. He realized that he needed to save Elena from further decay. The first thing he did was to try and peel the clothing from her skin, which had become somewhat fused together. He painstakingly cleaned and tried to preserve her body in the best way that he could.
As I am sure you know, decaying bodies stink big time. He even had a solution for this. Lots of cologne! But he said that what bothered him the most was the lack of eyes, so he replaced them with two dark brown, glass models.
He truly believed that he could reactivate Elena’s inner cells with various treatments of x-rays, electrolysis, and some home-spun chemistry in an effort to bring her back to life. Of course, we all know that was an impossibility, but the Count was certain that he could do so. As the body continued to decay, he replaced the rotted portions with bits of beeswax, wire, and papier-mâché.
So obsessed was he with Elena, that he totally ignored his real wife and children, which included skipping out on his daughter Crystal’s funeral.
Ultimately he was forced to remove his plane from the hospital’s grounds. The Count found a new place on Rest Beach, which was basically a rundown shack, to stay in and hired a truck to move the airplane. Elena’s brother-in-law Mario Medina helped with the movement of the plane, but he had no knowledge of the dark secret that it contained within its hull.
The Count spent two years with her body at Rest Beach until he was forced to move again. He found another wooden shack on Flagler Avenue that suited his needs and everything, including Elena and the airplane, was packed up and hauled to this new location.
And then rumors started to spread, ultimately reaching Elena’s sister Nana. The magical world that the Count created for Elena all came crashing down on September 28, 1940, when Nana took the Count to Elena’s mausoleum and requested that he open the coffin. He refused, knowing full well that he had removed the inner casket. Keep in mind that this was nine years after she had died.
A few days later, on October 1st, the Count was again dragged to the cemetery and again outright refused to let Nana see Elena’s body. But finally, the Count gave in and offered to let her see Elena’s body. He took her to his house and showed Nana just how comfortably Elena was resting in her bed for the past seven years.
Nana freaked out when she saw the body and stormed out. On October 5th, the Count was arrested for possession of a dead body. Elena’s body was hauled off to the funeral home – her third visit there. The Count was charged with “ wanton and maliciously demolishing, disfiguring, and destroying a grave.”
As you could probably guess, the story was one big media circus. Readers just couldn’t get enough of the story. The funeral home put Elena’s body on display for public viewing, during which 6,850 people decided to take a peek. Just how creeped out were people by the news? Surprisingly, they weren’t at all. In fact, most people, particularly women, thought that it was an incredibly romantic thing to do.
A hearing on the case began on October 8, 1940. First, there was the testimony from Elena’s sister Nana, during which she said that there had been rumors flying around that the body may no longer be where it was supposed to be. She described how she confronted the Count and he took her to see the body.
Then the Count took the stand and told of how Elena’s body had been mistreated by all of those involved with burial and how he supposedly had resurrected her.
He underwent a lengthy psychological examination and was ruled sane and ordered to stand trial for his actions. Two men, Benjamin Fernandez and Joseph Zorsky, both business owners from Key West put up the $1000 bond to get him out of the lock-up. Amazingly, the Count did not know either of these two men.
Elena’s jewelry was returned to the Count. Since they were all gifts given after she died, Elena was not in a position to accept and say thank you. As a result, the court ruled that they still belonged to the Count.
Ultimately, the Count was cleared of all charges. That is because he had taken her body from the grave seven years earlier and the statute of limitations for robbing a grave was two years. While he may have committed a crime back then, there was nothing in the law to charge him with now.
This brings us to the end of the story. And in doing so, I must tell you what happened to the two main characters in this story.
Elena’s body, which was basically just bones held together with wire and wax, was dismembered and placed in an 18” (that’s just under a half of a meter) casket and buried in a secret location. Only three men – then police chief Bienevide Perez, undertaker Benjamin Sawyer, and Key West Cemetery Sexton Otto Bethel – were present at the burial and all swore to never reveal its location. All that is known, based on a statement by Police Chief Perez after the other two men had passed on was that it was somewhere in the Key West City Cemetery.
As for Count von Cosel, at first, he made money by charging a 25-cent admission of the curious to his home, but ultimately the notoriety of the case forced him to leave Key West. His destination was Zephyrhills, Florida, where his sister, wife, and remaining children lived. For 200 bucks he hired three large trucks that were loaded with his stuff, including that airplane fuselage and Elena’s former casket. Then, at 9 PM on April 14, 1941, the convoy hit the road.
Four hours later there was the powerful sound of an explosion at the cemetery. It was the demolition of Elena’s tomb. While it has long been supposed that the Count blew it up with dynamite, there was never enough proof to charge him with the crime.
During World War II, the US placed Germans under surveillance and the Count was no exception. They ordered him to take the wheels off of his so-called plane, not that it was going anywhere in the first place.
In 1944, the Count moved to a new home in Pasco County, Florida. This brings us to July of 1952 when a neighbor named George Patterson noticed the mail piling up on the Count’s front porch. He called the local sheriff to investigate. Upon entering the house, they found the Count’s badly decomposed body lying on the floor near the front door. The exact date of death was never determined, but not far from his body they found a wax replica of Elena’s body and head. Yes, his obsession with Elena lasted until his very last breath.
Now I have skipped the one question that people always ask me when I tell this story. That is, did he do the so-called horizontal bop with her corpse? While it was maintained by the prosecutors at the time of his arrest that he had not, it was revealed in 1972, during an interview with one of the doctors that performed the autopsy on Elena, that there was clear evidence that he had. In an effort to keep this podcast clean, I will leave out the more sordid details of what they found.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.