He was born on February 8, 1877 in Dresden, Germany
Around 1921 he married Doris A. Shafer (1889–1977).
Tanzler grew up in Germany, and apparently spent time in Australia around the time of World War I, where he may have been held on detention. Tanzler emigrated to the United States in 1926, sailing from Rotterdam on February 6, 1926 to Havana, Cuba. From Cuba he settled in Zephyrhills, Florida, where his sister had earlier emigrated, and was later joined by his wife and two daughters. Leaving his family behind in Zephyrhills in 1927, he took a job as a radiologist at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida under the name Carl von Cosel.
During his childhood in Germany, and later, while traveling briefly in Genoa, Italy, Tanzler claimed to have been visited by visions of a dead ancestor, countess Anna Constantia von Cosel, who revealed the face of his true love, an exotic dark-haired woman, to him.
Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos
On April 22, 1930, while working at the Marine Hospital in Key West, Tanzler met Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos (1910–1931), a local, Cuban-American woman who had been brought to the hospital for an examination by her mother. Tanzler immediately recognized her as the beautiful dark-haired woman that had been revealed to him in his earlier “visions.” By all accounts, Hoyos was viewed as a local beauty in Key West.
Hoyos was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis, a nearly always fatal disease at the time, that eventually claimed the lives of almost her entire immediate family. Tanzler, with his self-professed medical “knowledge,” attempted to treat and cure Hoyos with a variety of medicines, as well as x-ray and electrical equipment, that were brought to the Hoyos’ home. Tanzler showered Hoyos with gifts of jewelry and clothing, and allegedly professed his love to her, but no evidence has surfaced to show that any of his affection was reciprocated by Hoyos (while she was alive).
Despite Tanzler’s best efforts, Hoyos died of terminal tuberculosis at her parent’s home in Key West on October 25, 1931. Following Hoyos’ funeral, which Tanzler paid for, and with the permission of her family, Tanzler commissioned the construction of an above ground mausoleum in the Key West City Cemetery that he visited almost every night.
In April, 1933, Tanzler removed Hoyos’ body from the mausoleum, carted it through the cemetery after dark on a toy wagon, and transported it to his home. Tanzler attached the corpse’s bones together with wire and coat hangers, and fitted the face with glass eyes. As the skin of the corpse decomposed, Tanzler replaced it with silk cloth soaked in wax and plaster of paris. As the hair fell out of the decomposing scalp, Tanzler fashioned a wig from Hoyos’ hair that had been collected by her mother and given to Tanzler not long after her burial in 1931. Tanzler filled the corpse’s abdominal and chest cavity with rags to keep the original form, dressed Hoyos’ remains in stockings, jewelry, and gloves, and kept the body in his bed. Tanzler also used copious amounts of perfume, disinfectants, and preserving agents, to mask the odor and forestall the effects of the corpse’s decomposition.
In October, 1940, Elena’s sister Florinda heard rumors of Tanzler sleeping with the disinterred body of her sister, and confronted Tanzler at his home, where Hoyos’ body was eventually discovered. Florinda notified the authorities, and Tanzler was arrested and detained. Tanzler was psychiatrically examined, and found mentally competent to stand trial on the charge of “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization.” After a preliminary hearing on October 9, 1940 at the Monroe County Courthouse in Key West, Tanzler was held to answer on the charge, but the case was eventually dropped and he was released, as the statute of limitations for the crime had expired.
Shortly after the corpse’s discovery by authorities, Hoyos’ body was examined by physicians and pathologists, and put on public display at the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home, where it was viewed by as many as 6,800 people. Hoyos’ body was eventually returned to the Key West City Cemetery where the remains were buried in an unmarked grave, in a secret location, to prevent further tampering.
The facts underlying the case and the preliminary hearing drew much interest from the media at the time (most notably, from the Key West Citizen and Miami Herald), and created a sensation among the public, both regionally and nationwide. The public mood was generally sympathetic to Tanzler, whom many viewed as an eccentric “romantic.”
Though not reported contemporaneously, authors Harrison and Swicegoo wrote of Tanzler’s necrophilia with Hoyos’ corpse. Two physicians, Dr. DePoo and Dr. Foraker, who attended the 1940 autopsy of Hoyos’ remains recalled in 1972 that a paper tube had been inserted in the vaginal area of the corpse that allowed for intercourse. Others contend that since no evidence of necrophilia was presented at the 1940 preliminary hearing, and because the physicians’ “proof” surfaced in 1972, over 30 years after the case had been dismissed, the necrophilia allegation is unfounded. While no existing contemporary photographs of the autopsy or photographs taken at the public display show a tube, the necrophilia claim was repeated by the HBO Autopsy program in 2005.
Later life and death
In 1944, Tanzler moved to Pasco County, Florida close to Zephyrhills, Florida, where he wrote an autobiography that appeared in the pulp publication, Fantastic Adventures, in 1947. His home was near his wife Doris, who apparently helped to support Tanzler in his later years. Tanzler received United States citizenship in 1950 in Tampa.
Tanzler used a death mask that he had kept to create a life-sized effigy of Hoyos, and lived with it until his death on July 3, 1952. His body was discovered on the floor of his home three weeks after his death. He died under the name “Carl Tanzler”. His obituary reported that he died on the floor behind one of his organs. The obituary recounted: “a metal cylinder on a shelf above a table in it wrapped in silken cloth and a robe was a waxen image”.