The Real Corpse Bride – Carl Tanzler’s Horrifying Obsession

The Real Corpse Bride – Carl Tanzler’s Horrifying Obsession

Shannon Quinn - August 31, 2018

In the 1930s, police officers raided the home of Carl Tanzler, and they found the body of Elena de Hoyos, who had died several years earlier. He was preserving her body like a life-sized doll, and sleeping next to it every night. Rumors of his “corpse bride” spread throughout Key West, Florida so often, the true story and legend blended into one. The true story is so incredibly creepy, it honestly doesn’t need much elaborating.

The Real Corpse Bride – Carl Tanzler’s Horrifying Obsession
When she was alive, Elena was truly beautiful. Credit: The 13th Floor.

A Vision From Heaven

Carl Tanzler was an extremely eccentric man who claimed that he had a vision from Heaven that he was destined to fall in love with a woman with tan skin and dark hair. He believed that the angels show him his soulmate, but the likelihood of meeting her in his home country of Germany was slim, so he moved to the United States. Even after getting married and having kids, he still clung to this idea that the angels had shown him his true love, and he would stop at nothing to be with her.

Tanzler became estranged from his wife and children, who could not stand being around him anymore. He began working as a radiology technician in Key West, Florida. While working in the hospital, he met a young Cuban-American woman named Elena de Hoyos. She was dying of Tuberculosis, and their family could not afford to get her all of the best treatment available. Carl Tanzler had lived through the Victorian Era in Europe, where death was even considered to be in fashion, and a woman was the most beautiful when she was on the brink of death.

Carl Tanzler pretended to be a doctor and offered to take care of Elena from her home. He would steal equipment from the hospital and bring it over, along with gifts and money for her family. Elena was only 21 years old at the time, and Carl was 53. He would constantly tell her how much he loved her, but, of course, she did not reciprocate his feelings. In fact, Elena had married a man named Luis Mesa, and they were going to have a child together. Tragically, Elena miscarried, and it tore their relationship apart. Luis Mesa left her, but they never got a divorce. So they were separated, but still legally married.

On top of the fact that both of them were married to other people, English was the second language for both of them, so it’s questionable how much they were able to actually get to know one another. This one-sided infatuation was so strong, though, Tanzler tried experiments on her with things he stole from the hospital in his attempt to heal her, but for all we know, he could have made things even worse.

The Real Corpse Bride – Carl Tanzler’s Horrifying Obsession
Carl Tanzler paid for an elaborate tomb for Elena. Credit: The 13th Floor

When Elena died in 1931, Carl offered to pay for her funeral. Instead of giving her a normal underground burial, he paid for her to have an elaborate tomb that had a door on the front. He kept the only key, so he was able to visit her every single night. He would inject her body with more formaldehyde on nearly a daily basis to keep her looking alive for as long as possible. He would sit with her for hours, talking, and potentially doing some unspeakable acts with her corpse.

After two years of visiting her every single day, he started to believe that he could hear Elena’s voice calling to him, begging to be released from the tomb. He decided to bring her body back to his house, where he could take care of her.

The Real Corpse Bride – Carl Tanzler’s Horrifying Obsession

The Life-Sized Doll

Her body was falling apart, and her state of decomposition was very noticeable once he got her back to his house by dragging her corpse in a toy wagon. Once he was back home, he began stuffing her body with wire coat hangers in place of bones, glass eyes in her sockets, and even made a wig out of her real hair. He would use oils and tonics to try to help the smell, and slept next to her corpse every night. After a while, she no longer looked anything like the real Elena. It looked like a life-sized dummy that was crudely made to resemble her. Its unblinking eyes resembled a doll, and her skin was stretched, waxy, and filled with chemicals. Tanzler would prop up Elena’s body in chairs, and he slept next to it every single night as if she was actually his wife.

The hospital figured out that he was stealing supplies and expensive equipment from them, and he got fired. He survived by receiving money in the mail from his estranged wife. He lived in a shack that was barely a shelter, which he also used as his workshop. With the money he got from his real wife, Tanzler would go out and buy women’s clothes, so he could dress up Elena in clothes, very literally like a life-sized doll that was rotting in the Florida heat.

The Real Corpse Bride – Carl Tanzler’s Horrifying Obsession
Tanzler created an airplane-shaped craft that was meant to go into space, called “Elena’s Airship”. Credit: YouTube

As if this wasn’t crazy enough, Carl Tanzler believed that if he took Elena’s body into space, the radiation would bring her back to life, kind of like electricity running through Frankenstein’s monster. He build a spaceship that he planned to take into space one day. He called this “Elena’s Airship”. Of course, he would never be able to have the technology to bring it into space. This was years before the first man would even walk on the moon, so the idea that he could build a spaceship in his own backyard was even crazier than it sounds.

The Real Corpse Bride – Carl Tanzler’s Horrifying Obsession
Carl Tanzler standing in front of his home where he kept Elena’s body, which was an open-air junkyard in Florida. Credit: Stuff You Missed in History Class

The Jig is Up

His neighbors began to get very suspicious. He was living alone, and yet he was spotted buying clothes for his “wife”. Some witnesses also saw him through his window, dancing with what looked to be a life-sized dummy. Once someone finally figured out what was going on, they called the police, and Carl Tanzler was arrested.

When he was finally caught, it had been seven whole years since he committed the grave robbery and started living with Elena’s corpse. He was interviewed by a psychologist, who declared that he was mentally incompetent, as well. The statute of limitations was already up, so he was set free. And to the outside world, they just saw this as a loony, eccentric old man who just really missed his “wife”. Many people misunderstood the story to be that an elderly man refused to bury his wife, and lived with her body. Some people actually thought that was kind of romantic, rather than psychotic. So he never even received a lot of public backlash for his horrific behavior.

The Real Corpse Bride – Carl Tanzler’s Horrifying Obsession
Carl Tanzler (left) spent every night with his corpse bride (right). Credit: The 13th Floor

After Carl Tanzler had been detained, medical examiners peeled away the layers of abominations that he had placed on the corpse. At first, they thought it would not have been possible for Tanzler to be an actual necrophile with his corpse bride, but without indulging the details, the medical examiners said that it was actually “possible” for him to make love to the corpse, if he chose to, but they could not find and definitive evidence that he was doing that. The authorities did not want him to get his hands on her again, so they buried her body in an unmarked grave to ensure that he would never find her.

In his later years, Carl Tanzler wrote an autobiography for a pulp magazine called “Fantastic Adventures”. His real wife took pity on her mentally damaged husband and continued to support him. He earned his US citizenship, and moved to Tampa, Florida to have a better quality of life. There was a rumor that he rebuilt a life-sized replica dummy that looked exactly like the doll he made out of Elena’s corpse. When he died, some say he had his arms wrapped around the dummy for comfort. This, of course, is a rumor, but considering the details of this story that are true, it doesn’t seem all that hard to believe.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Wikipedia – Carl Tanzler

The 13th Floor – The Macabre True Story of Carl Tanzler and His Corpse Bride

Hyperallergic – How Tuberculosis Symptoms Became Ideals of Beauty in the 19th Century?

Museum Facts – 11 Bizarre Facts About Carl Tanzler – The Man Who Loved A Corpse

Medium – The Corpse Bride: The True Story

Ranker – Inside Carl Tanzler And His Messed-Up Relationship With A Corpse

Sinister Isles – Carl Tanzler Dug Up His Dead Patient Elena And Made Her His Corpse Bride

OZY – The Woman Of His Dreams Died. But He Didn’t Let That Pull Them Apart

Ask a Mortician – Iconic Corpse: Elena de Hoya & Carl Tanzler

History of Yesterday – The Hopeless Romantic Who Proved Love Never “Dies”