What would you do for love? For some it might be giving a gift or flowers, for others writing a poem professing that love, perhaps a song, and still others might make extreme personal sacrifices to be by the side of their beloved. Yet some people take it a little further, and for one eccentric scientist this meant being by the side of his true love to death and beyond, making an abomination out of deranged obsession and creating a baffling historical oddity. Love makes us do crazy things, but for this individual it was perhaps a bit crazier than most, incorporating a tale of ghosts, obsession, and corpse brides.
Georg Karl Tanzler had always been a rather odd individual with a colorful life. Born in Dresden, Germany in 1877, as he grew up he became rather well-known for making bold claims that couldn’t possibly be true, such as that he had nine university degrees or claiming that he had invented things that he hadn’t. One bizarre claim he would make which might have had an effect on what was to come later in his life is that he once told his family that a long dead relative, Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel, had visited him in a dream and shown him a vision of the beautiful woman he was meant to be with forever, his one true love. Well-travelled, Tanzler was in Australia when World War I broke out, after which he was interred in a prison camp for Germans that he allegedly tried to escape from after building his own sailboat.
He would return to Germany after the war and marry, but this life didn’t seem to suit him, because he was secretly building a sailboat in order to leave his life in Germany behind and make his way across the vast sea to join his sister, who had emigrated to Florida some years before. In 1926 Tanzler sailed across the Atlantic by himself to Cuba and then on to settle in Zephyrhills, Florida, where his family would later join him. It seems that perhaps he was still not happy, as he promptly left them in 1927 to move to Key West, changed his name to Carl von Cosel, and took a job at the U.S. Marine Hospital as a radiology technician. It is from this point that Tanzler’s life would take a swerve from the merely offbeat into the truly bizarre.
On April 22, 1930, a strikingly attractive young Cuban American woman by the name of Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos Mesa was brought in to the hospital where Tanzler worked with a case of tuberculosis. As soon as Tanzler laid eyes on her he was overcome with a wave of shock, as this was the exact same woman he had seen in his prophetic dream all of those years ago, the one shown to him by his ancestor. At the time he could barely believe it, and he must have been quite a sight standing there paralyzed with his mouth agape. He was convinced that this was his one true love, and that their meeting there had been fated. He was completely and totally smitten with her, and began his scheme to worm his way into her life.
In that era tuberculosis was widely considered to be incurable, to have it a death sentence. Indeed, many of Maria’s immediate family had succumbed to the disease, but Tanzler didn’t let this get in the way of a good story and chance to score his love. He approached the gorgeous young woman in the hospital and told her that he was not only a Count (he wasn’t), but that he was a highly respected doctor (he wasn’t that either) with the medical knowledge and the resources to help cure her. To this end he began misappropriating hospital resources in a bid to help her, using x-rays, various potions, medicines elixirs, herbs, and tonics, and myriad medical machines in an effort to cure her. There were several problems with all of this. One was that it was highly illegal and beyond his pay grade and job description to be going near any of this stuff or using it without permission, and another was that he had not the slightest idea of what he was doing. It was also a breach of patient trust, testing out potentially dangerous methods of treatment, and an inappropriate attempt to make passes at a helpless woman, and there was also the inconvenient detail in that is seems that Maria had no romantic interest in Tanzler at all, and was merely in his company to try and get her health back to be with her family. Oh yeah, and Tanzler was still technically married with two kids, and as a matter of fact Maria was married too, although her husband had run off.
When it seemed that his “medical expertise” was not helping to fix her or help him get with Maria, Tanzler began constantly giving her flowers and gifts, even going so far as to admit his undying love for her, all to no avail. It might come as no surprise at all that despite Tanzler’s efforts Maria would eventually succumb to her illness on October 25, 1931, possibly even having her demise sped up from all of Tanzler’s medical meddling. Devastated, he reached out to Maria’s family and offered to not only pay for her funeral, but to have a mausoleum built for her, and although this was coming from a complete stranger they apparently accepted, after which Tanzler would then spend his evenings sitting forlornly by the tomb every evening singing songs and reading out poetry professing his love. So far, so creepy, but he was about to take the creep factor way up into the stratosphere.
Unbeknownst to Maria’s family, Tanzler actually had a key to the above-ground mausoleum, and was letting himself in at night. There he would gaze upon her corpse, talk to it, and even sleep with it there in the cold dankness of the tomb. He would later claim that Maria’s ghost was appearing to him and telling him to do this, that she wanted to be with him even in death and wanted to marry him. After two years of this, Tanzler decided that going out to the tomb every night wasn’t to his liking, and so he went in one evening in April of 1933 and whisked Maria’s body away with the help of a toy wagon. How he managed to get it all the way home without arousing any suspicion is anyone’s guess, but he did, and quickly went about trying to preserve the corpse, still convinced that Maria’s ghost was looking over him.
By this time the body would have been well on its way to decomposition, but Tanzler did what he could. He carefully and lovingly strung together her bones with wire, outfitted her with glass eyes, replaced her skin with a mixture of plaster and waxed fabric, put a wig on her head fashioned from her own hair, filled the body cavity with rags to preserve the shape, and coated the corpse with perfume, formaldehyde, disinfectants, and other preserving agents in order to slow the decomposition process and mask the growing smell. He then went out and bought women’s clothing, stockings, jewelry, and make up in order to dress her up, and the end result was, well, rather horrific actually, a ghoulish thing of nightmares. Nevertheless, in Tanzler’s eyes it had been a great success, Maria was back with him and her ghost was pleased, and he even had a little makeshift wedding ceremony with the corpse. He regularly slept with the corpse, sat down to dinner with it, and danced around the house with it, and it would have all been quite the macabre spectacle. He even went about designing a special airship in which he believed the two of them could travel up into the atmosphere and rejuvenate her with rays from outer space. Reality had certainly left the building, fled it in fact.
This went on for a full 7 years (!), with Tanzler living with Maria’s inexorably rotting corpse as if they were just a typical married couple, going through the routine of applying preserving agents every day, dressing her, and caring for her, even trying to feed her. However, after so much time had passed people began to realize that something was wrong with this picture. They became suspicious at all of the woman’s clothing and jewelry he would purchase, and found it odd that on occasion they could see him through his open window dancing with what they at first took to be a life sized doll. Considering that he had not been making his nightly visits to the tomb, some people began to correctly put two and two together and suspect that it was actually Maria’s body in there with him, and these rumors would reach Maria’s sister, who went to Tanzler’s house to check out the claims and found that indeed it was no doll, but rather Maria’s decomposing corpse. She ran from the residence in horror, contacted police, and Tanzler was arrested on charges of grave desecration.
Considering the macabre, surreal quality of the case, Tanzler’s subsequent trial attracted mass media attention and drew in hordes of curiosity seekers. Tanzler was completely unrepentant during the freak show of a trial, proclaiming his innocence and eternal love for the deceased woman and refusing to apologize for anything he had done since it had all been out of love and adoration and in accordance with the will of Maria’s spirit. He even had the sheer clueless audacity to demand that the body, his “wife,” be returned to him. Despite coming across as a demented, insane creep, there was nothing the court could do in the end, as the statute of limitations for this particular crime had expired. Tanzler walked away a free man, and in the meantime Maria’s body was tastelessly put on display, where it was viewed by thousands of people before finally being given a proper burial in an unmarked grave at the Florida Keys Cemetery to let her rest at last.
Tanzler himself retreated from the public eye and immediately created a life sized mannequin in Maria’s likeness so that they could continue their twisted “marriage,” and he would live with this doll for the remainder of his days up to his death in 1952 at the age of 75, still hopelessly in love with Maria and believing that her spirit actually resided in the mannequin. It is all truly a wild, sick, and demented ride, and truly shows the lengths to which some will go for love, or at least for twisted obsession. One wonders what drove this strange mad scientist to do what he did. Was it merely obsession and fantasy or did he really believe in his vision and the presence of Maria’s ghost? What drove this deranged madman? We will probably never know, but it offers a dark and at the same time fascinating look into the human mind and its relationship with love and obsession, and is a very odd and shocking piece of history that for the most part seems to be mostly forgotten.