Carl Tanzler & His Corpse Bride
The story that I am sharing today is about a man in Florida who became so obsessed with a woman that even her death could not stop his love. It’s really creepy and fucked up so buckle up buttercup. Let’s begin!
Georg Karl Tanzler was born February 8, 1877 in Dresden, Germany. He had two sisters and claimed that he was raised in an elegant castle. Oookay. Sure.
He had an average childhood but in high school he had zero interest in girls and wanted to spend every minute he could on building glider planes.
He claimed to have earned 9 advanced degrees but upon further investigation there was no record of him ever attending University in Germany or anywhere. Neither did he have any paperwork to back up these spectacular credentials. I know you couldn’t just Google someone back then but claiming to have so much education and no proof is pretty ballsy. He obviously relied very heavily on the fact that people are lazy - for the most part - and wouldn’t want to dig into his background.
Along with all of these “advanced degrees” he asserted that he owned a coconut plantation near the equator. When people would ask him where this island and plantation were, he would cryptically say, “ near where Amelia Earhart went down.” Who the fuck says that as a point of reference? I know we have supposedly found her multiple times but I don’t know if it’s ever been 100% proven. If it has then please correct me! But back then - no one knew. This guy was just lying from day one.
During World War I Karl served in the German army as a member of the submarine division. He was taken to Australia as a prisoner of war in 1914. But this is where his stories differs from the facts - which is super weird to lie about. He claimed that before WWI he had moved to Australia, became a citizen, and lived there for 15 years. Quite different from the official record.
During his youth and young adulthood, he started to have visions or paranormal/psychic events happen to him. He stated that his ancestor, who had died in 1765, (and was a countess by the way) came to him and allowed him to glimpse his future wife. He later said that “she was so beautiful that I couldn’t attempt to describe her beauty.” But during his time in Australia, these visions went a step further. The spirit or essence of his future bride came to him and stayed by his side for seven days and nights. She followed him during the day as he worked and watched over him at night while he slept. Can you imagine working beside him while he was having this “episode”? Talking and responding to nothing, just babbling. That would be bizarre. When his bride vanished after seven days, Karl became distraught and promised that he would find her one day. He vowed he would see her again but in real life next time.
Upon his return to Germany after the war he discovered that his father had died and the home that his mother had lived in before the war was destroyed. Wasn’t Dresden bombed during WWI? I guess there went their fancy-pants castle. Karl had this to say about the destruction of his “castle”, “I lost my library, all my documents. My collection of diamonds, emeralds, and opals.” Geez, sounds like he put all of his eggs in one basket. And anyway, that’s another weird thing to boast about. Does anyone really keep piles of precious stones in their castle? One of his sisters had also married and moved to the United States.
In 1920, Karl, at age 43, married Doris Anna Schaffer and they had two daughters. Now, Doris was not his dream girl that had visited him when he was younger. He just figured that he was getting older and might as well get married and reproduce while he was waiting for his bride-to-be. He was NOT a family man though and he ran off to the United States on February 6, 1926. He arrived at Zephyrhills, Florida (FL) to join his sister and begin a new life. But he did not foresee his wife and children following him there a year later. What a bummer that must have been, huh?
It was in America that he changed the spelling of his name from Karl to Carl, to Americanize it. But then he insisted on going by the title COUNT so that kinda defeats the whole “wanting to blend in with regular Americans” thing. O, and he was a DOCTOR! So he was Count Dr. Carl Von Corsel. That’s a mouthful ain’t it?
Not too long after his family arrived he abandoned them again and moved to Key West, FL where he was hired at the local Navy Marine Hospital. He did still send money to his family but he didn’t want the actually “family” responsibility to weigh him down. What a charmer.
Unfortunately, when he was hired the hospital couldn’t verify his credentials (because they were bullshit) so they just hired him initially as an attendant and he eventually worked his way up to a radiology technician. Would any actual doctor settle for that? No, they would throw a temper tantrum like a toddler. That’s how you know that his education was F-A-K-E! He worked hard and long enough that he learned how to operate equipment and even take blood samples. You can’t say he wasn’t dedicated to his work.
While working at the Navy Hospital he bought a wrecked airplane and took it to the hospital grounds to begin restoring it. He wanted to “build it [up] from scratch”. This airplane was quite the monster; it had huge wheels that stood over 5 ft tall and 1.5 ft thick. He claimed that they were for landing on water. No, Carl. You’re thinking of a seaplane. Just because the wheels are big does not mean it will float. And why the hospital let him just put it out on the ground - I have no fucking idea.
Allow me describe Carl for a brief minute; he wore a bushy beard, walked with a cane and had an apparent swagger. He thought he was cool shit.
Carl had an air about him that sent the message that he was better than everyone around him.
While he was working at the hospital he met Elena. The girl who had haunted him in Australia, his bride-to-be, and more beautiful than words could describe. Sadly, there was a hitch in their future - Elena had TB. Not only did she have TB but she had the worst case possible which was often called “Galloping TB” or “Hasty Consumption.” She had been taken to the hospital by her mother for testing when her health began to fail after a miscarriage and abandonment from her husband.
That’s another hitch in the plans - she’s already married, Carl!.
Elena’s family were poor Cuban-Americans. Her father worked in a cigar factory (that’s very stereotypically Cuban) and her mother was a housewife. Elena was said to be universally beautiful with a marvelous singing voice. But she had the unfortunate luck of the draw of looking exactly like the vision that had visited Carl so many years ago. He said, “I looked into a face of unearthly beauty. The face of the bride that had been promised to me by my ancestor.” Okay, calm your tits there romeo. There’s a few problems here you’re ignoring.
Upon meeting Elena, Carl stopped sending his family money and focused all of his attention on his new bride-to-be. He began to make grand promises about being able to cure her. He didn’t charge the family for the x-rays or radiation treatments that he administered to Elena in the home she shared with her parents. Here’s a crazy tidbit - he was giving her radiation to “build up her strength.” Yep, you read that correctly. TO BUILD HER UP! He also brought her plenty of fruit and medicinal wine that he got from a priest. I’m speechless.
Elena, who was of course very sick, had frequent appointments at the hospital where she would always see Carl. He recalled her visits as someone who might be reminiscing about an enjoyable date. He would take her out to his plane and they would sit in the small cockpit, side-by-side. He even named the plane, “La Contessa de Corsel” after Elena as a wedding present for the day when she would become a Countess.
Her parents were skeptical of Carl’s treatments and began secretly seeking help from other, actual, doctors. They didn’t like how Carl talked to them or treated them. He would often barge into their home and demand that they stop smoking around Elena because it was bad for her health. I guess he was right about some things. They took this as an insult to their Cuban culture. How crazy is it that they were going behind his back to find other professional help? They had to do it secretively or he would lose his shit.
Despite Elena basically having a death sentence hanging over her head, Carl persisted and began showering her with gifts; clothing, furniture, jewelry, a big radio, a silk kimono and so much more. He told her constantly that he would cure her and they could then fly off to his coconut island plantation and live happily-ever-after. He was in la-la land. Elena was not on board with his romantic advancements but remained polite. She was getting free medical care in exchange for a weirdo trying to woo her so she bit the bullet and dealt with it. Carl proposed multiple times but Elena always had an excuse: she was already married, she was too young for him, if she ever remarried her mother would insist on it being another Cuban, but in the end she was just being affable.
As Elena’s illness gradually overtook her she stopped showing up for her hospital appointments. This brought Carl into a tailspin and he tried to bring a large transformer into her home so he could administer electro-shock therapy but her parents had had enough and were barring him from seeing her. He couldn’t sleep at night, knowing she was suffering and starting having nightmares.
After one year of Elena being sick and continually getting worse and worse, her doctors were now just prescribing pain medication to keep her comfortable.
Enter Carl - claiming that he is the only one who can cure her! He forced his way into their home and announced loudly that he would be living there so he could care for Elena full time. Her parents relented because they were out of options and Carl was promising a treatment. I can only imagine that at that point you would do anything to help your child. Carl started to use some of his inventions on her. They were all some form of electricity. He just shocked her anyway he could possibly imagine. Even with a Tesla coil type device that he stuck down her throat, nearly to her tonsils, and would electrocute her.
Despite all of his efforts, Elena was growing weaker. She came to terms with her death and was ready for the time when she would breathe her last. Before her death she told Carl to “take care of her body after she died because she couldn’t leave him anything else.” Carl took this to the next extreme and considered this to be their marriage vows.
Then, on Sunday October 25, 1931 Elena died.
Carl took it upon himself to pay for the funeral. He selected her casket, which was extravagantly lined with rose colored silk, and he made all other arrangements. Afterwards, he visited her grave every night but as time passed he began to worry about water around her casket and the possibility that Elena was getting wet. Like it mattered? I don’t think she was going to catch a cold. Carl made the decision that Elena needed a mausoleum that would keep her up above the ground and nice and dry. He discussed it with her family and they agreed. He paid for the expense of it and even designed her mausoleum.
After her death and burial, Carl made another grand announcement. He would be moving in with Elena’s parents and into her bedroom. They agreed (why, I have no earthly idea) and told him to pay $5 a month. He said that her pillow “still preserved the sweet smell of her hair.” Creep factor 100!
In order for Carl to remove Elena he would need the family’s explicit permission. So he requested permission from them as well as the state. Elena had been dead for 6-months at this point. His request was granted. Now it gets a little weirder, again. He convinced the undertaker to allow him to re-bed the casket. Meaning he brought in new sheets, pillows, and clothing. He spent hours peeling rotting clothing off of her body and spraying her with perfume. He also covered her in a layer of sterile cotton. He kinda turned her into a Florida mummy. Before placing her in the new mausoleum, which had been inscribed without her married name, (classy Carl, classy. Just forget that whole husband thing ever happened), he had Elena placed in a new special coffin. It had a metal exterior with a custom inner coffin with valves. Into these valves he poured a solution over Elena that created a state similar to preserving specimens in glass jars, which would deter further decomposition.
For 18 months Carl visited Elena every night at the cemetery. He began to hear Elena talking to him through the valve and said that she was singing to him and having conversations with him. Okay, seriously. No one noticed this? He never sent up any red flags about his dead “girlfriend” talking to him? He started to bring her gifts which he would leave littered around her mausoleum.
Obviously, Carl had no friends and spent every moment he could with Elena. He was still working at the hospital but just getting the work done so he could get paid and shower Elena with more presents.
Carl became utterly convinced that Elena was talking with him every night. On Christmas afternoon he came to visit her and take pictures. This is where he claimed he felt her hands on his head and face. A picture he took even showed a “figure” near her mausoleum that he swore was her.
Elena began to sing Spanish love songs to Carl about a lover who opened the grave of his dead fiance. Danger! Danger! Carl began to hear Elena telling him to remove her body so he could better care for it. He objected at first but not for moral reasons. He objected because the cemetery was surrounded by people and someone might see him. She instructed him to wait for the next new moon so it would be near pitch black and to hang a blanket over the fence so the neighbors couldn’t see what he was up to. That wouldn’t be weird at all. “Hey honey, did this see this blanket over the fence to the cemetery? Ah, probably nothing to worry about.” Oddball.
On the big night, Carl wore his wedding suit along with a black felt hat. He brought a small wagon with blankets, pillows, and some rope. Seeing as how he had the only key to her mausoleum, he removed her inner coffin but left the metal exterior one so that anyone looking inside would think she was still in there. He loaded the coffin on his little toy wagon but struggled to lift it over the fence. At one point, it fell on him and a valve opened by accident. He was drenched in fluids that leaked out. Remember the solution he put her in? Imagine the smell. After finally managing to get her coffin over the fence he wheeled her to a nearby house that he had rented just for the occasion. This house had no running water so he bathed himself in whiskey.
Carl returned to his rented room at Elena’s parents home, without them noticing, and took a proper bath. Had to get the stink of whiskey and death off of him. He left Elena in the rented house for three days before returning and transferring her remains, via taxi, to his airplane on the hospital grounds. Yep, a taxi. And the driver even helped him load the box that she was in.
By this point she had been dead for two years so she was in a fair state of decomposition despite his best efforts to keep her “alive”. Her clothes were coated in a slimy layer of mold, her eyes had sunk into her skull and were rotting, and there were maggots in her hair, ears, and abdomen. He peeled away her clothing, washed her thoroughly, and applied perfume. He then replaced her rotting eyes with glass ones, put splints around her nose to shape it, used wire piece her together (which he could also maneuver like a marionette puppet), made several death masks to cover her face and dressed her in a silk bridal gown. This all sounds like a horror film.
He would lay with her at night, in the coffin, and kiss her “as if we were alive.” I’m all for being in love but this is giving me a serious case of the heeby-jeebies. Please tell me you agree? This is NOT romantic.
In 1934, Carl’s ten-year-old daughter Christa, died of diphtheria. His estranged wife had gotten in touch, via letter I suppose, but he didn’t send any money or attend the funeral. He was too busy being in love with his new bride!
Months went by and eventually the hospital hired a new commander who ordered Carl to remove the plane. Elena’s brother-in-law helped Carl tow the plane to a house he rented nearby. He obviously didn’t know that Elena was inside the plane when he dragged it through Key West. After this big move, Carl no longer needed the room at Elena’s parent’s home. But upon his departure he takes her bed with him. Elena’s parents don’t protest because he was the one who bought it for her in the first place. And they just want this psycho out of their house!
His new home was “unique” to put it nicely. It was waterfront property but it was the remains of what had once been butcher pens for the local meat market. Elena’s brother-in-law helped Carl lay a concrete foundation, put up walls, and even construct a lab for his various inventions. Inside the lab, Carl built an incubation tank and filled it with the same solution that he had put in Elena’s casket before. He would put her body in there for 24-hours at a time to let the fluids circulate over her. He wanted to bring her back to life.
As time passed, Carl’s delusions began to truly spiral out of control. Yes, it’s possible.
Carl and Elena spent a nice Christmas together in their new home. He would drink wine with her by taking a large gulp, pressing his lips firmly against hers, and spitting it into her mouth. Just as blissful newly-weds.
After these two “lived” in this home for a couple of years they were driven out by crews that had been sent to the area to clean it up. They were too close for Carl’s comfort so he put Elena back in the plane and towed her to a new home. This home was more of a shed than a house but it had room for him and his 13 dogs. He utilized the dogs as guard dogs to keep people away. How did he stop the dogs from eating his jerky wife?
In 1935, the hospital went through some restructuring and Carl lost his job. He looked at the glass as half full because now he could spend more time with his blushing bride. He became a recluse as a after this and only left the house to visit the post office once a month to pick up a check from his time in the German military. This was his only contact with people that were actually alive.
One consequence of the move was that Carl was not able to bring Elena’s incubation tank with him so he moved her permanently to his bed. He said, “I slept by he side to be close to her and to protect her from insects.” So yes, bugs became a problem. Who’d imagine? While he was beside her he could fix any leaks that sprung up with silk and plaster. Her also gave her body another layer of wax to further protect her from insects. Throughout all of this Carl was still insistent that Elena was singing to him and having conversations. He believed that he was close to bringing her back. But he was concerned about her weight. Without the incubation tank she began to dry out and mummify. She went from 90 lbs to 40 lbs. As she mummified, her featured began to change but this didn’t bother Carl. He thought she was still resplendent.
By 1940, Elena’s only surviving family member was her sister Nana. The rest of her family had succumb to TB and Nana was ill with it as well. It was around this time that she began to hear about the rumors that Elena was not in her mausoleum. How did that rumor get started exactly? If Carl didn’t have any other human contact besides Elena and the post office then who would have suspected this obscene crime?
She demanded he come to the cemetery and unlock the mausoleum (he was the only one with a key, remember?) so she could see for herself that Elena was still inside. Carl refused. Nana was insistent and tried again a few days later. Carl again refused. As a show of good faith Carl invited Nana to him home. She was about to get the shock of her life.
He invited her into his home, pulled back a curtain that blocked off the sleeping area and revealed Elena’s body. He was excited to show Nana how beautiful Nana looked with her silk dress and jewelry. Carl told Nana that Elena was safe with him there and she had nothing to worry about.
That didn’t fly for the appalled Nana and she told Carl that if he returned Elena to her mausoleum that she wouldn’t tell anyone. Especially the police. Carl dismissed this request. He obviously had no idea that what he was doing was wrong and didn’t fear the police.
Later that day, police came and arrested Carl who was now 70-years-old and charged him with being in possession of a dead body and maliciously demolishing and disfiguring a grave. Elena’s body was taken to the funeral home, for the third time now, and put on display for the public to come witness. 5000 people ogled her and the story became a worldwide sensation. As the press grabbed hold of the story they didn’t portray Carl as a lunatic but as a romantic. Most people were non-judgmental of his actions and felt sympathy for him.
The most powerful and prolific attorney in Florida offered to represent Carl pro Bono. People came in throngs to visit him in jail and when the jail became to packed the guards allowed Carl to stand on the lawn in front of the building to visit. His “fans” collected money for him and he took it so as not to seem “rude” or “ungrateful.”
During the trial, Nana testified to the seeing her sister for the first time that day in Carl’s home. She described her as a “monster. What I saw will haunt me for the rest of my life.” As she gave her testimony, she posed the question of the state of Elena’s body. She wanted to know if Carl had sex with her mummified sister. Carl had this to say, “No, your honor I did not.” Then he proceeded to mumble, “she was mummified.” So, her vaginal area was mummified so she couldn’t do the deed. But keep this in mind for a minute.
As Carl presented his testimony he explained the visions he had of his ancestor and of the time his bride’s spirit had visited him for seven days and how he searched the world for her. Many women in the courtroom wept for Carl. How is this dipshit being romanticized to this level?!
After the trial the judge granted Nana’s request that no one know the exact location of her sister’s body. This infuriated Carl and he protested. He protested to intensely that the judge ordered him to undergo psychiatric evaluation. He was deemed sane. Of course. The trial would have been a smashing success for Nana but Carl was released. The state decided not to prosecute because the 2-year statute for disturbing a grave had expired. He had removed Elena from her grave 7-year prior. Nana was furious but at least she would have some solace about her sister’s reburial. Elena’s body was dismembered and placed in an 18-inch cube/box and buried. No one ever revealed her whereabouts and even the grave diggers kept their lips sealed.
After all of Carl’s publicity he became a household name. He charged twenty-five cents to view his lab, bought a pipe organ, and started getting letters and visitors from around the world. He appreciated the support but he didn’t like the attention and eventually moved back to Zephyrhills to live with his sister. His wife and remaining daughter still lived there as well. He left Key West behind for good. Before he left he delivered a small farewell present to Elena’s empty mausoleum - a bomb. He built a bomb with delayed detonation and left for his new home. The bomb went off 24-hours later at 1:40 am. Police could never tie him to the crime because he was far away by the time it went off.
Once back in Zephyrhills he took to writing a book about his life and painting watercolors scenes to tell the world about his love. While he was at his sister’s house he decided he didn’t like being cooped up inside so he moved into his plane, which was parked on the yard. Still crazy there, Carl. He liked being in the plane because it made him feel close to Elena. He missed her terribly. During World War II, seeing as how he was a German immigrant, he was put under surveillance by the FBI. They made him take the wheels off of his plane so they knew for sure it couldn’t fly anywhere. They obviously didn’t know the full story about that plane.
In 1944, Carl moved into his own house and built a shrine to Elena. He placed her casket on a long table and put a model of Elena’s body inside with a death mask over the face. People would still visit him and see the model. The neighbors thought was a character and didn’t seem to have any issues with him.
In 1945, he sold his corpse bride story to Fantastic Adventures but immediately blew all of the money and was destitute again. His estranged wife, Doris, gave him $2.50 out of her weekly check. This was enough to buy a few staples to keep him from starving. For the most part, Carl kept to himself.
All was quiet until 1952, when his neighbors reported to police that they hasn’t seen him in a few weeks. Yes, weeks. The sheriff found his dead and decomposing body next to his shrine of Elena. He was 76-years-old. After his own funeral, his plane was taken to a yard for children in the neighborhood to play on. That would be the creepiest, most disturbing playground ever. Do you think those kids ever looked back and realized what they played on? The death plane. The mummy plane. Imagine the rumors they could have come up with about it. They could have started their own urban legend!
But wait, there’s more.
In 1972, the doctor who performed the autopsy on Elena spoke out about the case. He started in the obviously place, “the breasts really felt real” - ahh, thanks for that doc. Went straight for the boobies did ya? He also examined the vaginal area and discovered a tube had been inserted into it that was wide enough to permit sexual intercourse. There was cotton at the bottom that was covered in semen. Another doctor confirmed these findings.
So, he DID have sex with her!
I hope you enjoyed this disturbing little tale as much as I did. It’s sinister, upsetting, and down-right troublesome. I don’t really know why I’m drawn to such dark and eerie subjects but they intrigue the hell out of me and really get my brain ticking. I know one thing for sure - truth is definitely stranger than fiction. If you liked it and want to know when I publish more stories then sign up for mailing list and I’ll hit you up next time.
Visit my ART SHOP to see what macabre beauties have been inspired by these gruesome stories.
Harrison, B. (1993). Undying Love: The True Story of a Passion that Defied Death. Key West, FL: Duval House Pub.
This American Life, Episode 610: Grand Gesture, NPR February 17, 2017
Fascinating Nouns, Episode 83: The Curious Case of Count Carl von Cosel, Podcast April 4, 2017