The Secret of Elena’s Tomb: the Haunted Heart of Carl Tanzler

Imagine this: as a young boy in Germany, you’re haunted by a ghost. A long dead ancestor, she gives you a vision of your true love:

She shows you a young woman who is exotic,

dark haired, dark skinned…

Quite different than any woman you have ever seen.

Years pass, and there are no more visitations…

Then, one night in Italy, she comes to you again, bearing the same image.

Your name is Carl Tanzler, and your fascination with the apparition’s message will lead you to places love should never go…

Zdzisław Beksiński was a Polish painter, photographer and sculptor, who specialized in the field of dystopian surrealism. Hating titles, this is simply untitled from 1984.


At the age of 53, Tanzler was a radiology technician at the Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida.

It was there that a young Cuban American woman came in for an examination. Considered a local beauty, the young woman immediately left Tanzler shaken to his core.

This was the woman that his ancestor’s ghost had shown him.

Her name was Maria Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos, and tuberculosis had ravaged her family.

Now, it appeared that it was coming for her.


Tanzler offered to help her.

He brought experimental equipment to her parent’s home, where she lived.

No improvement.

He brought her an array of medicines.

No improvement.

He bought her jewelry and fine dresses.

No improvement.

He professed his love for her.

No improvement.


Late October, 1931. Elena succumbed to tuberculosis at her parent’s home.

Having gained her family’s trust, they accepted his kindly offer to cover the funeral costs.

He was so generous, Elena’s mother didn’t think twice about giving him several locks of her hair.

With their blessings, he built an above ground mausoleum.

Which Tanzler visited almost every night…


Now it was Elena’s ghost that appeared to him.

As he sat by her grave, he would sing her favorite Spanish ballad, and she would come to him.

And she would beg him.

She would plead with him.

Please take me away from this place…



On an April night in 1933, you might have seen a strange sight:

An older man with a toy wagon, carting something that looked like it could be a body.

hmmm you might have hummed quietly while scratching your head and turning away.


Carl Tanzler’s Instructions for Keeping Love Fresh:

Parts you’ll need:

  • Wire and coat hangers to keep bones together
  • Glass eyes
  • Silk cloth, soaked in wax and plaster of paris, used to replace decomposing skin
  • Hair (preferably from your lover (see above))
  • Rags to fill in those pesky abdominal and chest cavities and keep her looking fit and firm

For her attire:

  • stockings
  • jewelry
  • gloves
  • Perfume. Not some of the perfume. All of the perfume.

For Both of You:

  •  one freshly made bed.

Seriously, that is what Tanzler did to Elena’s body.


By 1940, nearly a decade after Elena’s death, rumors had started circulating around town.

Unholy things were being whispered; stories of Tanzler dancing at night with a body.

Elena’s body?

Finally, Elena’s sister confronted Tanzler.


Yes, the police were called.

Yes, Tanzler did stand trial.

And yes, he went away for a long, long time.

Sorry about that. Let’s try again:

And surprise! the statue of limitations had run out.

Tanzler walked, and public opinion was on his side.

People thought the whole affair was…

Well, kinda romantic, in a kooky kinda way, don’t ya think?


Elena was reinterred in an unmarked grave to prevent any further desecration, but only after being put on public display at a funeral home.

Nearly seven thousand people came to view her remains.

Which in my opinion, adds a little insult to the injury, at least for her family.


How sexual was their relationship?

Two physicians who attended the 1940 autopsy claimed there was a paper tube to facilitate…

You get the picture.

But this claim wasn’t made public until 1972, and no evidence was presented at the trial, so it can’t be stated as a fact.


So what could come next for Tanzler?

Well, he retired, still very much in Florida.

Then, in 1947, he wrote an autobiography that appeared in the pulp mag Fantastic Adventures.

Tanzler, writing as Karl Tanzler Von Cosel, which was an ancestral name. it should be noted that the ghost who visited him was that of one Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel.

In 1950, he received U.S. citizenship.

Carl Tanzler, A Great Man.

Still, behind every great man, there’s a great…


Yes, Elena was still with Tanzler.

Using a death mask, he created a life sized Elena model.

They lived together happily until Tanzler’s death in 1952, at the age of 75.

There’s an urban legend that says he was found in her arms, though his obituary wasn’t nearly as flowery.

And so ends the tale of the Haunted Heart of Carl Tanzler; may Elena’s ghost rest in peace.

Carl and Elena’s Death Mask. All images of Tanzler from


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