A Love That Would Not Die: Key West Tells Its Most Macabre Legend

Feb 11, 2018

The story of Elena Hoyos and the man who called himself Count Carl von Cosel is a Key West legend.

It's a true story if unbelievable in its macabre details. And it's been retold in histories, websites — and on stage. A new version of a musical about the story, Undying Love, is opening in Key West. On Valentine's Day.

Von Cosel was really Karl Tanzler, though everybody still refers to him as Von Cosel. And he wasn't a count.

He showed up in Key West in the 1920s where he worked as a radiologist at the local hospital. That's where he met Elena Hoyos.

She was a beautiful young Cuban-American woman who had tuberculosis. Von Cosel fell in love with her, and he treated her for her illness. But the treatments didn't work and she died.

But that didn't end the story. Two years later, he took her body from the mausoleum and lived with it. For seven years.

'People were fascinated by it'

Ben Harrison is a singer-songwriter who lives in Key West. When he first heard about the story, he wrote a song. And he played it at the Bull, a bar on Duval Street.

"People were fascinated by it. They couldn't get enough of it," he said. "And it became the song most requested while I was playing there."

In the song he details how von Cosel preserved the body: "With piano wire, he wired her bones ... plaster, wax and cosmetics, he formed her again ..."

But the story stayed with him. Harrison would walk around town with his young son on his shoulders, thinking about the characters. He wrote a play about it, with more songs.

And he wrote a book. Both play and book have the same title: Undying Love.

He found an old Miami Herald story about the case that referred to a song: La Boda Begra.

"And Begra's not a word in Spanish. So I guessed Negra," Harrison said.

La Boda Negra: The black wedding

With the help of a local music historian (this was in the early '90s, before the Internet), Harrison found the song: La Boda Negra. The black wedding.

Harrison thinks it was this song that inspired von Cosel to do what he did.

In his play, the character of Elena describes the song's story to von Cosel.

"It's about a young man whose fiancée dies and he's so sad that he digs her up from the grave and he takes her home, and he carries her to his bed that is covered with flowers," she says. "He says his wedding vows to her and then he takes his own life."

Harrison said he thinks that Hoyos had to be the person who introduced von Cosel to the tale.

"From the mausoleum, von Cosel felt she was singing the song to him, from the grave," he said. "He could distinctly hear every word. And this was the justification for him to take her home with him."

Two years after Hoyos died, on the night of a new moon, von Cosel removed her body from the mausoleum.

He kept her in his home — a wingless airplane with giant wheels that he'd built himself. His plan was to fly her to the stratosphere where cosmic rays would cure her illness.

He basically mummified her body.

"He gave her glass eyes. And he gave her some fresh hair," Harrison said. "Just fixed her all up."

Von Cosel lived with Hoyos' body in three different places on the island — moving the wingless airplane farther out of town each time.

Discovery — and a public viewing nine years after death

After seven years, his secret was discovered by Hoyos' sister, her last living relative. Everyone else had died of tuberculosis.

Her sister called the cops and von Cosel was arrested. They took the body to a funeral home.

"That was the last time he saw her," Harrison said.

But a lot of other people saw her after that — 6,850 people came to the funeral home when they held a viewing of the remains. It was nine years after her death.

"He had rouge on her cheeks and glass eyes and she was wearing a kimono and little shoes on her feet," Harrison said.

There's one question just about everyone has about this story.

"Yes, he did have sex with her," Harrison said. "It wasn't found out about until 20 years later when the doctors finally confessed. You just didn't talk about things like that."

Von Cosel was initially charged with wanton and wilful destruction of a grave. But the charges were dropped because the statute of limitations — two years — had run out.

A three-person board, including two doctors, declared him sane.

Harrison said he thinks von Cosel genuinely believed he brought Hoyos back to life.

"So in his mind, he was not having sex with a dead person," Harrison said. "He was, in fact, having sex with this woman he had restored life to."

'You have to play the person as they saw themselves'

That sincerity comes through in the play, where actor Jamie Callahan portrays von Cosel.

"You can't play 'weird,' " Callahan said. "You have to play the person as they saw themselves. I can guarantee you that von Cosel didn't think he was weird."

The case was a national sensation. Harrison said the reaction largely broke along gender lines. Many women found the tale romantic, while men, "being the cynical pigs that we are," had a different reaction. He has a song in the play that captures the response: "She was pickled and he poked her. Look what love made him do. To poke a pickled person, you've got to have a loose screw."

Part of the reason for sympathy, Harrison said, might be because it was 1940, as World War II was consuming Europe.

"Typical of one of the letters that were written to him from people all over the country was, 'How dare you challenge this doctor who's trying to bring back someone to life, when the rest of the world is trying to kill each other?' " Harrison said.

After that massive public viewing, the authorities had to figure out what to do with Hoyos' remains.

"A lot of people thought she should be put in a glass case and kept as a tourist attraction," Harrison said.

They couldn't put her back in the mausoleum or in a marked grave in the cemetery, "because von Cosel would find her and dig her up again," he said.

So the police chief, the sheriff and the cemetery sexton took care of it. They took the secret of where they buried Hoyos to their own graves, though Harrison said he thinks it's somewhere in the city cemetery.

One last visit to the cemetery

Von Cosel decided to leave town and go back to Zephyrhills, Fla., where — it turned out — his wife and daughters had been living all along. Before he left, he paid one last visit to the mausoleum he had built for Hoyos and where he'd stolen her body.

The mausoleum "blew up two hours after he left town," Harrison said. He said he has no doubt that was von Cosel's doing.

"What other person would have the motive to show the officials what the real wanton and willful destruction of a tomb looks like?"

He eventually wrote his own account for a pulp magazine called Fantastic Adventures. The piece was titled "The Secret of Elena's Tomb." It was published in 1947. Von Cosel died 10 years later.