On 25th October 1931, 22 year-old Elena de Hoyos finally succumbed to the tuberculosis that had already killed several members of her family. Her remaining relatives were not alone in mourning the loss of Elena, an exceptionally beautiful and talented young woman who, before her illness, had a bright future ahead of her as a singer and entertainer. Eighteen months before her death, Elena had come to the attention of the eccentric Count Carl von Cosel. He was no genuine aristocrat, but von Cosel had arrived in Florida from Dresden in Germany in 1927, when he was 50. In America, he changed his title and name from the more humble Tanzler, after abandoning his German wife and their two children. Immediately smitten with Elena, von Cosel believed she was the striking dark-haired woman he later claimed to have been haunted by dreams and visions of.

Never short of suitors on account of her dazzling looks, in 1926 Elena married Luis Mesa, a local man who, like herself, was of Cuban origin. The marriage broke down soon after when Elena suffered a miscarriage and was then diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was during one of her hospital stays that Elena first met von Cosel, who was working as a radiologic technologist at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West. Befriending Elena’s parents, von Cosel promised them that he would be able to cure their daughter, even though doctors had warned them there was little hope that she would recover. As he treated her using his own outlandish methods involving x-rays and other machines, as well as tonics containing specks of gold, von Cosel professed his undying love to the dying Elena and brought her extravagant presents. Uninterested, she routinely snubbed his advances, and von Cosel failed in his quest to heal the object of his affection.

A devastated von Cosel offered to pay for Elena’s funeral and also had an elaborate mausoleum built for her at the Key West Cemetery, which he visited on a nightly basis. He also built an airship that he christened ‘The Countess Elena,’ and expressed his wish that some day, he and his dear departed one might travel to the stars in it, where they would be ‘high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form.’

In his diary, von Cosel wrote of his nocturnal outings to Elena’s resting place, ‘Ever since the moon began to wane, Elena had begun to sing in her casket with a very soft clear voice which became just a little bit stronger from night to night. It was always the same old Spanish song about a lover who opens the grave of his dead bride. I could distinctly hear and understand its every word.’ A sentiment that was clearly more reassuring to von Cosel himself than poor Elena, he added, ‘Darling, I would say, very soon now the moon will change, the hour approaches when I shall take you home with me. I will clean you and wash you and I will put on your bridal dress, with veil and crown and all. Thus, as my bride, you will stay with me forever.’

One night in April 1933, von Cosel kept what he believed to be his promise to his lost beloved and he exhumed Elena taking her with him. In fact, since her burial, von Cosel, who had ensured he had a key to the mausoleum, had been using his visitation to try and preserve Elena using formaldehyde. Back home, von Cosel took Elena to his laboratory where he used a mixture of chemicals to prevent any further decay and used mortician’s wax to try to reconstruct her once lovely face. He replaced Elena’s eyes with glass ones and covered her skull with a wig he had made from remnants of her own hair. The cadaver was adorned with a silk wedding gown and stockings, long gloves, and expensive items of jewellery.

It was not until 1940 that anyone began to suspect that Elena’s grave had been disturbed. Elena’s sister Florinda had started to wonder why von Cosel’s trip to the cemetery had stopped altogether and after hearing rumours that he had been seen by neighbours dancing around with what looked like a life-size doll, she went to confront him. To, her utter horror, when he entered von Cosel’s modest house, Florinda discovered what appeared to be a wax effigy of her late sister.

After calling the police, Florinda’s fears that the figure might actually be Elena were confirmed and von Cosel was arrested for grave desecration. A full autopsy was performed and a shocking detail was uncovered, although it was not made public until 1972 when one of the doctors involved revealed in an interview, ‘I made the examination in the funeral home. The breasts really felt real. In the vaginal area, I found a tube wide enough to permit sexual intercourse. At the bottom of the tube was cotton, and in an examination of the cotton, I found there was sperm. Then I knew we were dealing with a sexual pervert.’ 

The macabre incident attracted a great deal of interest from the media and was widely reported by both the local and national press. A hearing was scheduled for 9th October 1940 after von Cosel was declared sane and his court appearance became a talking point. Many believed him to be a hopeless romantic whose love was so intense it transcended death, driven by an otherwise innocent obsession with a woman he could never posses while she was alive. As he sat in his cell awaiting trial, von Cosel received gifts from well-wishers and it was reported that a group of Cuban prostitutes visited him, offering their services free of charge. Due to a two year statute of limitations for the crime of molesting a grave, von Cosel was released.

Before her reburial at an undisclosed location, for three days Elena’s remains were displayed at a Florida funeral home to a curious community. It was estimated that around 6,000 people came to view the disturbing spectacle. One witness, then only a boy, remembered ‘I’ve never been able to forget that sight. It didn’t even look like a human anymore. So much reconstruction and decay…it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Her face was an odd white-ish colour that looked more like a wax dummy than a woman’s face. And she had horrible, black, staring, glass eyes. I still dream about that sight.’

Financially ruined, von Cosel was forced to leave Key West and move to Zephyrhills to live with his sister. He managed to earn a living from selling postcards and showing inquisitive tourists a model he had made of Elena, using a death mask he fashioned from her corpse. In July 1952 von Cosel was found dead, and in his arms, was the pitiable imitation of his adored Elena.