Carl von Cosel and what used to be Elena Milagros de Hoyos.
We all have our favorite pastimes. Mine happens to be falling down internet k-holes. One minute, I'm investigating the whereabouts of Anastasia and, two hours and many mouse clicks later, I'm somehow reading all about how Henry VIII had his butt wiped by people called the "Grooms of Stool." That's around the time I ask myself, Wait, how did I get here? What day is it?
Recently, my cyber explorations took a creepy turn. Did you know there's an American serial killer known as the Butcher of Plainfield, who crafted a belt made out of his victims’ nipples?! Or that disembodied feet keep washing ashore in one area of the Pacific Northwest?? I sure didn't, and now I have to live with that knowledge for years to come. But there's one story that will stick with me forevermore, and it goes a little something like this:
Once there was a German dude named Carl von Cosel. In his early childhood, he said he would regularly be visited by one of his dead ancestors, who kept showing him the face of his one true love, an exotic dark-haired woman. Somehow, that’s the most mundane detail of this story.
Fast forward to adulthood. It’s the 1930s, and Carl is working as a doctor in Key West, Florida. One day at the hospital, a Cuban-American woman named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos walks in. He immediately recognizes her as the girl from his dead ancestor visions! But, before you get too excited about this meet-cute, this story is less of a Julia Roberts rom-com and more Mandy Moore’s A Walk to Remember. Instead of saying "I have leukemia!" like Mandy Moore does in that movie, Elena says, "I have tuberculosis!"
Carl isn't sweating it though. He believes that he can cure her by bringing weird x-ray machines to her house and basically winging it from there. In addition to his medical(-ish) help, he also gives Elena jewelry and the latest fashions, and professes his love to her. Look up "Doing the absolute most" in the nearest dictionary and you'll find a handsome little photo of our friend, Carl.
There’s no record of what Elena thought of all this, but my guess is that it was something in the neighborhood of: Can you not? I’m trying to calmly die here. Carl is essentially that guy who won't stop hitting on you at the bar, but instead of the bar, the venue is a deathbed.
Sadly, Elena dies at the age of 22. (R.I.P. baby girl. Say hi to Aaliyah for me!) Carl, who's in his 50s by the way, is distraught. He immediately makes a death mask of her face (hello, red flag!). With permission from Elena's family, he pays for the funeral and constructs an above-ground mausoleum in the Key West Cemetery for his #1 crush (see previous "Doing the absolute most" dictionary entry). And he insists on an airtight casket with an incubator tank full of formaldehyde to prevent decay (hello, red flag #2!). Carl visits the mausoleum every night, where he says her spirit routinely pops up to say what's up and sing to him. Weird, right? Well, buckle up 'cause things are about to get even weirder!
One night in 1933, two years after Elena’s death, Carl sneaks into the cemetery with a toy wagon, removes her corpse from the mausoleum and wheels it on home. (Commuting sucks and long-distance relationships are hard, you guys! It makes total sense to rob the grave of a woman you barely know!)
By this point, our girl Elena’s body isn’t holding up too well, so Carl uses piano wire to keep her together, fits her face with glass eyes, replaces her decomposing skin with silk cloth soaked in wax, gets rid of all the maggots and uses perfumes and preserving agents to mask the smell and stop the rotting. He keeps her body in his bed. I won’t go into the ugly details, but yes, he does more than just sleep.
SEVEN LONG ASS YEARS LATER, in 1940, rumors are swirling around his odd behavior. Those who remember his frequent visits to the mausoleum wonder why he suddenly stopped coming. His neighbors find it curious that he routinely buys women's clothes and lots of perfume. And a boy claims to have seen Carl in the window dancing with what looked like a super-sized doll. Elena’s sister eventually becomes suspicious too. She marches over to his house and Carl willingly shows off Elena’s body—or what's left of it—in his bedroom.
Carl is quickly arrested for “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization.” (That’s it?!) Psychiatrists examine him and declare him sane. (For real?!) And all charges are eventually dropped because nothing makes sense in this world (*shakes fist at statutes of limitations*).
All of this craziness makes the headlines in Florida and—again because nothing makes any damn sense—the public is generally sympathetic to Carl and considers him a hopeless romantic who's just a wee bit eccentric. For some weird reason, a public viewing of Elena's body is held. 8,500 people line up to get a look. Local schools even let out early so kids can be scarred for life. Oh, Florida, you never disappoint.
Emboldened by the public support (and maybe a loose screw or two), Carl asks if he can have Elena's body back. Thankfully, common sense prevails and his request is denied. Elena is re-buried in a secret, unmarked grave so as to avoid another toy wagon field trip. Unhappy about this, Carl sets off a bomb at the site of Elena's mausoleum as a way to show authorities what "wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave" really looks like.
Carl goes on to live another 12 years before dying alone. In his final diary entry, he writes, "Human jealousy has robbed me of the body of my Elena, yet divine happiness is flowing through me for she has survived death. Forever and ever, she is with me."
Three weeks after his death, his body is found in his apartment. A life-sized death-mask-wearing effigy of Elena is close by.
In the mood for more spooky stories like this one? Then, you should listen to this episode of The Cooler (if you dare):