One Human Family


Arts & Culture, Our Daily Correspondent

Key West Serge Melki

Photo: Serge Melki, via Flickr

I have never been one to moon over resort collections or sigh enviously over my friends’ sun-drenched Instagram photos. The truth is, I dislike the beach and sort of enjoy the misery of living through an unrelieved winter; it makes spring that much sweeter and, as the Byrds told us, for everything there is a season, etcetera, etcetera.

Nevertheless, lured by cheap rates and the promise of a haunted local doll named Robert, a few winters ago, my best friend and I decided to take a brief trip to Key West. We rented bicycles, visited the six-toed cats at the Hemingway House, posed with the Sponge Man, avoided Duval Street and the Parrot-heads eager to show female visitors around the “Conch republic,” and took a “fruit tour.” This involved having to pedal away really fast whenever a property owner approached, and culminated in our guide playing “Strangers in the Night” on, yes, a conch shell. A gentleman in a bar band told us that the island’s official philosophy is “One Human Family.”

At a bookstore near our guesthouse, I picked up a book from the “Local Interest” section called Undying Love: The True Story of a Passion That Defied Death, by Ben Harrison. And I read it obsessively. When I think of Key West, it’s not of sunsets or Margaritaville or Tennessee Williams. It’s of Carl Tanzler and his obsession with a dead woman.

Those whose interests run to the annals of necrophilia and bizarre crime are doubtless familiar with the story of the German-born X-ray technician; I am not ashamed to admit that it was new to me. For the uninitiated, the facts are as follows:

In the 1920s, Carl Tanzler (who would later style himself Carl von Cosel) emigrated from Germany to the the Florida Keys, where he told various tall tales about his aristocratic background and multiple degrees. While working in the TB ward of a local hospital, he encountered the beautiful young Elena Hoyos. Although the Cuban émigré had no interest in her middle-aged admirer, he became fixated on curing her. Her desperate family gave him free reign to try a mix of X-rays, chemicals, and herbs, but she died at twenty-two. At which point he insisted on building her an elaborate mausoleum, which he frequently visited in the night.

So far, so weird, but here’s where it gets truly bizarre. He had an aboveground telephone installed in the tomb so that he could talk directly to her corpse. And during his nightly visits, by means of a secret key, von Cosel started dabbling in amateur embalming. All the while, he’d been constructing a futuristic-looking airship not far away.

Perhaps as a result of some of these behaviors, von Cosel lost his job. He moved to a remote shack, stole her corpse, and lived with it happily for more than seven years. During this time, he tended to his love devotedly, rubbing her body with oils and spices, dressing it in fine silks, and, as she decayed, reconstructing her body and face with piano wire, wax, glass eyes, and paint. There was, needless to say, a great deal of perfume employed.

When at length the love nest was discovered, von Cosel was completely unembarrassed, and explained to the authorities that the two were very much in love and had been planning to move into outer space in the rocket ship. Despite the fact that he had constructed some kind of paper vagina for the corpse and they’d apparently been having sex on the regular, the cops were less than impressed. Von Cosel was summarily arrested.

It will come as no surprise that the story captured the public imagination. Many found von Cosel a sympathetic, tragic figure, and the tale wildly romantic. (The necrophilia part was not made public.) Von Cosel got off scot-free, and penned an autobiography. When he died a few years later, the obit reported that police found “a metal cylinder on a shelf above a table in it wrapped in silken cloth and a robe was a waxen image” crafted from Hoyos’s death mask.

The macabre incident, naturally, has served as the inspiration for a number of tracks on indie albums and, at the time of the case, gave rise to a popular Spanish-language song. But the true soundtrack to the von Cosel case is the song “La Boda Negra,” a favorite of Hoyos’s which von Cosel would pipe into her tomb after her death.

The lyrics of “The Black Wedding” tell the story of a young man whose bride dies before their wedding. He visits her grave nightly until, overcome by grief, he places her body on a bed of flowers, and kills himself.

Al esqueleto regido abrasado.

On our last day in Florida, we went to the beach. We rented beach chairs for $5 each from a young man working in the concessions stand. When he learned we were from New York, he became inexplicably defiant. He said he had been to New York, and it sucked, and that Key West had everything New York had, and more, and people were more laid-back and nicer to each other. We were not arguing.