Sometimes, love goes on even after death. Sometimes, so does crazy; and, sometimes, the two are indistinguishable. Therein lies the appeal in the twisted tale of Carl Tanzler, aka Carl von Cosel, AKA Dr. von Cosel, AKA Count von Cosel, an early 20th century man of intrigue who rivals the Most Interesting Man in the World for the strangest life in the world: Before he turned fifty, the German national had lived in India and Australia, owned an entire island, been imprisoned in a POW camp (despite never having seen a battlefield), attempted to build his own plane, and mastered the organ. It was at the tender age of 49 that he decided to finally leave the madcap chaos of his life behind and settle into a quiet existence in Key West, Florida, to practice medicine and live existence as a radiographer.
And that’s when stuff got weird.
No, seriously. Like, “Tales from the Crypt” weird.
Tanzler was fifty-three when he made the acquaintance of the beautiful, twenty-two year old Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, a tuberculosis patient at the hospital where he worked. Immediately, Tanzler knew destiny had just dealt him a winning hand: As a child, he’d had dreams in which he’d been visited by a deceased ancestor and shown the face of his one true love. Now, helping to treat de Hoyos, he knew he’d finally met her. The only problem was that de Hoyos was not long for this world, and, shortly after their initial meeting, she succumbed to her disease.
That didn’t stop him.
One grave robbery and several years of Frankenstein experiments later, Tanzler was finally arrested, having transformed de Hoyos’ corpse into a morbid wax effigy as part of his attempts to resurrect her from the dead. More bizarre than Tanzler’s actions, though, was America’s response: They loved Carl Tanzler. Rather than remand him to a psychiatric institute (or prison), Tanzler was freed amidst an outpouring of love and support from the American public who saw in him not a mad scientist but a hopeless romantic driven mad by his own undying emotion.
That’s where Ronni Thomas comes in.
Nearly a century after Tanzler’s bizarre trial, the New York filmmaker, himself a master of documenting the bizarre and uncanny (he’s responsible for the fascinating 2015 documentary The Man Who Married Kittens, about fanciful Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter) is finally setting out to tell the mad doctor’s tale as it has never been told before. Titled No Place for the Living, Thomas’ documentary (currently being funded through a Kickstarter campaign) seeks to tell the full story of Tanzler’s life and obsession, casting a sympathetic and understanding eye on the story that he hopes will recreate the sense of dark romanticism which surrounded the case when it first broke.
The best part?
He’s telling it with puppets.
You heard me right. Freakin’ puppets, man. Why aren’t you on Kickstarter, yet? The link, by the way, is HERE.
Ronni Thomas is raising funds for No Place For The Living: The Mad Story of Carl Von Cosel on Kickstarter! A feature-length documentary exploring a fascinating true story of delusion, necrophilia, celebrity and mad science.
You can donate to the cause at the link above, as well you should, lest I exhume your corpse and attempt bizarre, blasphemous experiments to resurrect your inert body from the dead. In the meantime, those fortunate souls blessed enough to have the foresight to donate t Mr. Thomas’ campaign can entertain themselves with the interview below, where we really dig into the marrow of his fascination with Herr Doktor, the most romantic man to have grave-robbed the 20th century…
Preston Fassel: So, why make a movie about Carl Tanzler?
Ronni Thomas: The weird thing about the story is that you can find the same stuff about twenty different ways on the internet. A quick internet search gives you the shocking details. Guy slept with corpse for seven years. They go through a few minor things, kinda give you the dry facts. And I was gonna do a short film version of what you find on the internet, or what you see on television—It’ll show up once in awhile as filler for TV true crime shows. And they’ll do their amber reenactment, soft focus version of the story… And I kinda felt guilty, because it was really just what you’d find on the internet, there was nothing interesting there. And I thought, if this guy did this thing, there’s gotta be more depth to it, right? So I trashed the short film, and I read about him, and talked to a lot of people in Key West. And this story started emerging, this crazy, crazy story that was nowhere near the internet articles. It was so much bigger and so much more bizarre and so much more batshit crazy! That prompted me to start thinking about it in a longer format piece. And his journal is a key for me. There are two books, one of them I’m working with the writer, but his journal really tells the creepiest version of the story.
PF: After, “Why make a movie about Carl Tanzler,” probably the second biggest question on people’s minds is, “Why make it with puppets?”
RT: There’s a couple of reasons. The William Castle answer is, it’s a cool gimmick. But that’s the lowest of the reasons. The story is, by and large, about puppetry. A lot of what you don’t read is that Tanzler was trying to reanimate the body. He wasn’t living out some necrophiliac fantasy. He really thought, really believed that he had the power and the knowledge to bring a corpse back to life. To reanimate it. So right there you have a clear connection to this uncanny, puppet-like fixation. At the same time he was kind of manipulative of people around him, and specifically the girl, Elena’s, family. He said and did a lot of things to fashion what he wanted from them. So there are all these analogies to puppetry. It’s also something I’ve never seen before in the documentary genre. I didn’t think I’d be able to do this with actos because I wanted to avoid the TV reenactment stuff. So I thought, how can I do it in a more interesting way? And puppets made sense to me… I can work with my artist to make really artfully crafted puppets and make the reenactment sequences as unique and uncanny as the story itself. I want to match everything up by parallels. The story is unusual and bizarre, and I think the execution of the film should be the same.
PF: Who’s making the puppets?
RT: The puppeteer’s name is Robin Frohardt. She did a play, a puppet play called The Pigeoning. And it was critically acclaimed, and her work is critically acclaimed; and she’s casting the puppets… There’s no dialogue between them because I think that would come off as silly. She agrees we’re not trying to make a silly puppet video. These are supposed to be artfully crafted, melancholic sequences that have an artistry behind them… dark and romantic.
PF: Tell me about your research.
RT: Interestingly, the author of the book Von Cosel, Tom Swicegood, has personal accounts and stories. He was only a young boy but he was treated by the doctor, who saved his life a few times. So he does have a personal story. But everyone is pretty much gone. This was seventy-five years ago. [Tanzler] has a few living relatives but I’m doing my best to stay away from them… They’re not eager to talk to people at all. They prefer to let this be a dirty incident in the past. The people I’m talking to down there are talking to historians and librarians. I’ve been going on ghost tours, some of the people have an interest in the case and now I know things that haven’t been written anywhere. Key West is an important player in this story, as a character, even. But I’m trying not to make it too central because the other story I’m trying to tell is Von Cosel as an outsider artist who was disenfranchised and corrupt mentally, and his artwork happened to be this corpse. So we’re taking it to art museums, places like that. It’s going to be a mixed bag of experts. Morticians, people who can talk about the states of decay she’d have been in. The story’s also about death and how we perceive death.
PF: There is a dark romanticism and sort of tragedy about it…
RT: It’s a wild story, He left a very bitter man. Even though he was freed, they took elena away from him. He’s quoted as saying after he got off, “When do I get Elena back?” And they were like, “You’re not getting her back, buddy. We’re on your side, but, we’re not giving you the body back. It’s just not cool.” And one of the best parts of the story is, he leaves town, but before he does he stops by the cemetery where he’d built Elena a crypt, puts a time bomb in, sets it for a couple of hours, leaves, and blows the cemetery up. Again, something you really don’t find on the internet when you search for the story. He was so bitter that they’d stolen his “bride” from him that he took that sort of action. He blew up the cemetery! At that point, Key West was just happy to get rid of him. They were just happy he was gone. So they never pressed charges.
PF: One of the weirdest aspects of Tanzler’s story is that he not only got off at trial, but he got off because of the overwhelming public sympathy for him. You say it’s your intent to sort of try and recreate that sympathy. Can you elaborate?
RT: Oh, that is—that is the first time I’ve been asked that, and it’s my favorite question, because it’s such an important part of the story. The fact that the public was so on his side is probably one of the most fascinating parts of his story, if not the most fascinating… Without a doubt, what I’d love to recreate is that sympathy… I don’t even know if I’d call it sympathy, more support. It was really romanticized. There was an article that was sent to the Key West Tribune that’s people from New York and California writing in to say they not only supported the doctor, but that he should be allowed to keep practicing his brand of science on her! The outcry was just great! Women showed up outside the prison while he was detained and threw flowers, people gave him money… Mostly Cuban immigrants, because it seems they felt a kinship, a romance, albeit a very dark one. So I wouldn’t say they were sympathetic, it was mostly that they were supportive of him. Which is, when you think about it by today’s standards, these aren’t headline stories that people write in defense of. I think part of the reason for that is our perception of death and how we view it in modern times. In the 1930s we were still living with epidemics, and people were living with death. I like him. I’ve grown to really like Von Cosel. I’m not trying to tell his story and condemn him in any way, even though what he did lacked a certain… (laughs) y’know, morality, I guess, to some extent. But I want people to like him as well. It’s not as simple as, “How gross is this story?” It’s not as simple as, “This creepy guy slept with a corpse.”