String of Pearls: The Dead Live Here

Key West Cemetery

Key West


January 2018

Please honor…

Dead people have a lot to say.  But they don’t have a lot of space to say it in, what with their message carved into a suitcase-sized tombstone.  So they’ve got to be succinct.

Giorgio Aversa says (on his tombstone,) “Jesus Christ, these people are horrible.”  Edwina Larez explains how she would like to be remembered, “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias.”  Several residents of this neighborhood describe their current and eternal state, “I’m just resting my eyes.”

Perhaps the most famous quote in this graveyard is from resident B P Pearl Roberts, who in life was referred to as the “town hypochondriac.”

Pearl had the last word…

The Key West Cemetery has been here since 1847 when it replaced the original cemetery which was washed away in a hurricane the year before.  Some of the oldest gravestones, moved here after the hurricane, are actually older than the cemetery itself, dating back to 1829.

Key West was originally called “Cayo Hueso,” Spanish for Island of the Bones.  When Ponce De Leon and the Spaniards first arrived at this teeny island in 1521, the land was covered in bones.  Spooky.

There are three possible explanations for this bony land…

1      This island was a burial ground for the local Native tribes.

2      There had been a great battle between the Seminole and Calussa Indians.  The combatants who were unable to escape died and eventually became bony.

3      We have no friggin’ idea.  We just do not know what all dem bones could have been.  Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Now this is a cemetery.  Still it is bones, but more organized.  Slightly more organized.  Entering the Key West Cemetery is a little Twilight Zone-y, as if you are coming into a town with narrow streets delineating normal city blocks, with a mix of fresh, stable houses and decrepit old shacks.

Between the pathways, this burial ground is laid out rather chaotically with graves and headstones of various styles and sizes arranged all willy nilly.  Rather than houses, these homes are raised stone blocks and boxes.  Some areas are weed-sprouting overgrowth, some stonework is broken and decaying.  Monuments have partially sunk in the moist soil and tilt at ridiculous angles.

This is where the dead people of Key West live, along with the live chickens and iguanas who roam at will.  Key West is a small island with a high water table, and even though we stand on the highest land in Key West — very pleasing to Highpointers Lisa and me — underground vaults and plots would instantly suck up ground moisture and become soaked.  All these dead bodies would soon add a dead body smell to all these dead bodies.

Hey!  What a town this is!  Angels, lambs, a naked, bound woman, a comely sprite, a heckle of amateur comedians.  Lisa and I arrive at 8 a.m. to take the tour, but no living person is here to guide us.  So we make our own tour, and this is what we find in Key West Cemetery, in the dead center of town.

.  the beginning of a war

Bearing right soon after passing through the metal entry gates at Passover Lane & Margaret Street, we come to a prominent monument.  The U S S Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor in 1898 and 260 American sailors lost their lives.  In response, the United States declared war on Spain.  A couple dozen of these dead soldiers are buried here along with veterans of other wars.

.  Key West’s best known barkeep

One of the “places not to miss when visiting Key West” is Sloppy Joe’s, a saloon.  December 05 in 1933 is the day Prohibition was repealed and that’s the day Sloppy Joe’s opened.  Since then it has served millions of visitors, they claim.

Buried in Key West Cemetery is Sloppy Joe himself, Sloppy Joe Russell.  He was alternately known as Ernest Hemingway’s fishing guide and bartender.

The story tells that the landlord of the building that housed the saloon decided to raise the rent by one dollar a month.  Sloppy Joe said no, deciding instead to move out.  Pulling up everything in the bar including the plumbing, it was all lying in a heap in the front yard, ready for the move.  Hemingway, looking over the whole shebang, said, “Joe, I’ve pissed in this trough so many times I feel like I own it,” or words to that effect.  Joe considered for a moment and said, “Well, then take it.  It’s yours.”

That pee trough now occupies a prominent position by the back porch of Hemingway’s home.  It is slightly tilted supposedly to look more attractive and is adorned with a huge planter, placed by Hem’s wife.  Seems she had better taste than he did.

.  Welhelmina Harvey’s gravestone

Claims for her the title Admiral, Conch Republic Navy.  For the poop on the Conch Republic, go to my column at

.  Tina and Austion Griffin
Wife and husband, same date of death.  Murder suicide.

.  General Abe Sawyer

Famous 40-inch tall Key West midget who, in life, always aspired to greater stature and was therefore buried in a full size tomb.

.  Gladys Bates

Perhaps the most delicately carved angel in the graveyard, a noteworthy example of Victorian statuary.

.  The Otto family

In addition to a bunch of doctors, artists and pilots yadda yadda buried here are the three Otto Yorkshire terriers and Elfina the Otto Key deer.  One stone reads…


.  Henry Mulrennan

A resident of Key West, who, when a fire broke out nearby, blew up his own house to create a firebreak.  This guy was either a hero or a total asshat.

.  Anuel Angel Aguair III.

Behold his epitaph…

.  Elida Marie Curry

In 1988, she promised…

.  John David Bosco, among a lot of the usual, “remain in our hearts forever” engravings, encourages…


.  Carved in script on one tombstone…


Born in 1940 as Norm Taylor, he died in 2007 as Captain Outrageous.  This character legally changed his name.  There is however, this message from Captain, dated April 13, 2012…

“Well another birthday rolls around and I’m not down there to celebrate it with my friends.  I think of you often.  I hope that you remember me on this day.  It’s not so bad here, where I am.  I have odd jobs I have to do for the Big Guy — painting the sky in the morning and at sunset, greeting friends from there when they get here.  Mostly, though, I paint when I feel like it, listen to music, and take lots of naps.

“I’m seventy-two now, but the aches and pains are gone.

“Be well and happy.  Live each day as though it was your last.  That’s what I did.

“Maybe you remember my mantra?  I painted it on the back of my Mercedes convertible.”

Here, Captain paraphrases Hunter S Thompson, “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting, ‘Holy shit, what a ride!’”

Living life by sliding in sideways?  Norm had seven wives, spoke ill of none of them.

He celebrated the 13th of eleven months of the year as his traditional un-birthdays, the one exception was in April which was his actual real birthday, which called for a larger celebration.

Captain Outrageous’ gravesite is monitored by an overburdened angel, weighed down by a great number of Mardi Gras style bead necklaces.

.  A nearby gravesite is overseen by a hot nymph, also decked out with Mardi Gras style bead necklaces.  Tinker Bell has nothing on this spritely babe.

.  Alan Dale Willcox


.  Rafael Dominguez

.  Cheryl L Heinlen

.  Jody James Perez


.  Mando Glynn “Bubba” Parra


Let’s take a break from wandering around the tombstones to consider why anyone would visit a cemetery.  I can come up with four reasons.

1      You are attending someone’s funeral.

2      You are visiting someone you knew.

3      You are someone you knew and you are being buried.

4      You are in Key West and choose to see all the attractions of Key West.  Comments that will last an eternity are worthy of our attention.  As you have already seen, some of these epitaphs are just precious.

.  A Ralph “Butch” Albury


.  A Nilo Albury


.  Patrick Charles Gallagher


.  There are fanciful literary references.  Recognize this one?


It’s from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  Another reads…


Of course this is from Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

.  Is there anyone who does not know “Live long and prosper”?  It was originally spoken by Starfleet officer Spock, a character on the original television series Star Trek.  The line was spoken while Spock made the greeting with a raised hand, space between the third and fourth fingers and between the thumb and hand.  Do I really need to describe this?

In the Hebrew/Jewish section of Key West Cemetery, you can find this stone…

Spock was played by actor Leonard Nimoy who was Jewish.  He tells the story of when he was a child sitting in the Orthodox synagogue with his father, his grandfather and his brother.  There was a part of the service when his father told him to cover his eyes as all the other men were doing.  Half a dozen men got up in front and began loud, discordant chants/shoutings/wailings, none of them in unison.  It was chilling.  Nimoy thought, “Something major is happening here!  So I peeked, and I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit — a prayer shawl — toward the congregation.  Wow!”

The gesture was a priestly blessing.  The position of the thumb and fingers were arranged like three upward prongs, representing the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin.  Shin represented “Almighty God.”

Early in the Star Trek television series, the Vulcan Spock was introduced as a character of another race, an alien.  Thinking of the human bow, handshake or salute, Nimoy suggested that the Vulcans should also have a form of greeting.  Without too much thought, he put his hand up in the gesture he recalled seeing the old leaders use as a blessing in the synagogue.  The Jewish blessing used two hands, whereas the one-handed gesture became the Vulcan salute.

Interesting phenomenon going on in this place as there are many more buried bodies than graves.  Like trying to get tickets to a Steelers game, the best way to get into this place is…

1      Die

2      Have a family member precede you, and then die.  Here at K W, families have handed down their plots through generations.  Once a space is filled with as many caskets as it can hold, the next generation falls back on an old custom.

The bones of an ancestor/predecessor are dug up and placed in a smallish wooden box which is then located inside the casket of the grave’s new resident, or it might be buried in a little hole at the bottom of the grave.  Like moving back in with your parents.  Only this time, they get the basement.

The frequency of this practice diminished when the city began to construct crypts four high.  Imagine that, a high rise cemetery.

.  Sir Peter Anderson

His grave marker is a giant, stone Florida conch…


.  Thomas Romer


.  Archibald Yates

No one knows what the naked bound woman is about.  She looks over his gravesite.  Is she in agony?  Is she ecstatic?  Dunno.  No one’s sayin’.

.  Piedad de Ayala

Two things.  Her grandfather wrote the Cuban national anthem and she was deathly afraid of drowning.  Thus her crypt is elevated and tilted, presumably to keep her head above water.

.  And finally, Count Carl von Cosel

Or Carl Tanzler or

Georg Karl Tänzler

or possibly Carl Tanzler von Cosel

or maybe even Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel

Whatever, here’s his story.  But before we begin this account, go outside and take a deep breath.

First, just because you call yourself “Count” doesn’t make you a count.  And besides…  Well, you be the judge.

Count Carl von Cosel was a bacteriologist and radiologist at a Key West hospital in the early 20th century.  Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos, a babe of great beauty and superb proportion, came to him as a patient.  Chest X-rays revealed that she suffered tuberculosis.  While under von Cosel’s care, he fell in love with her.  She was 20, he was 54.  Two years later, she died.  Bummer.

Likely heartbroken, and definitely obsessed, von Cosel made daily visits to her grave and talked with her as if she were alive.  At one point, having some semblance of reality rudely intruding on his consciousness — the fact that she was dead — he made a death mask of Helen.  After two years of unbearable emotional turmoil, he dug her up and took her home.  There he attired her in a wedding dress, placed her in bed and played music for her on a small church organ.

This went on for — I’m sorry to say — seven years before Helen’s sister, now fully suspicious after seeing von Cosel through a window dancing with a life-size doll, demanded to see the mannequin.  It turned out to be Helen’s body, although we’re not sure how the sister recognized it.

During those seven years, von Cosel had begun to build an airship to take her “high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form.”  It was in this wooden partial-plane that von Cosel had begun to rebuild his love as her body degenerated, trying to restore her beauty with beeswax, silk and makeup.  He stuffed her decaying torso with rags to help keep its shape and replanted her real hair in her decaying scalp.  He placed glass eyes, used wire hangers to connect her bones together and doused her with preservatives, disinfectants and perfumes to cover the putrid smell.  Trust me, she looked better in life.  A vaginal tube was found but necrophilia was never confirmed.

After an autopsy to confirm Helen’s identity, she was reburied under one of the paths in the cemetery, not identified, so that von Cosel would not be able to find her again.  He was tried for “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization,” but the expired statute of limitations allowed him to remain free.

Years later, an 83-year-old man was found dead in a living room.  It was von Cosel.  He was embracing a life-size doll wearing the death mask of his beloved Helen.

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