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Key West Time
June 16th
4:49am · 84°F

Spooky Key West - Hauntings on the Island of Bones

Key West Cemetery with a Full Moon

Key West is considered one of the most haunted cities in the U.S. Tales of spirits who return from the dead and strange sitings rival that of New Orleans, Savanna, or Salem. An endless list of Key West public buildings and private homes have ghost stories associated with them. Outstanding among these are the 1892 Key west Jail, The Lighthouse, the Hemingway House, Blue Heaven Restaurant and Capt. Tony's Saloon. But before we get into the nitty gritty of some of the bizarre ghosts and hauntings, we go back to how it all started hundreds of years ago.

A Bit of Haunted History

There's some interesting history about Key West that points to why it's haunted. The first has to do with the ancient native tribes that lived in the Florida Keys as early as 800 CE . The other is linked to the Atlantic African Slave Trade that lasted from the mid 1500's to the late 1800's. Both events point to the human bones.

In the early 18th Century, Spanish explorers arrived on the island and discovered human bones strewn about. The sailors referred to the little island as "Cayo Hueso," which in English means "Bone Island." Popular legend suggests the skeletons were from ancient warring native tribes who inhabited the Florida Keys. It concudes that the tribes brutally wiped each other out, leaving behind their skeletal remains. Another explanation recognizes that natives laid out their dead on the surface to be naturally consumed by Mother Nature. Ultimately, what was left were the bones bleached white by the sun. Could it be that spirits of some of the deceased native people who lived on island still hover around?

The gruesome Atlantic African slave trade is another fact connected with the bones on the island. Although the slave trade was outlawed in the U.S. in 1808, the brutal smuggling of African captives continued in the Caribbean. In 1860, the U. S. Navy intercepted three slave ships in the Florida straits, off the island of Cuba, and rescued over 1400 captive Africans. Sadly, over 290 of the captured Africans died during their abhorrent ocean crossing. The Navy transported the rescued captives to the safe port of Key West. Here they were clothed and fed by local residents, pending the plan to return them to their African homeland.

Most of the African survivors tragically died of illness on Key West after being rescued. After their death, they were buried along the Southern shoreline at what is now Higgs Beach. The exact location of these unmarked graves was unknown until 2002 when ground-penetrating radar identified the spot. A suitable memorial was then erected there, and the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach is a popular historic shrine.

The Key West Cemetery

So it goes that the population of spirits hovering around the haunted City of Key West was seeded by early peoples who met unusual or unseemly fates. But the ultimate destination of many more is to be found in the Key West Cemetery. Established in 1847, it hosts around 100,000 souls! This is four to five times the population of living residents here on the "Island of Bones." Some are buried in traditional underground graves, but many are above ground interred in mausoleums.

While most people buried in the Key West Cemetery died from old age or illness, some were killed in terrible storms, accidents, wars, or by homicide. Cemetery folklore says that spirits of those who died in sudden or violent ways are restless, and tend to stick around the cemetery grounds.  Ghost sightings and unexplained sights and sounds abound. Should you choose to visit the Key West Cemetery you can join a walking tour or opt for a self-guided tour using recourses from the Historic Florida Keys Foundation. You'll come away historically enlightened as well as entertained by the often humorous and quirky epitaphs you'll see carved on the gravestones.

Key West Ghosts A Walk Down the Halls of the Pre-Civil War Forts is Thrilling

Haunted Forts

There are certain locations which you know must be haunted from the minute you see them. Key West's multiple old Civil War era forts are such places. Key West boasts three of them right on the island.

The West Martello Fort tower sits on what is now Higgs Beach. It was determined to be the optimum military location when it was planned. But because it was exactly where the African Burial Ground lay, the bodies had to be dug up and moved just a few yards away before construction began. So this fort was built on what was already hallowed ground.

Though barely completed before the Civil War ended, West Martello Tower was used as a lookout, munitions magazine and troop housing during the Spanish American War, and even World War II. Since 1976, the structure has been under the stewardship of the Key West Garden Club. Today, within the Fort's walls, lush, shady tropical gardens invite you to peacefully commune with nature, possibly with the spirits hovering about.

About 2 1/2 miles down the shoreline to the east, sits the sister fort, East Martello Towers. This imposing structure abuts the Key West International Airport, overlooking the ocean  across S. Roosevelt Boulevard.  Since 1950, the Key West Art and Historical Society has operated it as the oldest museum in the Florida Keys. Among the artifacts on display here is the infamous resident, Robert the Doll.

A third fort, perched on the Southwestern tip of Key West, is the imposing Fort Zachary Taylor. Often called "Fort Zach," today fort is part of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, where you can tour the massive brick structure. Built for serious protection, it has five-foot thick walls, and is surrounded by a moat. While combat never actually reached this fort, the military was certainly prepared for it.

Heavily fortified with cannons, and staffed with as many as 800 troops at a time, Fort Zach was active in every conflict from the Civil War right through the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Visitors and park rangers alike attest that this is probably the most haunted fort on the island. Tales are filled with mysterious events, some of which are quite chilling. The troubled spirits of many soldiers who died here from yellow fever, reckless behavior or by their own hand, reportedly linger around to this day.

Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas Fort Jefferson National Park

About 70 miles West of Key West, surrounded by Gulf waters, sits the remarkable Fort Jefferson. Built during the Civil War for use as a prison, this is the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere. It boasts a rich history all its own. The infamous Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned here. He was charged for treating John Wilkes Booth after he shot President Abraham Lincoln. There was a major outbreak of Yellow Fever at Fort Jefferson during his imprisonment, and Dr. Mudd was credited with saving the lives of many military as well as fellow prisoners. He received a pardon as a result of his doctoring, but many others fell victim to the disease. It is reported that some of their spirits still linger here.

Visitors and rangers enjoy a ringside seat for mysterious happenings in the park after dark. Many eerie encounters have been reported over the years. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), all the Civil War forts are closed to visitors after sundown. And of course, that's when "spirits of the dark side" generally go about their mischief. So we pretty much have to rely on the accounts of others to experience the otherworldly mischief that goes on in these places. Still, it's fun to visit them in the daylight hours and let our imaginations fill in the blanks.

Robert the Doll

Robert the Doll Robert the Doll at West Martello Tower Fort Museum

We now delve into the story of the infamous Robert the Doll who today resides in the East Martello Museum. Numerous stories have emerged about this curious little character. The narrative varies a lot depending on who is telling it. And since Robert's namesake owner, Robert Eugene "Gene" Otto, passed away in 1974, there is nobody to verify one version or another. The consensus seems to be that 8-year-old Gene was given Robert by his family's Bahamian housekeeper in the early 1900s. Some say she placed a curse on the doll in retribution for mistreatment by her employers.

Dressed up in some of Gene's own childhood clothes, Robert the Doll became the child's constant companion for the rest of his life. From very early on, little Gene, who at first seemed a bit terrified of his stuffed friend, began telling tales about curious occurrences which he attributed to Robert the Doll. Eventually his parents and friends claimed to have seen the doll change facial expressions and move about the rooms of the house. The doll was even said to have overturned furniture and moved objects around!

As an adult, Gene Otto became an accomplished painter, and he always had Robert the Doll by his side when he worked in his home studio at 534 Eaton St. After Otto's death, the home became a guest house, now called The Artist House. Robert was donated to the Fort East Martello Museum, where you may visit him today.

Count von Cosel Count von Cosel and the corpse of Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos

Count von Cosel

In the 1920s, a German-born eccentric, Carl Tanzler moved to Key West to work as a radiologist at the Marine Hospital. He had deserted his wife and children in Zephyr Hills, Florida. He arrived on the island and bestowed an imaginary title upon himself, and changed his surname to Count Carl von Cosel. He worked and lived in a big barnlike "laboratory" near the far end of Flagler Avenue. At that time, this was considered a remote location, and Carl busied himself concocting bogus medical treatments and fantastic ”healing” machines.

Then Count van Cosel met Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyors, a 21 year old beauty of Cuban descent, when she was admitted to the hospital. For von Cosel it was love at first site! Elena was diagnosed with tuberculosis which was often fatal at that time. Believing he had found his soulmate, von Cosel made it his mission to cure her. He wnet on to administer various potions and tonics of his own invention, all to no avail. When she was discharged from the hospital, into the care of her parents, von Cosel visited constantly.

On one visit he took an odd electrical device he had constructed, with the intention of curing her by positively charging her molecules.  Despite all his earnest efforts, Elena Hoyos passed away on October 25, 1931. Her body was entombed in a lavish stone mausoleum the Count had built for her in the Key West Cemetery.

Curiously, von Cosel retained the only key to the walk-in structure. It is written that he made nightly visits to his beloved deceased, often bearing gifts. His visits continued for two years, but then abruptly stopped. It was later discovered that Carl had removed her body, and taken it home with him. He reconstructed Elena's badly decomposed body using wire, fabric, plaster, human hair and wax. He put her "to rest" in their shared bed. Carl was "living his dream."

Elena's Airship

It got even stranger when von Cosel turned mad scientist and built a bizarre wingless "airship" in his backyard. His intention was to one day fly his bride into the stratosphere, where the radiation from outer space would restore life to her long-dead body. Earlier, we labeled von Cosel "eccentric", but a more apt description may be "nutty as a fruitcake".

Trouble was about to come to the horrifying honeymoon hideaway. Nine years after Elena's passing, her sister became suspicious about Carl's abandonment of Elena's crypt. The sister went to von Consel's house to confront him. Much to her abhorent surprise. he invited her into the house and proudly showed off the shocking mortuary preservation of the corpse. The sister freaked out, and promptly had him arrested.

A scandalous trial ensued, but ultimately, all charges were dropped as the statute of limitations had run out. There was a frenzied public interest in the case, and the family was pressed to put Elena's remains put on public display at a local funeral home.  Finally, the corpse was interred in a secret location, never again to be disturbed. As for Carl Tanzler aka Count von Cosel, he faded from view and lived the rest of his life in relative obscurity.

Key West Haunted - Ghosts - Spirits The original Key West home of Robert the Doll

Ghost Tours to Find the Spirits on the Island

VHKW recommends taking one of the ghost tours offered on the island if you'd like a little theatrical flair thrown in with your spooky educational experience. Our VHKW Concierge is here to help you map out the best haunted experiences on the island. We can help you set up a custom tour ro make haunted memories of a lifetime. You'll be guided to various haunted sites around the Historic District by well-versed guides, and have a great time as you learn.

To get you started, check out Ghosts and Gravestones for a group chauffeured experience. For walking tours, check out the Key West Ghost Tours.

As you enjoy your bright, sunny stay in your VHKW Vacation Rental, don't neglect the myriad opportunities you'll find to explore Key West's dark side!

dr von cosel's labartory

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