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April 6, 2018

Grave Robbers Once Stole Charlie Chaplin’s Body for Ransom in 1978

In one of history’s most famous cases of body-snatching, two men steal the corpse of the revered film actor Sir Charles Chaplin from a cemetery in the Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey, located in the hills above Lake Geneva, near Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 2, 1978.

A comic actor who was perhaps most famous for his alter ego, the Little Tramp, Chaplin was also a respected filmmaker whose career spanned Hollywood’s silent film era and the momentous transition to “talkies” in the late 1920s. Chaplin died on Christmas Day in 1977, at the age of 88. Two months later, his body was stolen from the Swiss cemetery, sparking a police investigation and a hunt for the culprits.

Chaplin's family attend his funeral. His death at 88 on Christmas Day, 1977 led to a service at home with the burial in the cemetery at Corsier-sur-Vevey, near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: Central Press/Getty Images)

After Chaplin’s widow, Oona, received a ransom demand of some $600,000, police began monitoring her phone and watching 200 phone kiosks in the region. Oona had refused to pay the ransom, saying that her husband would have thought the demand “ridiculous.” The callers later made threats against her two youngest children. Oona Chaplin was Charlie’s fourth wife (after Mildred Harris, Lita Grey and Paulette Goddard) and the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. She and Chaplin were married in 1943, when she was 18 and he was 54; they had eight children together. The family had settled in Switzerland in 1952 after the controversial Chaplin–whom his enemies accused of being a Communist sympathizer–learned he would be denied a reentry visa to the United States en route to the London premiere of his film Limelight.

After a five-week investigation, police arrested two auto mechanics–Roman Wardas, of Poland, and Gantscho Ganev, of Bulgaria–who on May 17 led them to Chaplin’s body, which they had buried in a cornfield about one mile from the Chaplin family’s home in Corsier. That December, Wardas and Ganev were convicted of grave robbing and attempted extortion. Political refugees from Eastern Europe, Wardas and Ganev apparently stole Chaplin’s body in an attempt to solve their financial difficulties. Wardas, identified as the mastermind of the plot, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years of hard labor. As he told it, he was inspired by a similar crime that he had read about in an Italian newspaper. Ganev was given an 18-month suspended sentence, as he was believed to have limited responsibility for the crime. As for Chaplin, his family reburied his body in a concrete grave to prevent future theft attempts.

Charlie Chaplin's body was stolen from a cemetery in Switzerland in 1978 and his widow held to ransom for its return.

Charlie Chaplin's stolen coffin which was found after being missing for 11 weeks following the arrest of two car mechanics in Lausanne in 1978. The pair were charged with attempted extortion and disturbing the dead. (Photo: Central Press/Getty Images)

Police at the desecrated grave of Charlie Chaplin in the cemetery at Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, March 1978. (Photo: Getty Images)

A farmer was surprised by the 'illustrious' invasion on his land. (Photo: Getty Images)

A man pointing to the spot where Chaplin's coffin was found. (Photo: Getty Images)



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