The strange forgotten story of Charlie Chaplins graverobbers
Top 10 Facts About Charlie Chaplin
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Over the years, other criminal minds have attempted to rob the graves of famous people to gain fame, notoriety, or financial reward. Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, several attempted to seize his body. After Elvis Presley’s passing, four men were arrested for trying to break into his mausoleum.
Not long after Chaplin’s death, the 24-year-old Roman Wardas was reading about graverobbers in the newspaper when he had a bright idea: he decided to steal Charlie Chaplin’s corpse in order to solve his financial woes. The Pole and a fellow car mechanic called Gantscho Ganev reopened Chaplin’s tomb and decided to hide the body elsewhere, sparking a huge police investigation — and wild conspiracy theories.
Following his death on Christmas Day 1977, the Chaplin family had a quiet ceremony, burying the Modern Times star with little fuss following a small Anglican service. Unfortunately, Chaplain was only momentarily laid to rest.
On March 2, 1978, it came to light that the body of once the most famous man in the world had been taken. It had been dug up from a cemetery in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, where Chaplin had moved following a series of scandals in the US.
His coffin was dug up and pulled several feet by Wardas and 38-year-old Ganev who then put it in the latter’s car and drove it to a field, burying it in a shallow grave.
They had planned to rebury him deeper, but Wardas explained that it had been raining and the earth was “too heavy”. He added: “I did not feel particularly squeamish about interfering with a coffin.”
Similarly, Ganev — who had been held prisoner in Bulgaria for trying to flee Turkey — told the court: “I was not bothered about lifting the coffin. Death is not so important where I come from.”
Then, under the name “Mr Rochat”, Vardas called Lady Oona Chaplin, the comedian’s wife of 34 years, some 27 times, demanding that she pay £400,000 for the body’s return. The police quickly tapped into her phone and monitored the public phones in the area.
Chaplin’s fourth wife refused to pay up, saying that her late husband “would have thought it ridiculous” and refused to pay the ransom. Later, Chaplin’s kidnappers threatened to hurt her two youngest children if she did not pay.
The Chaplin family had, however, kept quiet about the ransom messages to help the policing efforts, meaning rumours soon circulated amongst the public.
Some questioned whether the body had been moved by anti-semites, unhappy with the fact that a supposed Jewish person had been buried in a Christian cemetery. Others thought neo-Nazis could have stolen the body as payback for his poking fun at Adolf Hitler in the film The Great Dictator.
In total, Chaplin’s body was missing for 11 weeks. Wardas and Ganev were eventually arrested when the former was caught in a phone booth. They later led the police to their hiding place, a cornfield in Corsier, just a mile away from the Chaplin’s home.
In Vevey, Wardas told a Swiss court that he had dug the body up and placed a ransom on it as both he and Ganev were struggling to secure work as political refugees.
After reading a newspaper report of a similar case in Italy, he was inspired to do the same. He told the court: “As a result, I decided to hide Charlie Chaplin’s body and solve my problems.”
The two graverobbers were accused of desecrating the tomb in the village graveyard as well as attempting to exhort hundreds of thousands of pounds. They both sent letters to Lady Chaplin, expressing their remorse.
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Wardas was handed a four-and-a-half-year sentence of hard labour and Gaven an 18-month suspended sentence as it was felt he had limited responsibility for the crime.
Born in 1889, Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin made his film debut in the 1914 silent film Kid Auto Races At Venice.
The legendary comedian, recognisable for his bowler hat, cane, tight coat, and waddling walk, rose to prominence in the silent film era and went on to make 82 films, later winning an Oscar.
Chaplin died on Christmas Day in 1977 at the age of 88 from what the doctor described as a “peaceful and calm” death having suffered strokes in the lead-up and prior to his death.
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