Grave Robbers Once Held Charlie Chaplin’s Body For Ransom

Months after his death, thieves stole the actor’s body in hopes of a $600,000 payout; it didn’t turn out as they had hoped

Charlie Chaplin

Almost forty years ago, on March 2, 1978, Oona Chaplin got a call from the local police. Three months earlier, her husband Charlie Chaplin—the British star of silent films and early “talkies”—had died peacefully at their home near Corsier-sur-Vevey, by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He was 88.  Oona, his fourth wife, and their eight children had buried him in a quiet cemetery by their home.

That was what the police were calling about.

 "They said, look, somebody dug up the grave and he's gone,” Chaplin’s son, Eugene, later recalled to the Independent.

That was the beginning of one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful body snatchings in history. The thieves soon called the home with their terms. They wanted the equivalent of about $600,000 for the safe return of Chaplin’s body and threatened the lives of the couple’s young children should their demands not be met. 

Oona would have nothing to do with it. "Charlie would have thought it rather ridiculous," she said, according to Mental Floss.

But the body-snatchers were desperate and the local police diligent. In May of that year, expecting another call from the crooks, police had Oona’s phone tapped and every one of the area’s 200 phone booths monitored by detectives. The efforts paid out, and two mechanics and political refugees from Eastern Europe, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev, were finally nabbed.

After the two led the authorities to the cornfield where they had temporarily re-buried Chaplin, they were prosecuted for grave robbing and attempted extortion. Wardas, the reported "mastermind," was sentenced to four years, while Ganev got an 18-month suspended sentence.

Both appeared somewhat sorry for their crimes. Eugene told the Independent that both graverobbers wrote letters to his mother, who was ready to let bygones be bygones. "The wife of the nicer one wrote and said 'We're so sorry'. My mother wrote back and said: 'Look, all is forgiven.'"

As for poor Charlie, he was reburied in his original plot. This time, however, the family opted for a concrete coating over the grave to deter any future robberies. Though a 2014 French film on the ordeal called The Price of Fame reawakened interest in the case, for the last four decades, as far as anyone knows, the comedian has been resting quietly in peace. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.