On this day in history : 1st March 1978 – The coffin of Charlie Chaplin is stolen from his grave in a Swiss cemetery….

Chaplin had spent the last few years of his life in Switzerland with his fourth wife, Oona…. He died peacefully at his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey by Lake Geneva on Christmas Day 1977, he was 88….

Charlie Chaplain – Image credit: Imsomnia Cured Here via Flickr

Four days later a simple family funeral service was held at the Anglican Church in Vevey, attended by his wife and eight children…. Afterwards Chaplain was laid to rest in the churchyard….

Two months later the grave was discovered empty…. The media had a field day with speculation…. It was claimed fans had stolen the body….or local anti-semites objected to a Jew being buried in a Christian graveyard – even that it was revenge by neo-Nazis for Chaplain’s film ‘The Great Dictator’….

But then the ransom demand came…. 600,000 Swiss francs for the body to be returned – the grave robbers also threatened to harm Chaplin’s younger children if the demands were not met…. Oona was having none of it and refused to pay up….“my husband is in Heaven and in my heart”….

Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplain KBE and Oona 1965. Dutch National Archives – Public domain

Her phone was tapped – along with all 200 of the public phone booths in the area – and monitored by the police…. It worked – and the culprits were caught. Two Eastern European political refugees were responsible, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – both motor mechanics….

The pair showed police where they had buried the coffin in a cornfield…. Eleven weeks after it had disappeared the coffin of the British star of silent movies and early talkies was found, still intact – and it was re-buried in the original grave in the churchyard…. This time a concrete casing was placed over it….

Charlie Chaplian’s grave Image: Giramondo1 via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The perpetrators were prosecuted for grave robbery and attempted extortion…. Wardas was the ‘brains’ behind the plot and for that he received four years in prison – whereas Ganev got away with an 18-month suspended sentence….


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