The time Charlie Chaplin’s corpse went missing

In 1978, the comedy icon’s body disappeared – was it a ransom plot or a practical joke gone awry?

Words

Justine Smith

@redroomrantings

On 2 March, 1978, Charlie Chaplin’s corpse went missing. Chaplin, who spent his last years in the bucolic Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey with his wife Oona and their eight children, had died the previous Christmas aged 88. In the unguarded and normally peaceful cemetery, his coffin was dug up, dragged several feet across the earth and transferred to a vehicle. The villagers were perplexed and horrified. Was this a ransom plot or a practical joke gone awry?

The act of corpse kidnapping has a long legacy. From the grave robbers of Egyptian mummies to Victorian-era body snatchers, who sold cadavers to anatomists and doctors, there is a strange and often bewildering history of profiting off human remains. There were several schemes to seize Abraham Lincoln’s body after his assassination; shortly after Elvis’ death, four men were arrested trying to break into his mausoleum; Eva Perón’s body was buried and reburied for decades; and in 2015, FW Murnau’s skull was stolen. Just a couple of years ago, Enzo Ferrari’s body was almost stolen from the family tomb, with the prospective thieves plotting a $10m ransom.

Between 2 March and 16 May, Oona Chaplin and her lawyer received 27 phone calls demanding money. When she flat-out refused to pay out the equivalent of $600,000 for the return of her husband’s body, the criminals appeared willing to negotiate. Unbeknownst to the perpetrators, however, Oona never intended to pay, stating, “Charlie would have thought it rather ridiculous.” The negotiations only continued in order to allow the police time to trace the calls. On 16 May, Roman Wardas, a 25-year-old Polish refugee, was arrested in a phone booth. His accomplice, Gantscho Ganev, from Bulgaria, was arrested shortly thereafter.

The men claimed they never intended to disturb the body or whisk it away. The initial plan was to remove Chaplin’s coffin, dig the grave deeper, and then conceal it beneath a layer of earth. Rather than steal the body, they wanted only to make it seem as though it were missing. But things didn’t quite pan out that way, and they were forced to improvise. By the end of the year, both men were found guilty in a Swiss court for disturbing the peace of the dead and attempted extortion.

There is little information online about these men and what became of them. They were reportedly inspired by a similar case in Italy in 1977, and evidently hoped to come into a swift fortune. The practical considerations of their crime is queasy and extorting a recently widowed mother is pretty reprehensible. Yet their status in the margins of society and the blatant desperation of their act similarly inspires a kind of sympathy. It’s worth noting that after their criminal conviction, the pair sent Oona letters expressing their sincere regret. She ultimately forgave them.

In 2014, French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois dramatised this infamous true crime episode in The Price of Fame, about two men who plot to steal Chaplin’s corpse for ransom. While the most macabre elements of the story invoke a late-career Chaplin comedy, the dark and biting Monsieur Verdoux, Beauvois channels Chaplin’s earlier, more humanist style. The film itself is a pale imitation of the real Chaplin, but its understanding and social consciousness is heartwarming given the more gruesome details of the events in question and how they interact with Chaplin’s legacy.

Like Chaplin’s films, The Price of Fame sheds light on the invisible classes of society and their perceived value in a world obsessed with materialism and wealth. The fact is, the real-life case supports this interpretation. This wasn’t an Ocean’s 11-style plot but a small-scale crime by non-professionals who were more desperate than dastardly.

Published 2 Mar 2019

Tags: Charlie Chaplin

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