On This Day

Associated Press
Actor Charlie Chaplin and his wife
Oona in a 1975 photo.

On This Day: Charlie Chaplin's Body Recovered After It Was Stolen

May 17, 2009 06:00 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
On May 17, 1978, the body of Charlie Chaplin, stolen from its resting place in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, was recovered. Chaplin’s coffin was then reburied, this time under concrete.

No Peaceful Rest for Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin, renowned silent film star, died at the age of 88 on Christmas Day in 1977. According to the BBC, on March 2, 1978, his coffin was unearthed from its location near the Chaplin home in Switzerland and stolen. The casket was missing for 11 weeks until it was finally recovered—unopened—on May 17. During this time, the Chaplin family received multiple ransom demands for the return of Charlie’s body. However, Charlie’s widow, Lady Oona Chaplin, refused to submit to the robbers’ demands, arguing that “Charlie would have thought it ridiculous.”

Quoting a 1978 news report on the crime, Snopes.com explains that the police tapped the Chaplin phone and more than 200 of Lausanne’s public phone kiosks. The family’s lawyer, Jean-Felix Paschoud, bargained with the grave robbers over the tapped telephone. Police finally managed to track the call to a public telephone and unmasked the robbers, two Eastern European political refugees. According to the BBC, Roman Wardas, a Polish mechanic, was sentenced to 4-1/2 years of hard labor under charges of extortion and “disturbing the peace of the dead,” while Gantscho Ganev, his Bulgarian accomplice, was given a suspended 18-month sentence.

After its recovery, Charlie’s coffin was reburied in a theft-proof grave under concrete.

Background: Chaplin’s US reentry denied

In spite of his considerable fame, Chaplin’s political beliefs put him at odds with the American government, and he was the subject of considerable FBI scrutiny over his potential involvement with the Communist Party. Chaplin, who maintained his British nationality throughout his long residence in America, had always sympathized with leftist political views, an affinity which was demonstrated in openly political movies such as “Modern Times” (1936) and “The Great Dictator” (1940). As the BBC explains, Chaplin was often accused of participating in “un-American activities” during the McCarthy era.

In 1952, Chaplin left the United States to attend the premiere of his film “Limelight” in London. When he attempted to return, however, he realized his reentry visa had been revoked. According to the Charlie Chaplin FBI Files, Chaplin was “barred from reentering the United States as a security risk.” Instead of fighting the government’s decision, Chaplin decided to move with his family to Switzerland, only returning to the States on a brief visit in 1972 to receive a special Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony. “I do not want to create any revolution, all I want to do is create a few more films,” the BBC quoted Chaplin as saying.

Related Topic: Attempted robbery of Lincoln’s body

The long-held American fascination with President Abraham Lincoln led to a high demand for Lincoln relics soon after his death. The interest in these artifacts reached a macabre level in 1876, when a pair of counterfeiters tried to steal Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom. Their plan was foiled by Secret Service agents as they were trying to remove Lincoln’s casket from its resting place in Springfield, Ill. This plot remains the only known attempt to steal a president’s body.

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