(Credit: Doctor Macro)

The true story of how Charlie Chaplin's coffin and body were stolen in an extortion plot

Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” – Charlie Chaplin

Iconic comedian and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin is fondly remembered as one of the greatest artists of the last century. In a career that lasted more than 75 years, Chaplin touched countless hearts with brilliant performances in masterpieces like The Great Dictator and Modern Times, among several others. To the world’s collective dismay, the pioneering figure passed away in December of 1977 at the age of 88 after suffering a stroke in his sleep.

According to Chaplin’s wishes, a small and private Anglican funeral ceremony was held on 27th December in a local cemetery in the Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey. Two months after his tragic demise, the villagers discovered that his grave was empty and his coffin was missing. The robbers dug up Chaplin’s grave and dragged it over a considerable distance to their vehicle, leaving the residents of the village confused and horrified at this atrocity.

Over the course of the next few months, Chaplin’s widow Oona and her lawyer received around 27 phone calls from the thieves who demanded the equivalent of $600,000. Police agencies began monitoring Oona’s phone lines as well as 200 telephone booths in the surrounding area, hoping to catch the criminals in the act. Oona insisted that there was no way she was going to pay the preposterous ransom, claiming that Chaplin would have found these demands “ridiculous”.

On 16th May, the police successfully tracked down and arrested a 25-year-old Polish refugee named Roman Wardas at one of the phone booths. It was soon discovered that he had an accomplice as well, a Bulgarian immigrant called Gantscho Ganev who had assisted Wardas in this bizarre endeavour. They finally relented and led the authorities to Chaplin’s body which they had buried in a cornfield, just one mile away from Chaplin’s family home.

The pair admitted that they never wanted to harm Chaplin’s remains in any way, claiming that it was only a way to solve their financial hardships. They had initially planned to create the illusion of a grave robbery by burying Chaplin’s body underneath his actual grave, but due to unforeseen circumstances, they ended up stealing his coffin. In December of that year, both Wardas and Ganev were convicted of grave robbery and attempted extortion.

It is reported that both of them were truly remorseful about their actions after their convictions, and they even wrote a letter to Oona expressing the same. She ultimately forgave them and decided to move past this horrendous incident. Chaplin’s remains were re-interred in the local cemetery, protected by reinforced concrete this time.