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Charlie Chaplin's Vanished Corpse

Updated on January 4, 2011

Charlie Chaplin, the world's best-loved comic genius, died on Christmas Day 1977, and was buried two days later in a little cemetery overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He had spent his last 25 years in the nearby village of Corsier-sur-Vevey, where the comedian maintained a mansion. Throughout the world, newspapers published fulsome tributes to Chaplin's career both as actor and film director. His loss was genuinely felt.

And then, in the spring of 1978, while the tributes and anecdotes continued to flood in, a quite fantastic story broke. On 2 March, press reports from Lausanne announced that the body of Sir Charles Chaplin had vanished overnight from its grave at Corsier-sur-Vevey.

The cemetery was small and square, surrounded by a low stone wall. It stood at the end of a narrow lane on the edge of the village; the comedian's grave lay close to a wall near an avenue of tall, dark cypresses — it was just one among some 400 tombs mostly belonging to local people and marked by modest headstones and simple wooden crosses.

'The grave is empty. The coffin has gone,' a police official told reporters. At the Chaplin mansion in the village, a member of the domestic staff commented: 'Lady Chaplin is shocked. We all are. We can only wonder why - why should this happen to a man who gave so much to the world?'

Swiss police instituted a search and Interpol was brought in. Local people offered details which, in retrospect, might have alerted them to what had happened on the fateful night. One man said that shortly after midnight he had heard a noise like that of a pickaxe from the cemetery.

But who would want to steal the comedian's body? A number of theories were advanced in the days which followed. Since there had apparently been no ransom demand, one possibility was that the body might have been taken by a group of fanatical admirers. Frederick Sands, the author, had written a book about the Chaplins which referred to the comedian having once expressed a wish to be buried in England, the country of his birth. The investigating magistrate contacted the writer who told police that letters had been sent to him protesting about the burial in Switzerland. Had admiration for Chaplin really attained such heights that it amounted to cult worship?

Other theories concentrated on the fact that Chaplin was Jewish. A Hollywood report alleged that the body had been removed because Chaplin was buried in a Gentile cemetery.

For a living film star to be kidnapped would be sensational enough. But Charlie Chaplin's corpse? The essential weirdness of the affair mystified both press and public.

Then, on 17 May, came the news that the kidnappers had been found — and the body recovered.

The culprits turned out to be two East European motor mechanics. By custom in Switzerland, first offenders are identified only by their initials, so the names of the mystery men were not announced at first; they quickly became known, however, to be Galtscho Ganev (a Bulgarian) and Roman Wardas (a Pole). The men had obtained political asylum in Switzerland some time earlier.

And the motive? It was ransom after all. Amid all the distressing press speculations, the Chaplins had had to keep silent to protect the police operation.

Briefly outlined, the kidnappers' story was that Wardas had got the idea for the body snatch when he read a newspaper report about a grave-robbing case in Italy. He was unemployed at the time, and going through a difficult period: 'As a result I decided to hide Charles Chaplin's body and solve my problems.' Wardas was the 'brains' behind the scheme (if such a term can be applied) and Ganev, his Bulgarian accomplice, was merely the muscleman.

During the night of I March they took two hours to dig out and remove the coffin from the Corsier cemetery. Then they loaded it into the back of an estate car and drove it just 15 miles to a cornfield at the eastern end of Lake Geneva. Wardas knew the spot because he had often gone fishing there. It took them an hour to dig a new grave. They inserted the coffin, took photographs and filled the grave in.

The two men waited for several weeks before telephoning the Chaplin family with ransom demands. At their trial it was revealed that they had used threats of violence against the family to try to secure a deal. Geraldine Chaplin, the comedian's actress daughter, had taken the calls because Lady Chaplin had been traumatized by the whole affair. Wardas had threatened to shoot Geraldine's younger brother and sister unless his demands were met.

But the kidnappers were, in reality, a sorry pair. They first asked for £330,000 then lowered the sum repeatedly over several calls until they were asking for £136,000. The police had been tapping the Chaplin's phone since the grave was robbed. The kidnappers announced that they would give instructions for the final ransom demand at 9.30 a.m. on a certain morning. That morning, the police kept watch on more than 200 telephone kiosks in the Lausanne area - Wardas was nabbed.

Wardas confessed at once when arrested, but would not reveal the identity of his partner in crime. The Bulgarian was quickly found, however, by checking up on the Pole's acquaintances. In fact, both 'brains' and 'muscle man' alike were so incompetent that when required by police to guide them to the burial site, they could not pinpoint exactly where they had hidden the coffin. Police officers had to use mine detectors.

The pair were convicted of disturbing the peace of the dead and of trying to extract a ransom. Wardas was sentenced to four and a half years of hard labor, while Ganev was given a suspended sentence of 18 months.

It had been a bizarre affair, as bizarre as any of the films which Chaplin had made. It had also been deeply distressing for the family. 'Instead of the love that centered round my father in the house, there was fear and threats,' said Geraldine Chaplin.

And the corpse? For all the supposed desires of Chaplin's elusive cult-worshippers, the comedian's remains were reburied in the same little cemetery at Corsier-sur-Vevey. The event had take place quietly, and before the trial. Only a few close friends and relatives were present at the simple graveside ceremony on 23 May 1978. As before, the body of Sir Charles Chaplin was laid to rest among the sad cypresses and modest crosses which overlook Lake Geneva.

But this time, the tomb was specially lined with concrete.


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    • surefire profile image

      surefire 5 years ago

      Highly interesting.