Charlie Chaplin knew (understatement alert) how to entertain, and exactly what it took to make people laugh. The British actor/ director’s career amusing audiences spanned eight decades – beginning before he was ten years old when he joined a clog-dancing act in 1897.
From the vaudeville stage, via a popular spell in pantomime, Chaplin eased into silent film in his 20s. It was during only his second appearance in front of the camera that he introduced his now-immortal cinematic character the Tramp, a creation that left moving-picture patrons gasping for breath during dozens of his two-reeler movies.
In the golden age of silent cinema, Chaplin had the Midas touch. Even in the burgeoning world of the ‘talkies’, the silent superstar found his voice with his spot-on parody of Adolf Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator, for which his signature moustache came in handy.
It seems fitting that this man could have one last piece of entertainment – strange and slightly morbid though it was – to offer the world, more than two months after his death.
Having suffered from strokes during the 1960s and ’70s, a frail and wheelchair-bound Chaplin spent his final years living with his fourth wife, Oona, by Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Then, on Christmas Day 1977, he died in his sleep at his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey, aged 88. Chaplin was laid to rest a few days later in the local cemetery, but that rest lasted only a couple of months.
On 2 March 1978, police phoned the Chaplin mansion to inform 51-year-old Oona that there had been a burglary in the middle of the night and that her husband’s coffin was missing.
One of the first on the scene at the graveyard was criminal prosecutor Jean-Daniel Tenthorey. “It looked like only a hole,” he said. “A big hole, with earth on each side, and the cross of wood was put on one side.” Not long afterwards, there was another phone call, this time from a man claiming responsibility for the body-snatching.
Through a thick Eastern European accent, he said he had a photo of the coffin to prove he had it, before demanding 1 million Swiss francs (£1.5 million today) for its return.
Ridiculous and botched
As Chaplin was no stranger to controversy earlier in his life, having been suspected of being a communist at the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunts, rumours circulated about the theft. Had anti-Semites desecrated his grave, angry that a supposedly Jewish person could be buried in a Christian cemetery? Or had neo-Nazis stolen the body in retaliation for his political satire, The Great Dictator? Or was it just a snatch-and-grab to make quick cash?
Whatever the motive, Oona (with the support of her lawyers) refused to pay the ransom. Despite threats against the youngest of Chaplin’s children, she never considered the strange ordeal as too serious, acknowledging that “Charlie would have thought it rather ridiculous”.
The weeks went by, however, and the still-unknown thieves persisted, going so far as to demand that the Chaplins’ butler bring the cash to a drop-off point in the family’s Rolls Royce. Spotting an opportunity, the police arranged for an officer to pose as the butler and make a fake drop. But the sting operation was botched when the local postman, who didn’t recognise the driver of the Rolls, followed the car, prompting the police to mistakenly arrest him.
Rest in peace
The rather red-faced police redeemed themselves in May. Expecting another call from the thieves, they not only tapped the Chaplins’ phone, but assigned officers to keep tabs on some 200 telephone boxes in the area. It worked a treat and, 11 weeks after the grave-robbing, the police finally had a man in custody, 24-year-old Pole Roman Wardas.
His accomplice, a Bulgarian named Gantscho Ganev, was picked up later. Wardas – suffering from financial difficulties and hoping to make some money with the hare-brained scheme – directed the police to a cornfield a mile from the Chaplin mansion and told them where to dig.
The 300-pound oak coffin was intact.
As Wardas was judged to be the mastermind of the crime, his sentence was four years, while Ganev, 38, received an 18-month suspended sentence as he was only the ‘muscle man’. Both seemed sincerely contrite and even wrote to Oona to apologise, which she accepted. Chaplin’s son Eugene later revealed that his mother had admitted, “In a way, it’s a shame that we found him!”
Meanwhile, Chaplin’s body was re-buried – although this time, the coffin was encased in concrete to make sure he could properly rest in peace this time.