On March 2, 1978, two men steal the corpse of the legendary film actor Charlie Chaplin from a cemetery in the Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey. A comic actor who was perhaps most famous for his alter ego, the Little Tramp, Chaplin was also a respected filmmaker whose career spanned Hollywood’s silent film era and the momentous transition to “talkies” in the late 1920s.
Chaplin died on December 25, 1977, at the age of 88. Two months later, his body was stolen from the Swiss cemetery, sparking a police investigation and a hunt for the culprits.
After Chaplin’s widow, Oona, received a ransom demand of some $600,000, police began monitoring her phone and watching 200 phone kiosks in the region. Oona had refused to pay the ransom, saying that her husband would have thought the demand “ridiculous.” The callers later made threats against her two youngest children. Oona Chaplin was Charlie’s fourth wife and the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. She and Chaplin were married in 1943, when she was 18 and he was 54; they had eight children together. The family had settled in Switzerland in 1952 after Chaplin was accused of being a Communist sympathizer.
After a five-week investigation, police arrested two auto mechanics, Roman Wardas, of Poland, and Gantscho Ganev, of Bulgaria. The pair led police to Chaplin’s body, which they had buried in a cornfield about one mile from the Chaplin family’s home in Corsier. That December, Wardas and Ganev were convicted of grave robbing and attempted extortion. Political refugees from Eastern Europe, Wardas and Ganev apparently stole Chaplin’s body in an attempt to solve their financial difficulties. Wardas, identified as the mastermind of the plot, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years of hard labor. As he told it, he was inspired by a similar crime that he had read about in an Italian newspaper. Ganev was given an 18-month suspended sentence, as he was believed to have limited responsibility for the crime. As for Chaplin, his family reburied his body in a concrete grave to prevent future theft attempts.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: