“I decided to hide Charlie Chaplin’s body and solve my problems…”

Charlie Chaplin as ‘The Tramp’

“I decided to hide Charlie Chaplin’s body and solve my problems.”

On 12th December 1978, Roman Wardas, a 24-year old Polish refugee took to the stand in Switzerland, accused of stealing Chaplin’s body.

The mechanic had fallen on hard times and, together with 38-year-old Gantscho Ganev, they re-opened the actor’s tomb, stole his body, and held it to ransom, hoping to extort around $600,000 for its return to his family.

Charlie Chaplin, comic actor, filmmaker and silent film-era icon had died aged 88 on Christmas day 1977. He was actively involved in filmmaking from 1914-1967 and survived the transition from silent films to “talkies”, a change that left many megastars falling by the wayside. His comic persona of ‘the tramp’ made Chaplin an enormous cultural icon and in the 1910s and 20s, he was widely regarded to be the most famous person in the world.

At the end of his life, Chaplin was living in Switzerland, having moved there following a series of US scandals in the 1940s, including accusations of communist activity, paternity suits and an FBI investigation that ultimately caused him to flee the country that had once nurtured his stardom. Chaplin and his fourth wife Oona had settled in Switzerland in 1952 after the actor was informed that he would be denied re-entry to the US while he was en route to the London premiere of his film, Limelight.

Charlie and Oona would have eight children in the sixteen years that they were together, enjoying an idyllic life in their home near Corsier-sur-Vevey. Chaplin died peacefully at home and was quietly buried following a small Anglican service. In death, Chaplin wanted little fuss, but endured quite the opposite.

The cemetery containing Chaplin’s remains is located in the Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey above Lake Geneva. It is a neat and simple place and also holds the remains of fellow Hollywood superstar (and heartthrob) James Mason.

Police at the desecrated grave of English film actor and director Charlie Chaplin in the cemetery at Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, March 1978. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Chaplin’s grave was desecrated on 1 March 1978 when the thieves stole the coffin containing the actor’s body, just a few months after his interment. The theft sparked an instant and enormous police investigation, with the world media’s eyes fixed squarely on the tiny village.

Soon after, Chaplin’s widow Oona (whom he had married when she was 18 and he was 54 – his romantic exploits merit a book on their own) received a demand of $600,ooo from the hostage-takers. Immediately, the police tapped Oona’s phone and monitored 200 public phones in the area, waiting for the criminals to make their next call. Oona refused the ransom, saying that her husband would have seen the demand as ‘rather ridiculous’. In response, the criminals made threats on her childrens’ lives.

Five weeks after the theft, Roman Wardas, from Poland, and Bulgarian Gantscho Ganev were arrested. Together, they led officers to a cornfield in Corsier, around a mile away from the Chaplin family home.

The coffin in the cornfield. Source as before.

In court, Wardas explained that he had asked his friend Ganev to help him in stealing the coffin, believing that the ransom would help them both survive in an environment where employment had not come so readily to them. Both were political refugees. Wardas had left Poland in search of work, but was virtually destitute in Switzerland and saw the body theft as a viable financial decision. The pair had disinterred the coffin and placed it in Ganev’s car who drove it to the field, where the body was reburied in a shallow grave. Wardas explained in court that “I did not feel particularly squeamish about interfering with a coffin…I was going to hide it deeper in the same hole originally, but it was raining and the earth got too heavy.”

Once the body was stashed, Wardas, under the name ‘Mr Rochat’, made the infamous ransom and threatening calls to the family, to no success. During court proceedings, the Chaplin family lawyer, Mr Jean-Felix Paschoud, asked to speak to Mr Rochat, from whom he had received the majority of the ransom calls. Anxiously rising from the stand, the Wardas was wished a good morning by the lawyer.

The old classic, ‘man pointing at the scene of the crime’ pose. A man points at the spot where Chaplin’s body was concealed.

When questioned in court, Ganev said coldly that ‘I was not bothered about lifting the coffin. Death is not so important where I come from.’ He had been imprisoned in Bulgaria following attempts to flee to Turkey and finally made his way to Switzerland making a small wage as a mechanic. However, Ganev’s involvement began and ended with the transportation and reburial of the body, pleading ignorance of any extortion claims. According to the court reports, Ganev was shocked at the public response to the crime, having believed that he was exposing himself to minimal risks. As such, when sentencing came around, he was given an 18thmonth suspended sentence. Wardas, however, was identified as the mastermind behind the crime and was sentenced to 4 ½ years of hard labour. Wardas explained that he devised the plot following his discovery of a report of a similar incident in Italy, otherwise would not have thought of such a crime. Both men showed genuine regret for their actions and wrote letters to Oona, who accepted their apologies. Speaking to the Independent, Chaplin’s son Eugene recounted that ‘The wife of the nicer one wrote and said ‘We’re so sorry’. My mother wrote back and said: ‘Look, I have nothing especially against you and all is forgiven.’[1]

As for Chaplin’s body, it was reburied in the original plot, but in a newly-designed concrete tomb in order to prevent any future light-fingered corpse thieves.

Charlie and Oona’s graves as they are today. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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Meeting Charlie outside the Leicester Square Theatre. Very much the strong, silent type.

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References/Sources/Further Reading

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/grave-robbers-steal-charlie-chaplins-body

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/dec/12/charlie-chaplins-body-snatched-from-his-grave-archive-1978

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/grave-robbers-once-held-charlie-chaplins-body-ransom-180954443/

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/charlie-chaplin-s-family-see-funny-side-film-about-his-corpse-being-stolen-9697758.html

[1]https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/charlie-chaplin-s-family-see-funny-side-film-about-his-corpse-being-stolen-9697758.html#r3z-addoor

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