English actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin was arguably one of the most successful celebrities during the silent film era. That was probably why Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev stole his coffin and tried to extort his widow, Oona O’Neill, a few months after his passing.
Born in London in April 1889, Chaplin’s childhood was quite challenging. When the actor was just a baby, his alcoholic father left Chaplin’s mother, Lily Harley, and his older half-brother, Sydney.
Harley, a vaudevillian and music hall singer, had to raise her kids on her own. For a few years, she managed to make ends meet. Things took an unusual turn when Chaplin was five years old.
In the middle of a performance, Harley’s voice failed. The stage manager (or one of Harley’s partners) urged Chaplin to get onstage to keep the audience entertained.
The boy was a natural. After singing “Jack Jones,” a popular song at the time, the crowd of rowdy soldiers showered him with coins. When Chaplin said he would collect the coins before continuing, the audience laughed out loud.
After that, the young Chaplin felt confident enough to imitate Harley’s laryngitis-addled voice, and people loved it. Although he saved the show, it was a bittersweet night as Harley’s voice never came back.
With Harley unable to sing, she could barely make enough money to care for her children, so they had to spend time in a workhouse in London. The situation got so bad that Chaplin and his brother were sent to a public boarding school for orphans in 1986.
Fortunately, Chaplin’s first impromptu performance was so good that Harley was sure he could follow in her footsteps. In 1897, thanks to Harley’s contacts, he joined the juvenile clog-dance troupe The Eight Lancashire Lads.
As per Harley, she developed mental problems so severe that she had to be placed in an asylum. Chaplin’s father didn’t do much for his children, and he died of alcoholism at 37.
The American government revoked his permission to enter the US after going to England.
While Chaplin was determined to be an actor, he had to take on different jobs to get by. After landing the part of a pageboy in a theater production of “Sherlock Holmes,” he became the Fred Karno pantomime troupe star.
American movie producer Mack Sennett noticed Chaplin’s talent and signed him for $150 a week, and he made his film debut in 1914.
The still-unknown actor wanted to stand out from other Sennett films’ actors, so he came up with the Little Tramp, the on-screen persona that made him an icon. The following year, he appeared in over 30 short movies and directed most of them.
Before the 1910s ended, Chaplin was already a millionaire and recognized as one of the greatest comedians in the world. In 1919, he joined forces with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith to create the distribution company United Artists.
Chaplin’s life got complicated in the early 50s when he earned the reputation of a communist sympathizer after working in “Modern Times,” a film that made fun of the machine age.
Since he never became an American citizen, the American government revoked his permission to enter the US after he went to England on vacation. As a result, he moved to Switzerland with his family, where he lived for the rest of his life.
On December 25, 1977, Chaplin passed away in Vaud, Switzerland, with his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, and seven of his eleven children by his side. His body was buried in the Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery, but it was not his final resting place.
His original plan was to bury the coffin deeper in the same hole, but the soil got too heavy.
In March 1978, Chaplin made headlines again for a very unusual reason: his corpse was stolen from the cemetery. Police believed that the criminals wanted to extract a ransom from the late comedian’s estate.
Given that the body-snatchers didn’t contact his family for over a month, people started speculating that probably overly-excited fans who felt compelled to have his body were to blame.
Others believed that neo-Nazis committed the crime to get revenge after Chaplin’s portrayal of Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator.” Some suggested that his own family probably took the casket and buried him in the garden of his estate.
Eventually, the criminals contacted O’Neill and asked for $600,000 in exchange for Chaplin’s body. She refused to pay, alleging that Chaplin would have believed it was a “ridiculous” demand.
She did get in touch with the police, though, as the criminals threatened her children. They started monitoring her phone and, after a five-week investigation, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev were taken into custody.
EXPLAINING THEIR REASONING
Wardas, a Polish refugee, admitted in court that he stole Chaplin’s body due to his financial issues. Then then-24-year-old car mechanic was unemployed, so when he read that a person in Italy dug up a body for money, he figured he could do the same.
He pointed out that his original plan was to bury the coffin deeper in the same hole, but the soil got too heavy when it started raining, so he had to develop a new plan on the spot. He was sentenced to four-and-a-half years of hard labor.
In Ganev’s case, he was from Bulgaria and was believed to have limited responsibility for the crime. He confessed that lifting the coffin was not a problem because “death is not important where I come from.”
Like Wardas, he was convicted of grave robbing and attempted extortion but only received an 18-month suspended sentence.
After the arrest, both criminals led the police to where Chaplin’s body had been buried: a cornfield about a mile away from O’Neill’s home. The comedian’s family reburied him in a concrete grave to avoid similar situations.