Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Digging for Charlie
It was a moonless night and the rain was driven horizontal by the wind. 
The villagers of Corsier-sur-Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, were already in their beds, unaware that a macabre crime was about to be committed on their doorsteps.The first of March, 1978 was to be a night of grave-robbery, deception and ransom. Two criminals, dressed in black, scuttled into the little village cemetery in Corsier-sur-Vevey. One of the men, Roman Wardas, was a 24-year-old petty criminal from Poland; the other, Gancho Ganev, 38, was from Bulgaria. Together, they had hatched a plot that was intended to net them a fortune.

Chaplin's house in Corsier-sur-Vevey
The two men stumbled in the darkness as they picked their way through the cemetery's 400 graves. Most were marked by simple wooden crosses, but one was far grander. 
Sculpted from white stone, it was marked ‘Sir Charles Chaplin: 1889-1977’. The world’s most famous comedian - who owned a mansion in the village - had died just two months earlier, on Christmas Day, 1977.
As the rain sluiced down, Wardas and Ganev pulled out a pickaxe and started to dig their way around the tomb. The soil was still loose, although the rain had made it wet and heavy. It took two hours to reach their goal.
Chaplin: the genius comedian
Shortly after midnight they managed to lift Charlie Chaplin’s coffin from its tomb. They carried it across the churchyard and loaded into the back of their estate car.
They then drove it to a cornfield at the eastern end of Lake Geneva, dug a shallow grave and reburied it. It was the perfect hiding place.
Happier days: wife Oona and Charlie
The villagers of Corsier-sur-Vevey noticed that something was amiss early on the following morning. A mound of freshly dug earth and an empty grave was evidence of the terrible crime that had taken place.
‘The grave is empty. The coffin has gone,' police officials told the growing number of reporters who began to converge on Corsier-sur-Vevey.
At the Chaplin mansion, one 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?'

Why indeed? The crime was a complete mystery. No one came forward to admit to exhuming the body and for the next 10 weeks precious few clues came to light.
Swiss police started a major investigation: they also asked Interpol to help them solve the crime. But it proved a hopeless task.
In the absence of any hard news, people began to devise theories as to what had happened. Some said the corpse had been stolen by fanatical admirers. They claimed that fans were intending to fulfil Chaplin's long expressed desire to be buried in England.
Chaplin's stolen coffin
Another theory was that Chaplin was actually Jewish. This was seized upon by a Hollywood newspaper, which went so far as to claim that Chaplin’s body had been removed because he was buried in a Gentile cemetery.
The true reason for the crime would not become apparent until May, 1978, fully 10 weeks after the body had been stolen. The Chaplin family began to receive strange phone calls demanding ever-increasing sums of money.
The blackmailers revealed that they had exhumed Chaplin’s body and that it would not be returned until they received the massive sum of $600,000.
The two criminals, Wardas and Ganev were extremely aggressive. The Chaplin butler, Guliano Canese, took the calls on several occasions and was frightened by their threats.
Beautiful Geraldine: Chaplin's daughter
Geraldine Chaplin, the comedian's actress daughter, also took a few of the calls. She was deeply shocked when Wardas threatened to shoot Geraldine's younger brother and sister unless his demands were met.
The family consistently refused to negotiate, forcing the body-snatchers into a corner. They lowered their ransom to $250,000, aware that their bizarre robbery was not going to plan.
The police had been monitoring the Chaplin's phone line ever since the grave was robbed. When the two grave-robbers announced that they would give their final demand by telephone at 9.30am on a certain morning, the police monitored all 200 telephone kiosks in the Lausanne area.
It proved the criminals’ undoing. That very morning, Wardas was captured in the course of making his ransom demand. Ganev was arrested soon after.
The last major hurdle for the police was to find Chaplin’s corpse: the two grave-robbers had forgotten the place where they’d reburied him and it took some time to locate the exact spot. But after 10 tense weeks, Charlie Chaplin was back in safe hands.
RIP: Charlie's final resting place
Wardas and Ganev were eventually convicted of disturbing the peace of the dead. They were also convicted of trying to extract a ransom.
Wardas was sentenced to four and a half years hard labour. Ganev, his inept accomplice, was given a suspended sentence of 18 months.
Charlie Chaplin’s body was meanwhile brought back to the little cemetery of Corsier-sur-Vevey and given a second burial.
This time, his final resting place was to be just that. It was sealed with a thick slab of concrete. 

UK paperback
Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’  Simon Winchester

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  1. I like your factual historical writings very much. Please continue.

  2. Thank you! I certainly will keep them coming! Giles