Remembering The Time Two Mechanics Stole Charlie Chaplin's Corpse And Held It For Ransom

Grave robbing is a lot like "The Star Wars Holiday Special," in that it's kinda neat to watch when Harrison Ford is doing it, but for the most part, nobody approves.

The bizarre act of digging up a human corpse and stealing it for unnatural purposes is the sort of thing we've grown accustomed to in movies. The image of Dr. Frankenstein kicking up the soil in search of really big corpses is pretty much burned into our brains. Grave robbing is the sort of thing villains do if the bodies are fresh, and heroes do if the bodies are really, really old — or if the body is fresh and belongs to Superman, that's probably the biggest ethical loophole.

But in real life, celebrities aren't usually known for digging up corpses for personal gain. That's the sort of thing that happens to celebrities more often than the other way around. And not that it's a competition, but the most famous celebrity to be the victim of a corpse heist was almost certainly silent comedian Charlie Chaplin.

The grave mechanic caper

Charlie Chaplin was, and still is, one of the most famous actors and filmmakers of the early, silent era of filmmaking. Over the course of dozens of beloved short films and multiple classic features — like "The Gold Rush," "City Lights," "Modern Times," and "The Great Dictator" — he gave audiences unforgettable comedy sequences, like the dancing bread rolls, death-defying roller skates, and a vicious parody of Adolf Hitler playing with a globe like a balloon.

He spent his most productive years making movies in America, but he was denied entry back into the country because, at the height of the "Red Scare," he was declared a communist sympathizer. So he wound up living in Switzerland until he died on December 25, 1977.

Just two months later, Charlie Chaplin's corpse was stolen, and the thieves demanded $600,000 for the return of his body. (That would be nearly $2.8 million today, adjusted for inflation.) Oona Chaplin, the filmmaker's widow, refused to play ball and an investigation eventually revealed that the culprits were Roman Vardas and Gantscho Ganev, who had planned to use the money to start their own auto mechanic business. They were sent to prison and Charlie Chaplin's body was found in a cornfield, not far from the Chaplin family home.

And in case anyone's getting any ideas, Charlie Chaplin was re-buried — with concrete this time — to prevent any future copycats.

But that didn't stop grave robbers from plundering other celebrity tombs!

Bring me the head of F.W. Murnau

Yes, Charlie Chaplin is far from the only celebrity who's had their grave robbed, and you don't have to go back to the age of antiquity to find other examples.

In 1876, crime boss James "Big Jim" Kennally ordered two counterfeiters, Jack Hughes and Torrance Mullen, to steal Abraham Lincoln's corpse and hold it for ransom, to pay for the bail of Benjamin Boyd, another counterfeiter. The plot was foiled before Lincoln's body could get carried away. The former president was reburied in a secret grave until 1901 when it was dug back up and reburied, this time under — you guessed it — concrete.

Jump ahead to 1992, when a different famous British comedian found themselves a victim of tomb raiders. The grave of Benny Hill, the star of the raunchy "Benny Hill Show" and co-star of cult films like "The Italian Job" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," was broken into, but at least this time the body was left in place. Nobody knows if anything was stolen, but as seems to be the established norm, the body was reburied under concrete to prevent any future thefts and/or desecrations.

And then of course there's another celebrated silent filmmaker, F.W. Murnau, the director of the classic horror film "Nosferatu." His coffin was unearthed in 2015 and his skull was stolen, and to this day it has never been recovered. The police found candle wax at the crime scene, which has led to speculation that the body snatching was part of an occult ritual because, apparently, only occultists use candles to see in the dark.

Anyway, long story short: If you're famous, and you die, invest in concrete!