When Grave Robbers Hold Famous Corpses for Ransom

Charlie Chaplin, pictured here as his character The Tramp in the 1931 film "City Lights," had his corpse stolen from its grave and ransomed for cash. John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

The late Enzo Ferrari's namesake company may make some of the world's fastest cars. But perhaps even speedier is the quick wit of Italian investigators determined to protect one of the nation's favorite sons.

Investigators recently foiled an attempt by grave robbers to exhume the corpse of Ferrari, a Formula One forerunner who died in 1988 at the age of 90. The authorities suspected the gang planned to unearth Ferrari's body from his above-ground tomb in Modena, Italy, with the end goal of extorting money from his family.


While this plot didn't get much traction, history presents a surprising number of attempts to rob graves and hold dead bodies, from those of famous actors to political figures, for ransom.

Charlie Chaplin

He wore a bowler hat, twirled a cane and fumbled his way through silent movies, entertaining audiences in the decades before "talkies" hit the big screen. Charlie Chaplin, as Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was known, became a star with the 1921 comedy "The Kid" and the 1925 classic "The Gold Rush." The British native continued to write, direct, star in, and produce silent and talking films for decades, winning two Academy Awards before retiring to an estate in the Swiss countryside.

a man points to a spot in a field
A man points to the spot where the coffin of Charlie Chaplin was found on May 19, 1978, after having been stolen months before.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Chaplin died on Christmas Day, 1977, at the age of 88. He was promptly buried in a cemetery near Lake Geneva in Switzerland — until two grave robbers excavated his coffin, that is.


The grave robbers moved his coffin to an unceremonious plot a mile from the Chaplin home, where they buried it until they could collect $600,000 in ransom from Chaplin's widow Oona O'Neill, who was still raising the couple's eight children. She reportedly denied their request and cooperated with local police, who tapped her telephone and traced the ransom calls to Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev, a couple of down-on-their-luck mechanics and political refugees.

Wardas, who was credited with the grave robbing idea, was sentenced to four years in prison, while Ganev served a suspended 18-month term. As for Chaplin? His body was re-interred in his original plot, and this time, his resting place was covered in cement.


Eva Perón

She didn't want Argentina to cry for her, but Eva Perón probably wanted them to go ahead and give her a decent burial. Perón, popularly known as Evita, served as the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until cervical cancer ended her life in 1952. But she wasn't properly interred for another two decades.

After her death, the government in Argentina was overthrown in a military coup and Perón's husband, President Juan Perón, was forced into exile. In 1955, Evita's embalmed body was taken in the night from a trade union where it had been watched over by her working-class supporters who were part of a political movement known as Peronism.


Most likely, anti-Peronists absconded with her remains, worried she would be used as inspiration to fuel an uprising of working class supporters. Her body was moved around, with accounts of it being hidden in an attic, a parked van, behind a movie screen and even inside the building that housed the waterworks that supplied Buenos Aires. At some point, her body was secreted out of the country, where it was buried near Rome for 20 years and marked with the name "Maggi."

Her remains were held for a kind of ransom that wasn't monetary; instead, Evita's body was used as leverage between political factions until she was eventually returned to Buenos Aires. Her remains were placed in a glass coffin and briefly put on public display. Two million people visited Evita's body to pay their respects; her remains were buried in a crypt 20 feet (6 meters) deep, which should likely deter all but the most determined future grave robbers.

mausoleum of eva peron with tourists looking
Eva Peron's grave is below the Duarte family vault in La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Markus Matzel/ullstein bild/Getty Images


Tassos Papadopoulos

Tassos Papadopoulos, who served as the president of the Republic of Cyprus from 2003 until his death from lung cancer in 2008, was able to rest in peace in the Deftera village cemetery, located in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, for less than a year before grave robbers hatched a plan to hold his body for ransom.

On the eve of the first anniversary of this death, Papadopoulos' remains were stolen by tomb raiders who dug a large hole around the grave and moved a 530 pound (240 kilogram) marble slab that covered his coffin.


grave investigation
A Cypriot forensic expert climbs down a ladder to inspect the dug-out grave of former Cypriot president Tassos Papadopoulos in 2009.
Stefanos Kouratzis/AFP/Getty Images)

The whereabouts of Papadopoulos' body — and a motive for its kidnapping — remained a mystery for months. And after an intensive search it was only a ransom demand that turned into a tip from one of the guilty grave robbers that revealed the truth.

An Indian national named Sabrjit Singh reached out to Papadopoulos' family to ask for a ransom. Originally, Singh was part of a plan by mastermind Antonis Prokopiou Kitas — at the time locked away for the rape and murder of two women — and his brother to exhume the former president's remains and use them as a bargaining chip for Kitas' release.

In court, Singh and Kitas told of wielding a pickaxe and a shovel overnight during a downpour to unearth Papadopoulos' corpse. Singh admitted to feeling guilty and going rogue by demanding money from the dead man's family. Singh received an 18-month prison sentence and the brothers were each sentenced to 20 months.

Papadopoulos' body was found buried in a cemetery about three miles (5.8 km) away, and returned to its original resting place.