Invasion of the Body Snatchers: From Chaplin to Casey Kasem

Thirty-seven years ago today, grave robbers stole Charlie Chaplin's body from a cemetery in Switzerland and held it for ransom. We look at the body-snatching crime against 'The Tramp,' along with some other famous victims.
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Thirty-seven years ago today, grave robbers stole Charlie Chaplin's body from a cemetery in Switzerland and held it for ransom. We look at the body-snatching crime against 'The Tramp,' along with some other famous victims.

If there's one thing that unites every living human being on this planet, it's this: death. Reassuring, isn't it? Most of us don’t want to leave life’s eventful party, especially since the party will inevitably continue without us. But depending on whom you talk to, there could be a silver lining to all this melancholy: life is tumultuous and demanding, but with death comes peace and undisturbed rest.

Or so we hope. While it’s true that most people can enjoy their eternal power nap in a state of private tranquility, not everyone can be so lucky. Let’s look at a few examples of people who were famous both in life and in death, and for whom the ability to rest in peace didn’t come quite so easily.

I. The Tramp: Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin Photo

Charlie Chaplin (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin—better known as Charlie, a bowler-hatted and cane-twirling vagabond—captured the attention and laughter of early moviegoers without saying a word. Chaplin was the preeminent star of silent film and appeared as his trademark character in such timeless works as The Kid and The Gold Rush. The film pioneer’s earthly run ended on Christmas Day in 1977 at the age of 88, and he was afforded two months of undisturbed rest in a Swiss cemetery before a duo of money-hungry grave robbers excavated his coffin, moved it to a location only one mile from the Chaplin home (not very smart, these two), reburied it, and made $600,000 ransom calls to Oona O’Neill, Chaplin’s mourning widow. Oona refused to even entertain the demands, reasoning that her late husband would have found the whole situation “ridiculous.” Five weeks later, two thieving and financially strapped car mechanics were arrested and jailed, but not before they pointed out the location of The Tramp. Charlie’s body, for its third burial, was placed in a concrete grave. A man who rose to fame in silence shouldn’t have to hear the squawks of bumbling thieves.

II. The Contrarian: Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Thomas Paine (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

We may not have had the radical political ideas of Thomas Jefferson—not to mention the departures from tradition advocated by Abraham Lincoln, Bertrand Russell, or Christopher Hitchens—without Thomas Paine. His progressive writings, including The Age of Reason, Common Sense, and The Rights of Man, promoted reason and secularism and stoked the fires of social revolution before and after American independence. However, in 1809, Paine died in relative isolation, having been shunned for his incessant mockery of organized religion. This isn’t to say that he didn’t have fans, though. Ten years after Paine’s death, a radical journalist named William Cobbett dug up the bones of his hero and traveled with them back to England, intending to give the valiant Paine a proper burial in his homeland. Such a burial never came to pass, however, as Corbett kept the rebel writer’s remains with him for nearly two decades until his death, after which they went missing. Over the years various people have claimed to have in their possession a Paine part or two, but these claims have never been confirmed. The influential nonconformist is, it seems, still restless.

III. The Banker: Enrico Cuccia

Enrico Cuccia Photo

Enrico Cuccia (Photo: dissensiediscordanze.it)

Enrico Cuccia was known as the father of Italian capitalism and, during his life, the most powerful banker in a Mediterranean nation with a long history of powerful people. You’d think these credentials would be enough to grant Cuccia an undisturbed post-death slumber, but Cuccia, after his death in 2000, was nicked from his vault. It didn’t take long for the ransom letter to appear: $3.5 million for the return of the body, to be transferred by Mediobanca (the institution Cuccia had managed for half a century) to a Swiss bank account. But, as we’ve seen, grave robbers don’t have the best of luck. One of the miscreants called the bank to set up the funds and allowed himself to be placed on hold, thinking that the Mediobanca president was on the other line. Police used this time to trace the call to Turin, where they found a lawbreaking steelworker still holding the phone.

IV. The Disc Jockey: Casey Kasem

Casey Kasem Photo

Casey Kasem (Photo: M. Caulfield/WireImage/Getty Images)

Who can forget the distinctive voice of Casey Kasem, the iconic and enduring host of American Top 40? Even kids today unknowingly experience Kasem’s audible legacy each time they watch a rerun of Scooby-Doo and hear Shaggy shriek “Zoinks!” in distress. In a tragic and ironic turn of fate, the legendary radio host and voice actor lost his ability to speak near the end of his life, and he passed away in 2014 after struggling with Lewy body dementia. Jean Thompson, Kasem’s wife, was entrusted with her late husband’s body and said she would make funeral arrangements for Kasem, who had expressed his desire to be buried in Glendale, California. But Jean (who many suspected of abusing her husband) suddenly insisted that she would cremate the body. This did not sit well with Kerri, Kasem’s daughter, who wanted an autopsy performed. A day before a judge signed an order requiring Jean to keep the body at the mortuary, Kasem’s corpse went missing. In an even more bizarre twist, Jean was difficult to track down, as the address she listed on Kasem’s death certificate was simply “Jerusalem.” She was eventually discovered, having moved Kasem’s body to a funeral home in Montreal. After multiple delays and legal skirmishes, America’s beloved DJ was finally laid to rest in Oslo.

V. The First Lady: Eva Perón

Eva Perón (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eva Perón (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If Eva Perón could have known how difficult it would be for her body to find a resting place once she died, she may have changed her mind and asked Argentina to go ahead and cry for her. Evita, as she was known, was the popular and charismatic first lady of Argentina, who died an early death in 1953 after a fight with cervical cancer. Thus began the 24-year process to bury her. After her death, her husband, Juan Perón, was overthrown by a military coup. The anti-Perón forces stole Eva’s body so that the pro-Perón forces couldn’t use it to rally the masses. Eva’s body was allegedly kept in an attic, behind a movie theater screen, inside the waterworks of Buenos Aires, and even in a van parked on the street. Her corpse finally made it to Italy, where it was buried near Rome and marked with the name “Maggi.” Nearly two decades passed, along with a few more military coups, before Evita, whose remains had been used as a political bargaining tool, found her final solace in a glass-covered coffin twenty feet beneath the Buenos Aires soil.

VI. The Little Corporal: Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte (Photo: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Napoleon Bonaparte (Photo: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Napoleon Bonaparte has a complicated relationship with history. On one hand, he’s remembered as one of the most important and effective leaders in memory. On the other hand, he’s parodied in the media as a man who overcompensated for his physical stature with exaggerated bravado. On a third hand (if we can have such a thing), while his body was not entirely stolen, his penis was. After his death in 1821, Napoleon’s doctor performed an autopsy on the French Emperor and, presumably violating procedure, decided to cut off the Little Corporal’s love muscle and give it to a priest in Corsica. Since then, the late Emperor’s ill-preserved member has gone on a world tour among collectors. The centuries of travel haven’t been kind to Napoleon’s penis, which now lives in New Jersey, shrunken by air exposure to the size of a baby’s finger.