Photo of barrage balloon from America from the Great Depression to World War II, at the Library of Congress.
Today in Odd History
Charlie Chaplin's Coffin Stolen from Swiss Cemetery (March 1, 1977)
Today in Odd History, Charlie Chaplin's grave was ransacked. His heavy oak coffin was carted off, with his body inside, and the grave robbers demanded $600,000 in ransom. Chaplin's widow, Lady Oona O'Neill Chaplin, refused to pay it, saying "My husband lives on in my heart and mind, and it really doesn't matter where his remains are."
Chaplin breathed his last on Christmas morning, 1977, at the age of 88. He was buried near his home in Vevey, Switzerland, where he had lived since 1952, the year the US government, which had repeatedly questioned his political tendencies and his values, revoked his visa. Just a few months later, the last strange chapter in what had been an often tumultuous life began.
After the theft was discovered, ransom demands began pouring in. Most of them were hoaxes. Several weeks after the body vanished, however, another demand came in, accompanied by a photograph of Chaplin's coffin on its way to being reburied in a cornfield. Oona still refused to consider paying for the casket's return, but the rest of Chaplin's family thought it would be wise to cooperate with the police investigation. Through their lawyer, they began negotiating with the graverobbers over the phone. The amount of the ransom kept dropping, until the robbers were asking only $250,000. By then, the police had traced the calls to a public telephone. More than 100 police officers turned out to watch more than 200 public telephones near Vevey. The dragnet succeeded. Two men, a 24-year-old Polish mechanic and his Bulgarian accomplice were arrested. Chaplin's unopened casket was recovered from a farmer's field near Vevey; the farmer erected a cross at the site. The coffin was reinterred in Vevey, this time sealed in concrete. Despite Oona's brave words when her husband's body disappeared, when she died in 1991, she requested that her own coffin be similarly protected.
Differing views on Charlie Chaplin:
Chaplin, His Life and Art, by David Robinson.
Charlie Chaplin and his Times, by Kenneth S. Lynn.
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