Friday, December 11, 2009

Five Grave Robberies

Weirdest mainstream news headline this morning: "Grave Robbers Steal Former Cyprus President's Corpse." Someone – probably political activists, but no one's taken credit yet — robbed the grave of Tassos Papadopoulous, a day before the first anniversary of his death. President Papadopoulous had opposed the UN-directed peace plan that would have reunited the Turkish and Greek sections of the island, which the Turkish population supported.

It's not the first time a dead body's been stolen to make a point (or some money), and it won't be the last. Here are five other people who haven't been left to rest peacefully.

1. Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin died in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1977, and was buried in Corsier-sur-Vevey Cemetery. In March 1978, two immigrant mechanics (one Polish, one Bulgarian) kidnapped the body and demanded $600,000 in ransom, which dropped to $250,000 when Chaplin's widow, Oona, refused to pay. Swiss authorities eventually found the robbers by monitoring every pay phone in Lausanne, and the body was returned unharmed in May. It is now buried under six feet of cement, to prevent further tampering.

2. Oliver Cromwell. The gold standard of political body-stealing, really, but it's all a matter of perspective. He died in 1658, and was buried with full honors at Westminster Abbey. Cromwell's son, Richard, briefly succeeded him as Lord Protector, but within two years, the Parliament invited Charles II back from exile. In 1661, Cromwell's body was exhumed and ritually executed: hanged in chains at Tyburn, then decapitated, with Cromwell's head displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall for more than 20 years. The head passed from one private owner to another, before finally being buried at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What's the difference between "grave moving" and "grave robbing"? Well, whether all the bones make it from point A to point B, for one. Mozart was originally buried in a wooden coffin in St. Mark's Cemetery in Vienna. The grave was marked only with a wooden marker, and was moved and "reorganized" to make room for additional burials a few years later. In 1902, the Salzburg Mozarteum received a skull alleged to be Mozart's; a gravedigger had supposedly retrieved it when the bones were moved. A DNA test in 2002 failed to prove any connection between this skull and other bones in the official Mozart family crypt.

4. Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine died in New York City in 1809, and was buried without fanfare in New Rochelle. Ten years later, an admirer named William Cobbett decided that Paine deserved a hero's tomb in his homeland, England; he exhumed Paine's body, without permission, and spirited the corpse across the ocean. But Cobbett's plans were thwarted, and the remains stayed in a trunk in his attic. What happened to the bones after Cobbett died in 1835 is a matter of speculation; a skull that may be Paine's turned up in Sydney, Australia, in 1987, and as recently as 2001, a group of New Yorkers was trying to bring Paine's remains — wherever they are — back to New York. Read the whole story here.

5. Eva Duarte Peron. Eva Peron was embalmed after death, and her body was displayed in a glass coffin in her former office. The plan was to build her a giant tomb, larger than the Statue of Liberty, in the shape of a shirtless man (a descamisado); Eva's body would lie in the base, on display, like Lenin's. But the tomb wasn't finished when Juan Peron was overthrown in 1955, and he fled the country without moving the body to a safe place. The new military dictatorship took Eva's body off display, and its location was a mystery for 16 years. Finally the leaders of Argentina admitted they had sent the body to Italy, where it lay in a crypt under a false name. Juan Peron, then living in Spain, had the body flown there. Two years later, he returned to Argentina and regained power, but once again left Eva's body behind; his third wife, Isabel, finally had Eva's corpse returned to Argentina after Juan died in 1974. Eva now lies in the Duarte family tomb in Buenos Aires, so securely protected that some have said the tomb could survive a nuclear attack.


Kevin Wignall said...

Well, it's not really grave robbing, but how about Jeremy Bentham, of utilitarianism fame?

He donated his body to be dissected at a public lecture, then parts of it were preserved and are still kept on public display at University College London. I think the original head has now been replaced by a wax one, because the body was continually stolen by students and taken for a drink around town.

AnswerGirl said...

I thought about including Bentham in this list, because of the stories about the frequent thefts of his head, but I love the story of Thomas Paine's bones so much I decided to use that one instead.

Jeremy Bentham's body is still on display at the University College of London, though, and I would like to see it one of these days. Five Bodies on Display would be a good topic for another day.

Anna said...

I never made the Jeremy Bentham/LOST connection until just now. I don't imagine any of your readers are so pedestrian as to watch LOST or to admit to it anyway. But I love it and feel better prepared for the upcoming season thanks to your list. Thank you!

AnswerGirl said...

I don't watch LOST — what's the Jeremy Bentham connection?