Out of the Ground
Invasion of the Celebrity Body Snatchers, From Charlie Chaplin to Casey Kasem
Casey Kasem’s body has vanished from a funeral home, making him the latest victim of a long tradition of famous stolen corpses.
Casey Kasem is remembered for many things: for his career as a Top 40 radio presenter, for years spent crying “zoinks!” as Shaggy on Scooby Doo, and for pulling off two great disappearing acts: once while alive and the other from the Great Beyond.
More than a month after the radio legend’s death, daughter Kerri Kasem learned on Thursday that her father’s body had been removed from the southern California funeral home where it was stored. No one seems to know where it is, except for maybe Kasem’s widow, Jean, who denies the corpse is missing but has supplied zero helpful hints about its whereabouts.
The incident echoes Kasem’s first vanishing act back in May, when Kasem’s children reported him missing after Jean apparently packed him in a car and took off from California to Washington without telling anyone. Kasem, who suffered from Lewy body dementia and was unable to speak near the end of his life, allegedly developed bed sores during the trip that became infected. He died only a few weeks later at the age of 82.
Suspicions this time around are again focused on Jean, a former Cheers actress better known these days for hurling hamburger meat at relatives in the name of King David. Kasem’s body went missing the day before a judge ordered Jean to keep it at Gaffney Mortuary so that an autopsy could be performed. The results would aid in the criminal investigation surrounding the widow, who stands accused of elder abuse. Why not just track down Jean? No one knows where she is either—her address, as printed on Kasem’s death certificate, is “Jerusalem.”
Bizarre as the story is, this isn’t the first time a famous person’s corpse has been stolen. Celeb-exclusive body snatchers have targeted some of history’s most iconic figures—for money, for science, or in some cases, for a grotesque sense of fun.
Charlie Chaplin’s Corpse for Ransom
The biggest movie star of silent film died on Christmas Day 1977 and enjoyed a scant two months of final rest before grave robbers dug up his coffin in a Swiss cemetery, reburied it, and began making ransom calls to his grieving widow, Oona, who heard the $600,000 demands and basically just rolled her eyes. Oona, who married a 54-year-old Chaplin when she was just 18, said her late husband would have found the entire thing “ridiculous” and refused to cave in.
Five weeks later, a police investigation narrowed on two car mechanics, Roman Wardas, of Poland, and Gantscho Ganev, of Bulgaria, who had been looking for a quick way out of sticky financial troubles. The two showed authorities to the corn field where they’d reburied Chaplin’s body (a mere one mile from the Chaplin family home) and were thrown in jail. As for the Little Tramp himself, his corpse was reburied in a concrete grave to prevent future snatching.
Abraham Lincoln’s Incompetent Kidnappers
Once upon a time in 1876, a gang of Chicago Irish counterfeiters broke into Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Ill. and stole the dead president’s body—at least, they would have, had they been able to pick a single lock on their own.
Small-time crime boss Big Jim Kennally found himself in a serious pickle earlier that year after his best counterfeiter, Benjamin Boyd, got thrown behind bars. He enlisted two of his men, a saloonkeeper named Terence Mullen and counterfeit nickel manufacturer Jack Hughes, to kidnap Lincoln’s corpse—a process which should have been simple. The body lay in an aboveground marble sarcophagus guarded by no groundskeepers or watchmen, just one lonely padlock. The plan was to hold the body for ransom in exchange for a full pardon for Boyd and $200,000 in cash.
But Mullen and Hughes were less than confident in their corpse-kidnapping abilities and invited “professional grave robber” Lewis Swegles to help them. Swegles was a paid Secret Service informant. You can see where this is heading.
On the night of the crime, Mullen, Hughes, and Swegles showed up at Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Patrick D. Tyrrell, the chief of the Chicago district office of the Secret Service, and his agents were waiting. Tyrrell watched as Mullen and Hughes filed their way through the padlock (neither could apparently pick a lock) and struggled and failed to lift Lincoln’s 500-pound cedar-and-lead coffin. As the would-be robbers weighed their options, a detective’s gun accidentally went off, scaring the criminals and sending them running. They might have gotten away, but they ran right back to Mullen’s saloon, where they were arrested a few days later.
Meanwhile, tomb custodian John Carroll Power was in hysterics over how two idiots could have come so close to stealing an American president’s corpse from him. He and five friends moved Lincoln’s body to an unmarked grave in the tomb’s basement, where it remained until 1901 when Lincoln’s son, Robert, gave instructions to have his father’s body placed inside a steel cage, lowered into a 10-foot-deep vault and buried under wet concrete. It remains there to this day.
The Thief Who Chopped Einstein’s Brain into 240 Pieces
When Albert Einstein died at a Princeton hospital in April 1955, he left behind specific instructions: burn everything. He wanted neither his brain nor his body studied or preserved. Instead, he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in a secret location to discourage future legions of Einstein groupies.
The pathologist on call at Princeton Hospital at the time of Einstein’s death did not care.
Without permission from Einstein or his family, Thomas Harvey stole Einstein’s brain, cut it up into 240 little pieces, and stuffed it all into two jars which he kept in his basement. Harvey’s wife, understandably, hated this idea and threatened to throw out the jars. Harvey whisked the brain away to Wichita, Kansas, where he was working as a medical supervisor in a biological testing lab (he lost his job at Princeton Hospital shortly after the brain was discovered missing, though Einstein’s son gave Harvey his retroactive blessing to keep it). Harvey then put the brain into a cider box and stashed it under a beer cooler. Shockingly, Harvey lost his medical license in 1988.
Harvey and collaborators published a few wonky studies on Einstein’s brain that suggested an abnormal proportion of neurons and glia cells, which may have formed the neurological base for his extreme intelligence. A list of the flaws in these studies (like, maybe don’t keep the subject of your study stored under a beer cooler) can be found here.
Sneaking Elvis Back into Graceland
Like most details about the King’s death, his would-be grave robbing is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. Around midnight in Memphis on August 29, 1977, four men were spotted lurking around Elvis Presley’s mausoleum at Forest Hills Cemetery and picking at its gate. But before any actual robbing took place, a passing car scared the men and they scattered. Three piled back into a car, drove away, and were promptly pulled over and arrested by conveniently located police officers. Their fourth comrade, left behind at the cemetery, attempted scaling a fence and wound up in the hospital the next day.
While on trial for the crime, Ronnie Lee Adkins, one of the three who’d made it to the car, told a bonkers story about a man named Nuchie who intended to ransom Elvis’s body for $10 million and had offered Adkins and the men $40,000 to help out. A flabbergasted prosecutor concluded that this “witness is so unreliable that we cannot stand by or behind any statement he makes.” The case was dismissed and, faced with the notion of constant threats to Elvis’s grave, Memphis’s Board of Adjustment allowed the King’s 900-pound copper coffin to be relocated to Graceland, where it was previously not allowed because the area was not zoned for dead bodies.
Twenty five years later, Adkins—who now goes by Ronnie Tyler, “bail bondsman, bounty hunter, and FBI informant”—went on record claiming that the whole thing was a sham, set up by Elvis’s father, Vernon, to get his son’s grave moved to Graceland. Adkins claims that a sheriff’s deputy named Billy Talley had come to him with a business proposition on behalf of his buddy Vernon and that the Memphis Police Department had been waiting for the men that night at Forest Hills Cemetery.
Ted Williams’s Head Used for Batting Practice
Baseball legend Ted “the Splendid Splinter” Williams, who spent 19 years as the Boston Red Sox’s left midfielder, kept his head in the game even long after his death, thanks to a group of sick, twisted cryonics lab workers. In his book Frozen, former Alcor Life Extension Foundation executive Larry Johnson details how workers beheaded Williams’ body, photographed it, and used the head for a weird form of “batting practice” at the Foundation’s Scottsdale, Ariz. facility, where bodies are kept suspended in liquid nitrogen (in case people figure out how to revive them in the future, or whatever). Johnson writes that in 2002, technicians with no medical certification lopped off Williams’ head, froze it, and used it for said batting practice while trying to dislodge it from a tuna can.
The 24-Year Odyssey of Eva Perón’s Corpse
Eva Perón was at the height of her reign as Argentina’s beloved and charismatic first lady when she died of cervical cancer in 1952 at age 33. It took an entire year to embalm her body and 24 years before she finally made it to her grave, due to a convoluted series of political happenings. Her husband, Juan Perón, was overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Pedro Eugenion Aramburu, who feared that if pro-Perón factions got a hold of Eva’s corpse, they would use it to rally the masses against their new government. So Aramburu’s forces stole Perón’s body and sent it to be buried in an unmarked spot in Buenos Aires’s largest cemetery.
But mysterious candles and flowers stubbornly kept reappearing by Perón’s coffin wherever it was stored, freaking Aramburu’s men out so much that no one actually went through with the burial. Instead, depending on whose story you believe, Perón’s coffin was either stored in a military intelligence building’s attic, in a deputy’s apartment, in a van parked on the street, behind a movie theater screen, or inside the city’s waterworks. In 1957, when officials finally realized that Perón was still above ground, her coffin was sent to Italy, where it was buried near Rome under the name “Maggi.” Fourteen years later, after yet another government coup, Perón was moved to her former husband’s villa in Spain as a kind of exchange: Juan Perón’s blessing of Argentina’s new leadership in exchange for Eva Perón’s body and free elections.
Those free elections eventually brought Juan Perón back to the presidency in 1974, but he died that same year. His third wife, Isabel, took control of the presidency and brought Eva’s coffin back to Argentina again, to lay next to Juan’s in the presidential palace.
Two years and one more coup later, Perón at last found a final resting place in the Duarte family tomb at Reloceta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. She rests in a glass-covered coffin 20 feet underground.