Worth More Dead Than Alive: 5 Famous Grave Robberies


After Michael Jackson passed away, his family decided to bury him inside Forest Lawn Memorial Park, a private, gated cemetery where many musicians, actors, and other celebrities are buried. As odd as it might sound, one of the main reasons the family chose the private cemetery was to ensure that Michael's body could not be stolen and held for ransom. If you think they're being paranoid, you should read these five stories of famous folks who—to grave robbers, anyway—were worth more dead than alive.

1. Stealing the Tramp

Silent-era funnyman Charlie Chaplin, best-known for his "Little Tramp" character, died on Christmas day in 1977 and was buried soon after in a 300-pound oak coffin in the village of Corsier, Switzerland. But in March 1978, his grave was disturbed and his body stolen, with a demand for £400,000 received by phone a few days later. The grave robbers' plan seemed so perfect until Chaplin's widow, Lady Oona Chaplin, refused to pay the sum, saying, "Charlie would have thought it rather ridiculous."

In an attempt to nab the crooks, the local police set up false pay-off meetings, but these proved fruitless when the robbers chickened out and didn't show. However, both the police and the suspects were persistent, so the two parties continued to communicate in the hopes of resolving the standoff.

In May, the police were expecting another call from the robbers, so they tapped the Chaplins' phone. In an extraordinary display of coordination, they also assigned officers to watch as many as 200 phone booths throughout the area.

When the call from the robbers came in, it was traced back to the originating booth, and two men, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev, both auto mechanics, were arrested. The men led police to Chaplin's remains, buried in a cornfield about 10 miles from the graveyard.

For his crime, Wardas received a four-year stint for masterminding the scam, while Ganev, seen only as a muscle man, got off easy with an 18-month suspended sentence. As for Chaplin, he was re-buried in the same burial plot, but this time his coffin was surrounded by thick concrete to prevent anyone else from disturbing his slumber.

2. Stay On the Line. Police Will Be With You Shortly.

cucciaSoon after his death in 2001, the body of Enrico Cuccia, a powerful bank president often considered the father of Italian capitalism, was removed from its vault. The foul play was discovered by a loyal housekeeper who visited the grave on a weekly basis to clean up around the tomb.

A ransom demand was received by the family a few days later, asking for the equivalent of $3.5 million to be deposited by Mediobanca—the bank Cuccia had controlled for more than 50 years—into a numbered Swiss account. When the ransom was not immediately paid, a man called Mediobanca to set up the transfer of funds, but was placed on hold under the pretense that the bank president was on the other line. This gave the police time to trace the call back to a small village near Turin, Italy, and found Giampaolo Pesce, a steelworker, still holding the phone.

Caught red-handed, Pesce led authorities to a barn where Cuccia's coffin had been hidden under some straw.

3. Seeking: SWM, Rich, Deceased

alexander_stewartAlexander T. Stewart made his fortune selling high-quality fabrics, European fashions, and popular household items inside giant, lavish buildings that became the model for modern day department stores. By the time of his death in 1876, his wealth was estimated at $40 million, making him one of the richest men in New York City.

A few weeks after he was buried in a vault at St. Mark's Church, thieves broke in and made off with Stewart's remains. As part of their plan, the culprits also removed the nameplate from the coffin and cut out a small piece of the coffin's interior fabric.

Soon after, New York City lawyer and Civil War veteran General Patrick Jones was surprised to receive a letter from a man calling himself "Romaine," asking Jones to serve as mediator with the Stewart family to help facilitate the return of Alexander's body. Jones agreed and wound up communicating with Romaine for the next two years through a series of cryptic messages disguised as personal ads in the New York Herald.

To send a message, Jones would place a personal ad addressed to Romaine and sign it "Counsel" (or simply "C"). Romaine would then respond with a written letter to Jones' office with further instructions. It was through this complicated system that Jones received a $250,000 ransom demand, as well as pieces of evidence to prove Romaine had the body—the screws from the nameplate, the nameplate itself, and a piece of paper cut in the shape of the fabric missing from inside the coffin.

Communication was tedious, but it got the job done when, finally, the two parties agreed to a reduced ransom payment of $20,000. In a scene straight out of a 1930s detective movie, Jones met Romaine alone on a deserted country lane in what is now Westchester County, New York. Money exchanged hands and the body of Alexander Stewart was returned. However, Romaine was never apprehended.

4. Honest Abe Worth a Pretty Penny

lincoln-tombIn the early hours of November 7, 1876, a group of four counterfeiters broke into Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, with the intention of stealing Abraham Lincoln's body from his sarcophagus. They planned to take the body, hide it in the sand dunes of northern Indiana, and hold it for $200,000 ransom, plus demand the release of one of their gang from prison.

The plot was foiled, though, by a paid police informant who had infiltrated the crew. When the men broke into the cemetery that night, police and Secret Service agents (who were only charged with investigating counterfeiters at the time, not guarding the body of the President) were waiting for them. Due to an errant gunshot going off before the trap was sprung, the crooks got away, but were arrested a few days later.

After the attempted robbery, Lincoln's remains were re-buried in the same mausoleum at Oak Ridge, but instead of being inside the sarcophagus, they were secretly hidden in a shallow grave in the basement of the tomb—a fact that was known only to a handful of people for decades. There the body stayed until 1901, when eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln had his father's remains placed inside a steel cage, lowered 10 feet into the ground, and covered in concrete for safe keeping

5. Elvis Almost Left the Building

elvis-graveIn August 1977, just two weeks after The King's death, police were told by informant Ronnie Adkins that he had infiltrated a group that planned to steal Elvis Presley's 900-pound, steel-lined, copper-plated coffin and hold his remains for ransom.

With this information, a police task force was assigned to watch the grave at Forest Hills Cemetery in suburban Memphis and successfully caught three men—Raymond Green, Eugene Nelson, and Ronnie Adkins—snooping around Presley's mausoleum. Just how the men were going to get through the two concrete slabs and solid sheet of marble that covered the coffin is unknown, since no tools or explosives were ever found. That doesn't even take into account how they planned to remove the coffin without a forklift. The Memphis police felt like something about the situation didn't add up, so until further evidence about the plot could be uncovered, they charged the men with criminal trespassing and kept them in jail.

As the investigation continued, it became apparent that the story Adkins told police was full of holes. He said the men were going to be paid $40,000 each by a mysterious criminal mastermind who planned to ransom the body for $10 million. But he couldn't tell police how the men intended to get their reward or how to contact this shadowy kingpin once the deed had been done. With no actual crime being committed (other than the men being in the cemetery after dark), and the evidence against the men being so weak, all charges were eventually dropped.

As a result of the almost, kinda, sorta attempted grave robbery, the Presley estate requested permission to move the bodies of Elvis and his mother to Graceland where they could be monitored 24-hours a day by staff security and closed-circuit TV cameras. Of course they're still at Graceland and have become one of the main attractions to the site.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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