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Worth More Dead Than Alive: 5 Famous Grave Robberies

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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.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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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
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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