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Friday, November 7, 2008

Digger O'Dell

Posted By on Fri, Nov 7, 2008 at 3:50 PM

8744/1242248056-diggerodell.jpg Most Memphians no doubt associate the name Digger O’Dell with the fine plant nursery out on Highway 64. But in the early 1960s, another Digger O’Dell showed up in Memphis, and he made his livelihood by planting something quite different in the ground.

Himself.

In late September 1961, workers dug a hole in a parking lot at 739 Union Avenue, and Digger hopped down into a coffin-like chamber, where he promised to remain underground for 60 days as a promotional stunt for Bluff City Buick. An 18 x 24-inch plywood air shaft allowed him to receive air and food, and photos show that he carefully stocked “the world’s smallest apartment,” as he called it, with lights, reading glasses, and even packs of cigarettes. Buick customers could peer through a viewer at him, while a colorful banner overhead wondered, “How Long Can He Stay Buried Alive?”

The police decided 13 days was plenty long enough. In early October they ordered construction workers to dig up Digger because the cops wanted to charge him with “non-support” of a wife back home in Atlanta. Even buried underground, he couldn’t escape from her, it seems.

“I can’t even blame my wife too much,” he told reporters as he clambered out of the hole. “She just can’t help being money hungry.” No word on how much dough, if any, Digger earned for his underground stay.

Memphians who remember this stunt used to go to Digger O’Dell’s nursery all the time and ask if it was the same fellow, the nursery owner once told me. But that Digger — real name: Kenneth — retired years ago and moved to Kansas. The whereabouts (or more likely after all these years, the gravesite) of the Digger O’Dell who liked to be buried alive? I just can’t tell you.

PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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