Dear Vance:My parents remember a Memphian named Digger O’Dell who had himself buried alive here sometime in the 1960s as a promotional stunt. What can you tell me about this interesting fellow? — j.b., memphis.
Dear j.b.: Well, for starters I can tell you that this “interesting fellow” (and I’m certainly not disputing that) was not a Memphian, and his name wasn’t really Digger O’Dell. He was Herbert O’Dell Smith, and he conducted this “buried alive” stunt, along with countless other feats of endurance, across the South. As far as I can tell, he performed it in Memphis only twice, but one of those events made the news because the police were summoned to dig up Digger.
Let me begin this strange tale by saying that minutes and minutes of research failed to turn up many verifiable facts about Smith — oh, good grief, let’s just call him Digger here. I found an old newspaper article that said he was born in 1915 and called him a “professional endurance man.” Among other things, “back in the flagpole-sitting days, he stayed aloft 109 days. He has been buried in a concrete vault for 36 days, sealed in glass 33 days, and spent 26 days underwater.”
But somewhere along the way, he decided to concentrate on burying himself in “the world’s smallest apartment,” as the various promotions called it. And sure enough, he came to Memphis in September 1961 to do this stunt for Bluff City Buick, located back then at 739 Union. Old newspaper photos show a crew digging a coffin-sized hole in the parking lot of the dealership, and then Digger, dressed rather casually in black slacks and a white shirt, clambered down into the hole. A cover was placed over his “apartment” and he was sealed in, with the intention being to break the personal record of 57 days that he had set here during his previous visit to Memphis, though that location wasn’t mentioned. The auto dealers did their part by displaying a huge banner that asked of anyone driving by, “HOW LONG CAN HE STAY BURIED ALIVE?”
The local newspapers reported that an 18x24-inch plywood air shaft allowed Digger to receive air and food, and he had carefully stocked his tiny domicile with lights, reading glasses, even packs of cigarettes. Buick customers could view him through a periscope, or they could drop coins down a tube that urged them, “Can you ring the bell?” Nobody seemed to ask — and the newspapers weren’t telling — how on earth the man would use the bathroom during his 58 days (and maybe longer) underground.
He didn’t come close to breaking his record. After 13 days in his coffin, Memphis police showed up with shovels to unearth Digger. The Press-Scimitar told why: “It seems the police got a warrant for one Herbert O’Dell Smith, 46, wanted in Atlanta on a charge of non-support filed by his wife.” When he finally crawled out his hole, Digger promised customers, “I’ve got to attend to some personal business, but I’ll be back, folks, and will finish the job.” Later, he told reporters, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles. I can’t even blame my wife too much. She just can’t help being money hungry.”
I can’t find any record that Digger ever returned to Bluff City Buick, or to the Bluff City for that matter, to “finish the job.” Back in Atlanta, a judge allowed him to conduct his stunt for an Atlanta shopping center, but he had to turn the money he would be paid — only $2,250 — over to his family.
As Bluff City Buick customers watched, Digger O’Dell (left) prepared to enter “the world’s smallest apartment,” where he planned to stay at least 57 days. Other photos show preparations for the publicity stunt.
Digger kept up his strange act for many years. Once he had to be pulled from his “apartment” after the dirt sides turned to mud and caved in after a thunderstorm. Another time, firefighters rescued him after he apparently suffered a heart attack underground. The last mention I can find of his exploits came from a 1979 newspaper published in the little town of Phenix City, Alabama, which reported that Digger was performing his 158th burial in the parking lot of Mack’s Mobile Homes there. In the early 1970s, he had apparently retired and had opened “World-Famous Digger O’Dell’s Farmers Market” somewhere in that state, but had returned to his old stunts after the death of his wife from a heart attack. When he heard the sad news about his wife, said a newspaper, “Digger’s own heart broke like a clod of dirt.” I know his nickname was Digger, but that’s just mean.
At the mobile home park, a local reporter didn’t have a very high opinion of the aging stuntman, writing, “He has the flushed face and shaking hand of a man who has seen the sun rise over many an empty bottle.” Digger showed up at the park wearing only a bathrobe. When the publicity manager urged him to change into a dark suit (“so it would be more funeral-like”) Digger refused: “I’ve got to have my robe.” When the promoter begged him to change clothes once he was below ground, Digger explained the situation: “No room. It’s 32 inches across, 32 inches high, and six feet long. I’m five-foot-eleven. So I’ve got only one inch to run around in.”
I admire entrepreneurs and performers as much as the next guy, but it was surely a miserable way to make a living. Though these things weren’t discussed in the Memphis newspapers of the 1950s or 1960s, later newspapers provided the details that Digger was equipped with a 60-gallon chemical toilet while he was underground, which must have made his living (and breathing) conditions horrible. What’s more, said one newspaper, “in his heyday, he could knock down $15,000 for a 60-day burial.” At the mobile home park, the only money he brought home came from contributions.
I can’t say what finally happened to Digger. Searching for Herbert O’Dell Smith took me nowhere, and you’d be surprised how many people in America are named “Digger O’Dell.” Why, there’s Edwin “Digger” Odell of Abilene, Texas; Allen “Digger” O’Dell of Malvern, Iowa; Charles Wayne “Digger” O’Dell of Lebanon, Tennessee; Loren “Digger” O’Dell of Brookfield, Missouri — you get the picture. For that matter, a popular plant nursery just outside of town on Highway 64 is called Digger O’Dell’s, but that’s yet another Digger (real name: Dennis). It seems “Digger O’Dell” was a “friendly undertaker” character in The Life of Riley , a radio soap opera that aired back in the 1930s, but that still doesn’t explain the curious popularity of the name, if you ask me.
Anyway, I presume the Digger O’Dell we’ve been discussing here was eventually buried one final time, and I hope his gravestone — wherever it is — pays tribute to one of this country’s unique stuntmen. I’d like to think that the cemetery installed a periscope so visitors could see him, or at least a tube where they could drop coins and see if they could “ring the bell” but I doubt it.
Dear Vance:What happened to the Memory Grove plaque — an old war memorial — that stood in Overton Park, in a stand of trees close to Poplar Avenue? — t.r., memphis.
Dear t.r.: Commissioned in 1932 by Memphis Chapter 1 of the American War Mothers, this large bronze plaque carried the names of 27 Memphians who had lost their lives in World War I. For years, it was propped against a rugged concrete base, in a cluster of crepe myrtles on the southern edge of the park, close to the intersection of Poplar and Cooper. And then one year it disappeared, and I fretted that someone had stolen it for scrap metal. Not to worry, though. After roaming around the park a bit, I found the plaque has been carefully preserved and moved to a better (and more visible) location, bolted to a wall towards the rear of the new Veterans Plaza area of Overton Park. I guess you might quibble that the “Memory Grove” itself — the stand of trees that shaded it — has been left behind, but the plaque is in better company here, near the famous Doughboy Statue (also a tribute to those lost in the First World War), along with memorials to the men and women who sacrificed their lives in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Operation Desert Storm. If you haven’t visited this area of the park, you should. After all, the people whose names are on these markers don’t have that luxury.
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Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103