Claim: Letter from jailed man results in his family's receiving help with the plowing from the police.
[Collected on Facebook, April 2012]
An old gentleman lived alone in New Jersey . He wanted to plant his annual tomato garden, but it was very difficult work, as the ground was hard. His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament:
Dear Vincent, I am feeling pretty sad because it looks like I won't be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I'm just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot. I know if you were here my troubles would be over. I know you would be happy to dig the plot for me, like in the old days. Love, Papa
A few days later he received a letter from his son.
Dear Papa, Don't dig up that garden. That's where the bodies are buried. Love, Vinnie
At 4 a.m. the next morning, FBI agents and local police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the old man received another letter from his son.
Dear Papa, Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That's the best I could do under the circumstances.
[Collected on the Internet, 2003]
A true story told by L.A.P.D.
An old mexican man lived alone in East Los Angeles. He wanted to spade his garden, but it was very hard work. His only son, Jose, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.
I am feeling pretty bad because it looks like I won't be able to plant my garden this year. I'm just too old to be digging up a garden. If you were here, all my troubles would be over. I know you would dig the garden for me.
A few days later, he received a letter from his son.
Por Dios, Papa, don't dig up the garden. That's where I buried all my drugs and money.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, the L.A. Sheriffs showed up and dug up the entire area without finding any drugs or money. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day, the old man received another letter from his son.
Go ahead and plant your garden now, papa. It's the best I could do under the circumstances.
Origins: As is common to urban legends, this tale has been told a number of ways over the years. In the examples above, an elderly man needs help in preparing his garden for planting; but in the version we are more accustomed to encountering, it's the 20-something
wife of a young man jailed for robbery who desperately needs assistance in plowing the fields of the family farm if she and the little ones are to make it through another year. Sometimes the family teetering on the brink of starvation includes an aged and infirm grandfather too. Always the characters are presented as sympathetic, with the incarcerated fellow often described either as wrongly imprisoned or as having committed whatever illegal act that landed him in hoosegow only because his family was in dire straits and he knew no other way to get them the money they needed to get by.
It should almost go without saying that claims of "A true story told by L.A.P.D." to the contrary, the account is fiction. We've seen that same telling (old man and his garden) reported of a fellow in Minnesota. (So can you, by comparing the example quoted above to this tale, also found on the Web in 2003.) But, as mentioned earlier, the story also circulates in "distressed wife" forms, one of which you can read here.
The short story "The Good Lord Will Provide" by Lawrence Treat and Charles M. Plotz is a decades-old expression of the legend. It appeared in the June 1973 edition of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and has subsequently been reprinted in the 1981 mystery anthology 100 Malicious Little Mysteries.
Likewise, the tale appears in a 1959 humor book, wherein a jailed farmer gets police to spade his potato field by writing to his wife from jail that that's where he hid the money and the guns.
However, the legend is indeed an old one. This following example (titled "The Barber's Clever Wife) appeared in print in 1884:
[A poor barber, ordered by his wife to go begging to the King, was given a piece of waste land.]
'Was there ever such a dunderhead?' raged the clever wife. 'What good is ground unless we can till it? and where are we to get bullocks and ploughs?'
But being, as we have said, an exceedingly clever person, she set her wits to work, and soon thought of a plan whereby to make the best of a bad bargain.
She took her husband with her, and set off to the piece of waste land; then, bidding her husband imitate her, she began walking about the field, and peering anxiously into the ground. But when anybody came that way, she would sit down, and pretend to be doing nothing at all.
Now it so happened that seven thieves were hiding in a thicket hard by, and they watched the barber and his wife all day, until they became convinced something mysterious was going on. So at sunset they sent one of their number to try and find out what it was.
'Well, the fact is,' said the barber's wife, after beating about the bush for some time, and with many injunctions to strict secrecy, 'this field belonged to my grandfather, who buried five pots full of gold in it, and we were just trying to discover the exact spot before beginning to dig. You won't tell any one, will you?'
The thief promised he wouldn't, of course, but the moment the barber and his wife went home, he called his companions, and telling them of the hidden treasure, set them to work. All night long they dug and delved, till the field looked as if it had been ploughed seven times over, and they were as tired as tired could be; but never a gold piece, nor a silver piece, nor a farthing did they find, so when dawn came they went away disgusted.
The barber's wife, when she found the field so beautifully ploughed, laughed heartily at the success of her stratagem, and going to the corn-dealer's shop, borrowed some rice to sow in the field.
Yet it (or at least key parts of it) are older than even that. Consider Aesop's (620-560 BC) "A Father and His Children" — while it lacks the element of the trickster's manipulating enemies into performing the necessary task, the lure of buried treasure is used to con indolent offspring into digging up the arable land left to them, an action that directly leads to a rich reward come harvest time:
A Father and his Children.
A countryman who had lived handsomely in the world upon his honest labour and industry, was desirous his sons should do so after him; and being now upon his death-bed, my dear children, says he, I reckon myself bound to tell you, before I depart, that there is a considerable treasure hid in my vineyard; wherefore, pray be sure to dig, and search narrowly for it when I am gone. The father died, and the sons fell immediately to work upon the vineyard. They turned it up over and over, and not one penny of money was to be found there, but the profit of the next vintage expounded the riddle; for the ground being so well stirred and loosened, it produced a plentiful crop: a treasure indeed!
Like any good piece of contemporary lore, no matter how old the original story, it is reworked to present it in a modern light, as this 2005 example titled "Who Says Rednecks Aren't Bright?" shows:
"Hello, is this the FBI?"
"Yes. What can I do for you?"
"I'm calling to report about my neighbor Virgil Smith.
He's hiding marijuana inside his firewood!"
"Thank you very much for the call, sir."
The next day, the FBI agents descend on Virgil's house.
They search the shed where the firewood is kept.
Using axes, they bust open every piece of wood, but find no marijuana.
They sneer at Virgil and leave.
The phone rings at Virgil's house.
"Hey, Virgil! This here is Floyd.
Did the FBI come?"
"Did they chop your firewood?"
"Happy Birthday, buddy!!!!
The tale can also be bent to suit different ethnicities and histories:
The phone rings at KGB headquarters, sometime in the 1960's
"Hello, is this KGB?"
"I'm calling to report my neighbor, Hershel Yankovitz is an enemy of the State. He is hiding undeclared diamonds in his firewood."
"This will be noted."
The next day, the KGB sends their hoodlums to Hershel's tiny house. Out back, in the shed, they violently break every piece of firewood in their search for contraband. They find nothing. Angry and cursing, they leave.
Ten minutes later, the phone rings at Hershel's house.
"Hello, Hersh, did the KGB show up?"
"They just left."
"Did they chop up your firewood?"
"They certainly did."
"Good. Now it's your turn to call. My vegetable patch needs plowing."
This urban legend's appeal lies not only in the delightful notion of the police or thieves being sent on a wild goose chase that left them sweaty, dirty, and exhausted, but in the belief this snipe hunt served a noble purpose — namely, their wasted efforts resulted in the completion of an important chore that would otherwise have had to remain undone. We marvel at the imagined cleverness of the proponent who found a way to accomplish a task necessary to his family's survival, even using his nemesis as the muscle.
Barbara "mail ordered" Mikkelson
Sightings: In a 1991 episode of the TV sitcom Wings (titled "Try to Remember the Night He Dismembered," first broadcast on 5 December 1991), Roy Biggins (while supposedly hypnotized) reveals to the rest of the airport crew that he once stole $250,000, and the money was buried in his back yard while he waited for the statute of limitations on his crime to run out. The others sneak into his yard at night and dig it up with the intent of finding the money and returning it to its proper owner, whereupon Roy arrives, informs them that the story about stolen money was fiction, and thanks them for digging a hole for his new outdoor hot tub.
A number of our readers have mentioned this legend's having turned up in the British sitcom Porridge and one was able to pinpoint the precise episode: "Ways and Means," air date 3 October 1974:
Fletcher: I was on remand once, in Brixton. I done this job — a jeweler's in Southwark. Only they got me, but they didn't get the stuff, see. I hadn't ... you know what I mean [indicating stashing it]. So I'm in Brixton. And I writes to my old lady, Isobel, and says how sorry I was that I got done. Then I says, "As you may well be a bit short this winter without me providing, why don't you plant your own vegetables? I suggest you dig over the back garden as soon as possible." Course next morning there's twelve police round there with shovels, the devious nurks.
McLaren: Typical. Did they find the stuff?
Fletcher: Course they didn't, it was in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe. Just my way of getting the garden turned over, see. Why let Isobel do it when you've got twelve great big nosey coppers with spades?
McLaren: You crafty nurk.
Fletcher: We had some beautiful broccoli with Christmas dinner. I wrote to her next and suggested she swept the chimney, but they wouldn't buy that one.