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Mike, the Headless Chicken

Mike the Headless Chicken

This is the incredible true story of Mike the Headless Chicken, one of the great celebrities of the late 1940s and, I believe, one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th Century. 

One day when I had nothing to do, I was sitting around thinking about busy-ness. When it's here, we sort of hate it. When it's gone, we miss it. At some point I did what I usually do on a lot of subjects: went over to Wikipedia to see what the collective mind might have to say about it. I typed in the words, "as busy as a chicken with its head cut off wiki." Up popped the listing on Mike the Headless Chicken, whose picture now graces this post.

At first I thought the whole thing was kind of a gag. I mean, a picture of a chicken walking around with his head cut off is pretty amusing, as was the incredible fact that Mike lived for a year and a half in that condition after, you know, his head was separated from his body.  Then, later in the day, I went back and read the entire wiki on the incident, which took place in the late 1940s and was, in its own way, the celebrity saga of its day... Britney with her hair shaved off, screaming at the picadors... or Anna Nicole Smith, the Hindenberg of crack-ups... or Whitney Houston, her skin loosened from the inexplicably hot water in the bathtub in which she died... Mel Gibson, decompensating... It's the story of a living creature turned by an accident of fate and their own inexorable nature into an object of tragic fascination... and how much the public is willing to pay for the chance to buy a little piece of that tragedy. Only this time the celebrity is a headless chicken. 

The bare outlines are these: Mike the chicken's owner was instructed by his wife to get a chicken for their dinner. He went out back and found Mike, who at that point was a pretty normal chicken, in the sense that he had his head. The owner then botched that operation, leaving Mike in his compromised state. The fact that he lived through what many poultry had not made him suddenly an object of affection and fascination to his handlers. They nursed him back to a certain kind of health of sorts. He was never quite the same, but he was unaware of his status as a diminished entity, trying at times to crow and strutting around proudly as if he was a normal bird.

The owners came to love Mike and care for him during his tortured remaining time on the planet. The physical realities of his situation were dire. He had respiratory problems. Eventually, he died much the way Jimi Hendrix did. Before doing so, however, he had become a national sensation earning, in 2005 valuation, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the people who cared for him and marketed his unique ability to appear in his headless state.

Today, in a small city in Colorado, they still have Mike the Headless Chicken Day, more than sixty years after the decease of the celebrity, and there's a whole website dedicated to Mike -- his life, his career, his untimely passing.  In an era that has seen the death of hundreds of once-loved brands throughout our culture, and total amnesia of the populace on a wide variety of famous figures and events, Mike the Headless Chicken remains a legendary presence, along with names like James Dean, Judy Garland, Heath Ledger, individuals who were doomed by the very thing that made them infinitely fascinating and marketable. Perhaps, he didn't have the talent these icons possessed. But he sure had a lot of pluck.

8 Comments Add Comment

Nice homage to Ledger at the end, referencing him in the same sentence as Dean and Garland. The loss of Ledger rises up above the other lost young actors, whose lives were torn apart by depression and drugs.

Stanley, did you write that entire missive just so you could use that last sentence?

That was a LONG way to go to get a plucking joke in there...

Who is or was Heath Ledger? Never heard of him until he died.

sleeping pills made Heath Ledger fascinating and marketable?

I would like to see the blog on the one legged man in an ass kickin' contest...that's who I'm as busy as....

Of course I'm writing this at lunch...

Sleeping pills and alcohol are a deadly combo
hull rotterdam ferry

Mike the Headless Chicken makes me really sad. Probably sadder than any of those dead celebrities. Poor chicken.