What has feathers, a British accent and goes cluck in the night?
When we booked a trip to England this past summer, I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, let’s check out some ghost poultry while we’re gallivanting in jolly ol’!” In fact, I had no idea that feathery phantoms existed or that anyone would find an incorporeal hen alarming. She might even be cute, right? A clucking specter pecking the cobblestones, leaving eggs of a certain, unsettling transparency? Well, this chick (if she does exist) isn’t cute — she’s a killer.
It started with a tip from Richard Jones’ guidebook, Walking Haunted London (IMM Lifestyle Books, 2015). For some strange (uncanny?) reason, the word “chicken” jumped out at me from 146 pages of ghosts and ghoulies. We only had two days in England, though, so I added Phantom Chicken of Pond Square to the bottom of our sightseeing list, just in case.
We began the tour with more conventional scares, practicing ghost-hunting skills at the Tower of London (no dice) and then drawing blanks with werewolves at Tottenham Court Station and haunted highwaymen at Hampstead Heath. Determined to shiver our timbers nonetheless, we eventually set out to search for the chicken apparition on the last morning of our trip.
‘Twas a sunny day in midsummer when, truth be told, Pond Square doesn’t look scary at all. A peaceful park in the middle of bustling North London, it features the requisite red phone box, benches for lunch breaks and a scattering of crumb-seeking magpies and blackbirds. Not one hen in sight. The guidebook says the feathered phantom has appeared several times, usually descending from the skies on local denizens — an unsettling performance from any chicken, dead or alive! — but on this July day, even more unlikely than usual. With no obvious sign of the square’s macabre past (“Here Lies Phantom Chicken”), I snapped some pics anyway, hoping that when I got back to the computer, there might be a chicken-shaped blob of protoplasm hidden in the digital record.
Then, I found it. The perfect place to test the veracity of an unlikely ghost story: Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution, founded 1839. A trove of dusty tomes and inveterate truth-seekers housed in a stately building waiting for its close-up in a steampunk version of a Sherlock Holmes novel. And right across the street from the haunted square — perfect! (Too perfect?) I didn’t pause to contemplate the coincidence.
Sticking my head through an open doorway, I spotted a literary and scientific gentleman ensconced in a comfy-chaired chamber.
“Excuse me, sir, I’m a reporter with Backyard Poultry magazine and I wonder if you know anything about the phantom chicken around here?” I blurted.
Alas, the nice man had never heard of a haunted avian, but he did know someone who might. As we headed into the bowels of the building (go back! go back!), I outlined what little bits I already had — chicken-phantom-comes down from the sky — and soon we arrived at the book-filled, nerve center of the operation. (Too late!) Several women, who preferred to be identified by first name only, listened politely to my outlandish tale then nodded.
They knew the ghost poultry!
“Margaret can tell you more,” Patricia said, referring to the librarian, who, echoing the chicken, descended from an overhead space (she used the stairs, however).
The society’s in-house expert affirmed that, yes, she knew of the hen, and furthermore, she connected the bird to a real character from English history, Sir Francis Bacon. I’d read of the colorful demise of the science-mad Sir Francis but forgot his connection to chicken until that moment. In Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat (Basic Books, 2012), British writer Bee Wilson describes how Bacon gathered snow to preserve a dead chicken and then died from a chill contracted during the experiment. Guidebook author Jones fills in some more details, including the fact that Bacon himself bought the chicken and had it dispatched. It wasn’t clear to me from Jones’ account but Margaret the librarian connected the clucks: the ghost chicken is the same chicken that Bacon had killed. How does a hen spell revenge?
Thanking the staff for their help in verifying the story, I hightailed it back to the square. Camera in hand, I scouted around the plain trees, looking for anything remotely eerie or diaphanous.
Finally, I approached two workmen sitting on one of the aforementioned benches and asked them if they’d seen any errant phantom poultry. They were as bemused as the fellow had been earlier and also unfamiliar with the vengeful hen. I apologized for disturbing their lunch but as they returned to their sandwiches, I ventured one last question:
“That wouldn’t happen to be a chicken sandwich, would it?”
I think the poor bloke shivered.
Lori Fontanes writes from New York, and occasionally pens something for us outside her usual column in Just for Fun.
Originally published in the October/November 2016 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine.