One of the strangest ghost stories that I have ever come across involves Sir Francis Bacon, empirical scientist and a frozen chicken.
Sir Francis Bacon, “The Queen’s Bastard”*
Sir Francis Bacon, by Paul van Somer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Francis Bacon (1st Viscount of St Albans), philosopher, jurist, statesman, author and scientist was born on 22 January 1561 at York House in London. At the age of twelve, Bacon was sent to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1579 he took up a residence in law at Gray’s Inn. Famous as a liberal-minded reformer he openly opposed feudal privileges and religious persecution. He was a favourite with Queen Elizabeth I as well as being a close advisor of the Earl of Essex. He also flourished under the reign of James I, under whom he was granted a knighthood in 1603. In 1618 he was appointed Lord Chancellor but his success did not last and three years later, after falling into debt, he was accused of twenty-three separate counts of corruption and thrown out of office. With the end of his public career, Sir Francis Bacon turned to the other great passion in his life, the philosophy of science. He believed that science should be used as tool for the betterment of humanity and espoused a new approach, one based on tangible proof achieved through experimentation, gathering of data and analysis. Alas his dedication to his beliefs eventually led to an experiment which effectively caused his death on the 9 April 1626 at the age of 65.
Bacon and the first frozen chicken
In the early part of 1626, Sir Francis Bacon whilst out in his carriage fell into an argument with his companion Dr Winterbourne. The cause of the disagreement was Dr Winterbourne’s scepticism over Bacon’s hypothesis that fresh meat could be preserved if frozen. In order to prove his theory he ordered his coachman to buy a chicken from the nearest source. According to John Aubrey in his book “Brief Lives”,
“They alighted out of the coach, and went into a poor woman’s house at the bottom of Highgate Hill, and bought a hen, and made the woman gut it, and then stuffed the body with snow, and my lord did help to do it himself.
After the chicken had been partially plucked, Bacon placed the chicken in a bag, packed some more snow around it and buried the carcass. Unfortunately according to Aubrey, Bacon caught a severe chill and was so ill he was unable make the distance to his own lodgings and instead was taken
“to the Earl of Arundel’s house at Highgate, where they put him into a good bed warmed with a pan, but it was a damp bed that had not been laid-in about a year before, which gave him such a cold that in two or three days, as I remember Mr Hobbes told me, he died of suffocation.”
Death by chicken: Fact or fiction
It is difficult to tell how reliable Aubrey’s sources were. The main problem with his account is the time of the year. If Aubrey’s report is correct then London would have been suffering from snowy conditions in April 1626. According to contemporary evidence there is no record of snow in London at that time. This is not to say that Bacon did not conduct an experiment with a frozen chicken or that it wasn’t an experiment with refrigeration that led to Bacon’s illness. It could be that either two separate incidences were confused or that the illness that Bacon picked up earlier that year was a lingering one or even more likely that Bacon on returning to analysis the results of his experiment caught a chill in the damp, cold weather. In fact Bacon himself confirms the cause of his illness. In a letter written to his absent friend, Lord Arundel, he apologises for being a burden on his household and admits that it was whilst concluding an experiment in refrigeration that he caught a chill,
“My very good Lord,—I was likely to have had the fortune of Caius Plinius the elder, who lost his life by trying an experiment about the burning of Mount Vesuvius; for I was also desirous to try an experiment or two touching the conservation and induration of bodies. As for the experiment itself, it succeeded excellently well; but in the journey between London and Highgate, I was taken with such a fit of casting as I know not whether it were the Stone, or some surfeit or cold, or indeed a touch of them all three”
Whatever the truth behind the story, the death of Sir Francis Bacon will always be linked with that of a frozen chicken,“Against cold meats was he insured?For frozen chickens he procured —brought on the illness he endured,and never was this Bacon cured.”**
The hauntings of Pond Square
In a bizarre twist to the story, Pond Square, believed to be the site of Bacon’s experiment, has developed a reputation for being haunted, not by Sir Francis Bacon as you would expect but by a ghostly chicken. Numerous sightings have been reported in the leafy suburb of Highgate (in 1864 the pond itself was filled in) during the winter months, and at least twenty of these were made in the twentieth century, most during the Second World War.
In December 1943, Aircraftman Terence Long was crossing the pond late one night, when he heard noises of what sounded like horses’ hooves and a carriage behind him. Turning around he was stunned to see something which looked like a half plucked, shivering chicken shrieking wildly and running around in circles until it eventually disappeared. Shocked he then met an Air Raid Precautions fireman to whom he recounted his visitation. The fireman told him that the bird was regularly seen in the area and that one ARP had chased it, hoping to catch it for dinner until it ran into a brick wall and disappeared.
Chicken Run; Parks & Lord; Dreamworks Pictures
Again during the Second World War, a Mrs J. Greenhill, a resident of the area, confirmed that she had seen the ghostly chicken on a number of occasions, describing it as a “large whitish bird”.
In the 1960s a motorist who had broken down, reported seeing a half plucked bird in a state of distress, squawking and running in circles. Going towards it, concerned that it was injured, he was startled when it suddenly vanished into thin air.
Recently the sightings of the ghostly chicken have virtually ceased. Maybe the bird, distressed at its unorthodox demise has finally accepted its place in scientific history and come to terms with the circumstances of its death.
Notes*Edward Coke (opponent of Sir Francis Bacon)
** Composed by the poet, Pip Wilson