Today, we remember Francis Bacon mostly for his political and scientific contributions, but the people of Highgate remember him for something else: a scientific urban legend about a food safety experiment that may (or, more likely, may not) have created a ghost chicken.
This is the legend: Francis Bacon, renowned politician and early elucidator of the scientific method, was traveling through Highgate in London. He and his companion were having a discussion about how to preserve food. One method that could work, Bacon thought, was freezing the food. It was March, but still very cold, and there was snow on the ground. Bacon was eager to test his idea, so he had his carriage make a stop, he bought a chicken, and he went outside to pack it with snow.
During his time in the snow he became chilled, and then feverish. Unable to continue his trip, he was taken to a acquaintance’s house. Doctors did their best, but he developed pneumonia. Bacon died, an early martyr to both science and frozen foods.
At least that’s one version of it. Some maintain that the chicken-stuffing incident never happened, or that it happened well before Bacon left his house and traveled to Highgate. That part of the story is contested.
But not as contested as the odd sequel to the death-by-chicken incident. Rumor has it that ever since, Highgate has been haunted by a ghostly chicken. People have seen it strutting around, and during World War II air raid wardens regularly tried to capture it only to see it disappear or walk through walls. A cursed chicken, forced to roam the land for killing a great scientist? A demon chicken, reminding us that curiosity and hubris killed the scientist? Or an indication that people in Highgate occasionally have too much to drink? You decide.
Image: Friedrich Böhringer