A Scientific Spirit: Sir Francis Bacon and the Ghost Chicken of Highgate
Most ghost stories involve suspense, evil deeds, and a terrifying specter, but this one is a bit different. This is a ghost story about a philosopher, an innovation, and a plucked chicken.
It was an unseasonably cold and snowy day back in April 1626 when the famed philosopher, statesman, and proto-scientist Sir Francis Bacon was driving through Highgate, north London, in a horse-drawn carriage with his good friend Dr. Witherbone, the king's physician. The learned pair was discussing the best methods to preserve food when, inspired by the snowy landscape, Bacon proposed that ice might be used to keep food fresh. So excited was he by this bold new idea that he demanded the carriage stop in Pond Square, where Bacon procured a chicken from a nearby farm. After it was plucked and gutted, he proceeded to pack it with ice from the ground—in effect creating the world’s first frozen chicken.
Sadly, Bacon never lived to see the results of his innovative experiment in refrigeration. His exposure to the freezing temperatures reportedly led to a case of pneumonia, and he died on April 9, 1626.
In a more typical ghost story, Bacon himself might come back to haunt the scene of his undoing. Instead, it was the chicken who returned.
Reports supposedly soon surfaced of a half-plucked chicken appearing in Pond Square, running madly in circles or sitting sullenly in a tree. When approached, the mysterious chicken would vanish into thin air. The sightings continued over the following decades: During World War II, an air raid warden patrolling Pond Square caught sight of the mangy bird and thought to catch it for his supper. He chased the fowl, but was thwarted when it disappeared before his eyes. In 1943 a man crossing Pond Square heard the sound of a horse and carriage before witnessing the squawking ghost fleetingly appear. In the 1970s a young couple was courting in the picturesque square when their romantic moment was ruined by the arrival of the ghostly chicken, flapping its plucked wings and charging around in indignant circles.
In recent years, sightings of the frozen ghost chicken have become less frequent, the specter of the fowl perhaps assuaged by the passage of time. Both the ghost, and reports of Bacon's experiment, have their doubters, but the story lives on. It reminds us of an important scientific development—and might prompt us to whisper a little thanks to the ghost chicken of Pond Square as we prepare our frozen chicken for dinner.