On September 10, 1945, Lloyd Olsen went outside to kill a chicken for his wife, Clara, who was preparing the evening meal. This was a normal routine for the couple, who had a farm filled with chickens just outside Fruita, Colorado, and survived the slim times off the sustenance their animals provided.
Today, however, was going to be anything but routine.
Clara’s mother was visiting and Lloyd, knowing she favored the neck, positioned his axe above a five and a half month old Wyandotte chicken named Mike to leave a generous portion of the neck intact. Well-practiced in the art, he swung the axe, slicing the chicken’s head off in one clean swoop.
But, Mike, it seemed, wasn’t quite ready to die.
Although it’s not unusual for headless chickens to take a few staggering steps after decapitation, Mike was not content with a few strides. He staggered once, twice, three times…and then kept right on walking. And walking. And walking. Seemingly unaware of his missing appendage, the bird tottered around the barn yard, pecking at the ground and preening his feathers–all without a beak.
Amused, Lloyd placed the chicken in an old apple box on the family’s screened in front porch, sure the bird would be dead by morning.
It was not. In fact, when Lloyd checked on it later that evening, Mike was fast asleep, his head-that-wasn’t-a-head tucked under his wing.
Lloyd decided to take Mike with him when he went into town to sell his other, much dead-er chickens at market. Word of his headless bird spread quickly, and his own fascination was matched only by the public’s. Buoyed by the public interest, Lloyd took Mike to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City in an effort to determine just HOW the chicken was still alive. Scientists there determined the ax blade had just missed the jugular vein and a clot had prevented Mike from bleeding to death. In addition, a majority of Mike’s brain stem, which controls most of a chicken’s reflex actions including most of its basic life functions such as breathing and heart rate, had also remained intact.
So despite the fact that he was missing his head, Mike was, for all intents and purposes, a completely healthy chicken. He could still walk, balance on a perch, and even crow, though his “crowing” was more of a gurgle that came from deep within his throat.
His unique appearance did come with some special needs, however. Lloyd took to feeding Mike with an eyedropper, dropping liquid food and water directly into his esophagus. He also had to clear mucus from the bird’s throat with a syringe.
Less than two weeks after Mike’s botched execution, a sideshow promoter named Hope Wade approached Lloyd with a proposition. He wanted Mike to travel with his show. The 1940’s being tough economically for the Olsens and so many others, Lloyd agreed and soon, “Miracle Mike” began his tour of the United States.
In cities like New York , Atlantic City , Los Angeles , and San Diego, people paid 25 cents to see “The Headless Wonder Chicken.” As his popularity grew, so did the Olsens’ pockets. At his heyday, Mike’s owners were pocketing over $4500 a month (which is equivalent to over $50,000 today). The chicken was even featured in both “Time” and “Life” magazines.
But, in the spring of 1947–eighteen months after his attempted beheading–Mike was on tour in the southwestern United States when the Olsens decided to stop at a motel in Phoenix for the night. Exhausted, they fell into a deep sleep, only to be awoken hours later to the sound of Mike choking. They searched frantically for the syringe used to clear his throat, only to realize it had been left behind at the last show. Unable to find an alternative, Mike tragically passed away.
But, even then, Mike the Miracle Chicken refused to die.
To this day, the city of Fruita, Colorado celebrates their most famous bird with a “Mike the Headless Chicken” festival held the first weekend of June. Events include a 5k “Run Like A Headless Chicken” race, an egg toss, games such as “Pin the Head on the Chicken,” and various craft and food vendors. Year-round, there’s even a statue of Mike downtown.
So, if you’re ever in Colorado in early June, swing on by Fruita and bask in the legend of the town’s most famous headless bird.
But leave the chicken executions to the professionals.