The Gruesome Truth Behind The Chicken Who Lived Without A Head For 18 Months

Lloyd and Clara Olsen were a couple living on a farm in Fruita, Colorado (per BBC). They raised chickens, and Lloyd Olsen would usually kill 40-50 birds each day. He would then pile the chicken carcasses into his horse and wagon, and sell the meat in town. But one day, something very strange happened. After beheading one bird, the chicken didn't die — and then it lived for an astounding 18 months afterward.

"Mike the Headless Chicken," as he would come to be known, had a head until September 10, 1945. He survived decapitation because Lloyd was trying to cut the neck bone carefully — it was his mother-in-law's favorite part of the chicken (per Mike the Headless Chicken's website).

Because of the careful cut, Mike's jugular was spared, and he was able to form a blood clot before bleeding out. He retained one ear and most of his brain stem, too. His remaining brain stem was what saved him from death for so long.

Just like a regular chicken

BBC reports that Olsen left Mike in an apple box overnight, and in the morning, when he was still alive, he became "part of our weird family history," said Christa Waters, the wife of Olsen's great-great-grandson.

According to LIFE Magazine, the headless fowl reportedly got right up after his decapitation, and began to strut around the farm. Per BBC, sometimes chickens do live after they're decapitated — but usually only for 15 minutes or so. One chicken expert, Dr. Tom Smulders, suggests that Mike was able to continue living because he still had about 80% of his brain. Even without his beak, eyes, and one ear, he still had one remaining ear and a complete brain stem that controlled his breathing, digestion, and heart rate.

The rooster survived, so Olsen let him continue to roam around (per Mike the Headless Chicken's website). Mike would sleep with his neck stub tucked under his feathers, just like a regular chicken. He would try to peck for food with his neck stub. He seemed to thrive: He gained weight, growing from 2.5 to 8 pounds in his post-head lifetime.

Gruesome details

LIFE Magazine reported that he still had a good sense of balance, and was able to climb high up onto a chicken perch without falling. He could still do other chicken behaviors, like scratching at the ground and cohabitating with other chickens, who didn't seem to mind Headless Mike.

Mike the Headless Chicken's website reports that there were some pretty horrible details about the bird's life. For one, Olsen claimed to have kept Mike's head, storing it in a jar. In fact, when LIFE Magazine ran a story about Mike, Olsen was photographed holding what he said was Mike's decapitated head next to Headless Mike. But Scientific American reports that the reality was a bit more gruesome: Olsen's cat ran off with Mike's real head, and Olsen just showed off another chicken's head to the media. LIFE Magazine reports that Mike was fed milk and water directly into his esophagus with a dropper, adding that Mike could also eat small pieces of corn and "has no trouble digesting them."

Copycat birds

Recognizing how unique Mike was, Olsen took him on the road. According to Scientific American, Olsen advertised him as "Miracle Mike," or "Mike the Headless Wonder Chicken." Mike made Olsen $4,500 each month at the height of his fame. Per Mike the Headless Chicken's website, the Olsens estimated that Mike was worth $10,000, and they charged a quarter per person to see their prized bird. The famous bird even had his own manager, and he made it into the Guinness Book of World records.

One grisly detail in the headless chicken saga was that Mike may not have been the only headless chicken around. Per BBC, Olsen's neighbors tried to recreate his success, and would sometimes go to Olsen's house with a six-pack of beer as a gift, to ask him how, exactly, he had cut Mike's neck without bleeding him out. According to Scientific American, none of the would-be copycat birds managed to live long after their decapitation.

Mike's terrible death

One night, Lloyd and Clara Olsen were sleeping in a hotel room after touring with their chicken in Phoenix, Arizona, according to Britannica. They awoke to hear the sounds of Mike choking. Since they had to suction mucus from his throat throughout the day, they would keep a syringe nearby. But the couple realized to their horror that they had forgotten it at a previous sideshow event. Mike couldn't dislodge the mucus himself, and suffocation was how the chicken met his final demise. And that was the end of Mike the Headless Chicken, who died on March 17, 1947, about 18 months after his decapitation.

According to Lloyd Olsen's great-grandson, Troy Waters, for years Olsen wouldn't tell anyone the true origins of Mike's death, reports BBC. Waters said, "For years he would claim he had sold [the chicken] to a guy in the sideshow circuit. It wasn't until, well, a few years before he died that he finally admitted to me one night that it died on him. I think he didn't ever want to admit he screwed up and let the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs die on him."

Celebrating the headless wonder

What really happened to Mike the Headless Chicken after his unfortunate death? Well, according to Waters, "I'm willing to bet he got flipped out in the desert somewhere between here and Phoenix, on the side of the road, probably eaten by coyotes," he told BBC. After just a year and a half, Mike the Headless Chicken was no longer a tourist attraction.

However, Waters said that Mike's publicity really helped the Olsens. Lloyd Olsen was able to purchase a horse, a mule, a hay baler, two tractors, and a 1946 Chevrolet pickup truck with his sideshow profits. And Olsen told Waters, "I had a chance to travel around and see parts of the country I probably otherwise wouldn't have seen." After Mike's death, Olsen continued farming. 

As Salon reports, Mike the Headless Chicken was awarded his own special day. During Colorado Heritage Week, people celebrate with a chicken lunch, an egg toss, a chicken dance, and even chicken bingo, which is chosen by chicken droppings that land on a bingo board. People also run in a 5k "Run Like a Headless Chicken" race. According to Mike the Headless Chicken's website, the event is now held every year in Mike's home town of Fruita, Colorado, to celebrate his memory.