Flannery O’Connor’s first brush with fame came when she was five years old. She had a chicken that could walk backwards, and somehow the people at Pathé News—makers of newsreels for movie theaters—found out about it. They sent a cameraman from New York to the O’Connor home in Savannah, Georgia to get footage of the unusual chicken and its owner, who was known as “Mary Flannery” at the time (she only dropped the “Mary” after she went off to graduate school).
O’Connor spoke of this experience as the beginning of her obsession with barnyard fowl, which culminated in the peacocks for which she was famous. She wrote,

From that day with the Pathé man I began to collect chickens. What had been only a mild interest became a passion, a quest. I had to have more and more chickens. I favored those with one green eye and one orange or with overlong necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings, but nothing in that line turned up…I could sew in a fashion and I began to make clothes for chickens. A gray bantam named Colonoel Eggbert wore a quite pique coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back.

Her taste for the ridiculous—and her interest in the grotesque—started early, it seems. I recently ran across the newsreel of little “Mary O’Connor” on the British Pathe website and thought you might find it interesting. She only appears in the first few seconds; after that, it gets silly, with film of barnyard animals run backwards so they appear to walk in reverse–which, I suppose, was an interesting novelty in 1930.

  • Drew
    1:23 PM, 22 June 2011

    How awesome is the internet, huh? How awesome, indeed. I recall reading that portion you quoted above, JR (was that in her letters or some other writings?). And here, almost 80 years later, the whole world gets to see it. (Or that portion of the world with high-speed internet access, anyway.) I’m flabbergasted. I’m dumbfounded. I’m almost shell-shocked.
    There are so many things that don’t survive the passage of years. (Early Doctor Who serials, for example.) But there is a planet-load of ephemera still hanging around that works nearly as well as any time machine. 

    What a world! What a world!

    • Drew
      3:10 PM, 22 June 2011

      Answered my own question: it’s from “The King of the Birds,” an essay of O’Connor’s found in Mystery and Manners.

  • Canaan Bound
    2:23 PM, 22 June 2011

    “All’s well that ends well…as long as it’s the right end.”

  • Jess
    5:06 PM, 22 June 2011

    Wow. I’m with Drew; what a world. 

  • Sally Apokedak
    5:20 PM, 22 June 2011

    I wonder what she thought of Mike when he came on the scene fifteen years later? http://www.miketheheadlesschicken.org/story.php

    I’m sorry to say that he really gives me the creeps and I think they should have finished the job and put him in the pot. 

    • Jonathan Rogers
      6:13 PM, 22 June 2011

      What an inspiring story, Sally. The great majority of chickens just give up when people cut their heads off. But Mike–that one had a will to live. 

      • Sally Apokedak
        10:12 PM, 22 June 2011

        Yes, the great majority go to the stew pot after only a small bit of drama and running around the yard in a panic. But not old Mike. He didn’t even appear to understand that he no longer had a head. It really makes you wonder at the size of chicken’s brains.

    • Drew
      6:24 PM, 22 June 2011

      O’Connor wrote that she did not have the “scientific temperament” to experiment with a headless chicken.

      • Jonathan Rogers
        6:41 PM, 22 June 2011

        I forgot about that, Drew. It was from the part that is ellipsesed out in the quotation above. She refers to a chicken she saw in Ripley’s Believe It or Not that lived for 30 days without a head. Surely she was referring to Mike…though Mike lived 18 months headlessly, not 30 days. But she didn’t have Google and was probably working from memory. She probably thought she was exaggerating already to say he lived 30 days.
        I love to picture Flannery O taking a break from Thomas Aquinas and flipping through Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

        • Drew
          10:42 PM, 22 June 2011

          I picture Flannery and her mother, Regina, sitting out on the front porch at Andalusia; Flannery reading Aquinas while her mother reads out loud from Ripley’s. “My goodness, Mary, did you see about this headless chicken? Lived for 18 months! Says the owner shoved feed down the neck-hole! Would that work with one of your peafowl?”

      • Sally Apokedak
        10:08 PM, 22 June 2011

        There you go. I have not the scientific temperament, either. The idea creeps me out. How that man fed the thing is amazing. Who would have thought to just insert food and water into the neck like that? Bizarre. 

  • Becca
    3:55 AM, 23 June 2011

    Sally, if you teach a chicken to walk backwards, and then cut its head off, which way will it walk?

    • sally apokedak
      5:04 AM, 23 June 2011

      No head means no eyesEither way, it’s walking blind
      Put a pot behind

      Put a pot in front
      it’s bound to trip and fall in
      some lovely mornin’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get a Quote