I grew up with the saying “Running around like a chicken with your head cut off.” Basically it was anyone who was frantic but had no direction and I thought it was descriptive from a purely metaphorical standpoint, little did I know that it was based on a real phenomenon. Although rare, headless chickens seemed to have been all the rage in the 1940’s. More than anything else headless chickens had to do with the lack of chicken killing skills, then any genetic malformation. When trying to kill a chicken for dinner, one farmer missed the brain stem and an ear. The chicken, which he named Mike, lived for 18 months after his head was severed. Since a lot of what chickens are and do is based in the rudimentary stem, Mike functioned as if he had a head, at least as much as possible. Another famous headless chicken (rooster to be accurate) was named Lazarus. Not only did this headless specimen stir up religious convictions but a law suit as well. Back in the ’80’s a writer friend of mine reported on the event but hadn’t published the article until recently. I thought it would be fitting to include it here.
Who would believe such a farfetched tale? A chicken gets its head chopped off, then comes back to life and walks around crowing for three weeks as if nothing is wrong. Stranger things have happened. That’s where the humans come in. Thousands show up to see the headless wonder. City officials pose next to it for photos. And eventually, the owner has to go to court to keep it alive. Many folks in South-Central Los Angeles believed the story — at least those who saw it with their own eyes. They recalled that spring day in 1949 when a neighbor woman bought the beheaded chicken, and had to change her dinner plans that evening. The woman was Martha Green, and she named her headless — but definitely not lifeless — chicken Lazarus. The two of them made nationwide news that year.
Lazarus put the small community of Watts on the map, at least briefly. It was long before riots that would start just a block way and would scar the city and its people in 1965. It the story of Lazarus played out years before Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers would be recognized as a folk art landmark. The story began on April 2 in a feed store in the 11800 block of San Pedro Street, where a New Hampshire Red Fry had an appointment with the chopping block. Mrs. Green paid $2 for the four-pound chicken, dropped it in her bag and covered it with vegetables and canned goods. It didn’t make a peep until she got it home an hour later.
Mrs. Green told reporters that she had dumped it in the sink, turned on the hot water and put away the food. She turned around to pluck the bird, but what she saw made her scream and run from the house. The rooster stood on the sink — very much alive — and crowed the best it could — without its head, that is. Mrs. Green, then close to 60 years old, was not frightened for long. She had raised and killed hundreds of chickens on the farm back in Illinois, and not one of them had ever ignored death’s call in quite this way. There had to be some explanation, and her strong religious belief supplied the answer. She spread the word that Lazarus was a sign from God. Walter Pierce, 69, who still lived in Watts in 1984, recalled how the story spread around the neighborhood. “Everyone around here was saying a woman’s go a chicken with its neck cut off — crowing! It was a miracle. And all miracles,” he said, “come from heaven.”
Edward S. Cooper, 77 in 1984, was an attorney who watched with interest as the episode unfolded.
“The story got out very quickly,” he said, “and people came to her home on foot, on bicycles, and what-not. And from then on, the story was picked up and Lazarus became a real thing.”Indeed, feature stories and articles appeared in the Los Angeles Times which brought thousands of people to Mrs. Green’s yard at the corner of 188 Street and Avalon Boulevard where she would exhibit Lazarus at various times during the day. Albert B. Moore, who was 94 in 1984, knew Mrs. Green, and first saw Lazarus there at her house. “He’d walk around there in the yard,” Moore said. “There were so many people you couldn’t see him. They used to feed the rooster down through its throat. That was an amazing thing, you know.” Edward Cooper said that the people who gathered at the house were of all ages and races. However, some spectators came with greater hopes than just seeing the miracle chicken — they wanted the chance to experience their own miracle. “It was an attraction, and people thought it was a miracle — that Mrs. Green had healing powers,” said Cooper. “People came to her home that were ill or crippled and wanted to have some relief for their illnesses.”
There are no known accounts of anyone being cured, but Mrs. Green attracted many followers, and the crowds kept coming to her home. The novelty turned to controversy when one particular man appeared in the crowd one day. He was an inspector for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) who did not like what he saw. He insisted that authorities charge her with harboring a wounded animal. He ordered that Lazarus be put out of his misery.
This was unacceptable to Mrs. Green. No man had the right to kill this “act of God,” which, by now, she had also grown quite fond of as a pet. She went to the attorney, Edward Cooper, who had represented her before, and convinced him to help her fight the matter in court.
In the meantime, the City of Los Angeles placed Lazarus in the care of Dr. Allen Ross, a veterinarian. Mrs. Green, her attorney and Dr. Ross went to court in Compton before Justice of the Peace Stanley Moffat. I was a strange case for Cooper, who said he donated his time and effort. “I decided to take the case because I felt that, if the evidence showed that the rooster was not suffering, the SPCA would have no basis to request that it be destroyed.” The star witness was Dr. Ross, who testified that the person who had cut the head off the chicken had cut at an angle — just above the brains. That’s what kept it alive. It was the memorable conclusion to the three-day hearing that Cooper remembered best.
“During the entire trial,” he said, “the chicken was before Judge Moffat on the council’s table. And as he found Mrs. Green not guilty, the chicken got up and started crowing.” The judge acquitted
Mr. Green, and ordered that the veterinarian return Lazarus to her — by now, some two weeks after it lost its head. And the rooster still showed no signs of ill health. For some reason, the case was important enough to the SPCA that it refilled the case in downtown Los Angeles, another jurisdiction, for the same purpose — to put Lazarus to death. Lazarus was unaware of the second battle that was pending, He was causally strolling around Mrs. Green’s fenced front yard when they came to serve the papers. Mrs. Green and her loyal friends were first shocked, and then angered. They immediately vowed to pick up the fight one more time. But it was Lazarus, now on his twentieth extra day of life, who decided that enough was enough. He let out one last, defiant crow, hung his neck and died. The crowd was in turmoil, but Mrs. Green reportedly looked toward the heavens and praised the Lord for taking the life of Lazarus — before a mere mortal could do the task.
Newspapers from all over the country reported the death of Lazarus. But the feeling of loss was greatest right there in Mrs. Green’s neighborhood. “I felt sad,” said Albert Moore. “When you get attached to something — whether it’s a dog or a cat or a headless rooster — and it should happen to pass, you can’t help but feel it.” Not everyone, however, shared his feelings — particularly some of Mrs. Green’s closest neighbors. Mildred Jones, 74 in 1984, remembered the constant crowd of people near the house. She said she chose not to see the chicken. “I don’t enjoy looking at something like that,” she said. “But there were a lot of people who came up there at the corner. I didn’t want to see a chicken without its head, running around. Those kinds of things are gruesome to me — like something on television that gets to be too much for you.” Another neighbor said she was at work during the hours Lazarus was available for public viewing. However, she said she probably wouldn’t have gone to see him anyway. She strongly disapproved of Mrs. Green’s involvement with it, she said. And there were many who doubted that Lazarus was a diving miracle at all. Mrs. Kathryn Epps, 66 in 1984, was the wife of Mrs. Green’s minister. She took a more scientific view of Lazarus. “I expect it was something that didn’t happen,” she said. “It was something in the nerves. I’m not one of those people who thinks that God had something to do with it.”
For his legal efforts in the case, Edward Cooper was able to enjoy a lot f of favorable publicity. “The case had worldwide attention and I received letters from all over the world,” he said. “I represented several churches after that in the black area.” Those who missed the chance to see Lazarus in person while he was alive got to see him in a film featurette that played in theaters throughout the South. Also, the drama of the Lazarus affair came out in the form of a play that bore the name of the famous rooster. It had a brief run in a downtown Los Angeles theater. Theatergoers at the time even got to see Lazarus in person — stuffed and standing proudly behind glass in the lobby.
Lazarus’ whereabouts is a bit of a mystery today. The last anyone recalled seeing it was shortly before Mrs. Green died, a decade or so after the rooster died. She was, for quite some time, a local heroine. People said she kept the stuffed fowl on the mantelpiece in her home. The people who lived in that house in 1984 knew nothing of Lazarus’ fate. Several years ago, a demolition crew removed the house. Other than the 105 Freeway a half a block north and the townhouses that replaced Mrs. Green’s house, the neighborhood has not changed that much. In 1984, just about everybody that had lived near there for very long had heard something about that local, legendary story of Lazarus. But the newer neighbors, many of which are Latinos, know nothing about what happened in 1949. Walter Pierce, in 1984, was still intrigued, however. “I never went to see that chicken,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I sure am sorry I didn’t.”
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