It is the Chinese New Year—the Year of the Rooster—and, of course I wanted to do something appropriate to celebrate. Fortean rooster stories are not easy to find. Poultry-geists are, alas, even rarer than the phantom sheep and goats of 2014. I suppose I could have stretched a point and recapped the oft-told story of Sir Francis Bacon and his frozen chicken, but, as I say, it is well-known to the point of cliche and anyway it was probably a capon or a hen.
I also skipped the stories of basilisks, decapitated roosters who refused to die, and the many painful stories of toddlers playing in farmyards spurred to death by territorial poultry.
What I present to you today is a story of a love that endured beyond the grave, of a devotion that transcended time, space, and species. I give you the cock-tale of “My husband the rooster.”
The story first appeared in U.S. newspapers about 1902. The article below was repeated verbatim in scores of newspapers until about 1905.
LEFT HER MONEY TO A ROOSTER
Woman Thought Her Dead Husband’s Soul Had Entered the Fowl’s Body
London, May. 24. A wealthy woman, named Silva, recently died at Lisbon and left her entire property to a “Rooster.” She was a fervid Spiritualist, a believer in the transmigration of souls, and imagined that the soul of her dead husband had entered the “rooster.” She caused a special fowl house to be built, and ordered her servants to pay extra attention to their “master’s” wants.
The disgust of her relatives over the will caused the story to become public, and a law suit might have followed had not one of the heirs adopted the simple expedient of having the wealthy “rooster” killed, thus becoming, himself, the next of kin. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 25 May 1902: p. 1
Here is a elaborated version, which plays up the Freudian aspects of the relationship.
Her Husband’s Spirit
The Strange Story of a Will
The Donna Silva was a wealthy widow of Lisbon, much given over to the study of spiritualism and things occult. It happened that one day she came across a book dealing with the transmigration of souls. The subject impressed her deeply, and she pondered long over the book, endeavoring to decide in what creature she would prefer her spirit to make its abode.
Then she thought of her husband. He had been dead three years. She wondered where his soul had migrated. Perhaps it was in the little mouse that had startled her so the other day. She hoped it was not. However, in whatever creature it might be, whether bird, or even reptile, the Donna Silva felt it should be her mission in life to find out.
Fortune favored her in her quest. One day while driving in the country she heard a cock crowing. Strangely, the note sounded quite familiar. It reminded her of her late husband. And then she knew that it was he, calling for her to come to him. So the donna went and soon found herself face to face with a handsome rooster, which, perched on a hay rick, made melody for miles around.
At the time she scarcely could repress her feelings. Only the inborn timidity of the rooster prevented her doing so.
Without waiting to inform the owner of the identity of the bird that ruled his roost, the Donna Silva bought the rooster and quickly drove home with it, seated, much scared, beside her. As she watched him strutting among her poultry she felt more satisfied than ever that her husband’s spirit lay behind his gay plumage. And the way all the hens in the roost stood around in adoring groups was typical of Pedro. She remembered how every one used to admire him—his dancing, his gallant bearing and courtly manners. There was not the slightest doubt that the bird possessed his spirit.
When the Donna Silva’s relatives heard of the bird they naturally were indignant. In vain they pointed out that her doings would certainly lead to the asylum. The donna only laughed and explained that she was acting quite consistently with her beliefs. Moreover, to show that she would brook no influence, she ordered a magnificent house to be built for the bird and named him Pedro, after her husband. About three months ago the woman died. Then her relatives, who had comforted themselves that he bird was not a human being, found that they were not much better off than if it had been. For in her will the donna left all her riches, her silver, rare paintings, jewels—everything—to Pedro, the rooster in the garden.
Poor Pedro did not long enjoy his wealth. For ten minutes after the will had been read the exasperated relatives of the old woman burst into his fine house and promptly twisted his neck.
Thus died the wealthiest rooster in the world.
Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 29 October 1905: p. 5
This urban legend inspired at least two short stories, one a whimsical retelling from 1910 called “Poor Dearie,” by John Fales Moodey about a couple disappointed in their expectations from a rich aunt and the second called “John Sapp’s Fatal Crow,” by one W. Chester Estabrook, found in The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY] 15 March 1908: p. 40. This story starts out with the usual hen-pecked-husband jocularity, veers into animal cruelty, and ends with a genuine frisson of horror for the soon- to-be husband number two, who follows his mistress’s orders to dispose of the rooster believed to be husband number one.
What I find interesting is that the journalists passing along this story assumed that the notion of transmigration of souls would be familiar to their readers. The Transcendentalists were among the first to bring the idea to the United States. I’ve written before about a New England man who thought that the soul of his daughter had entered into a partridge. Louisa May Alcott joked that she had previously been a horse and that a man’s soul had accidentally gotten into her woman’s body.
Transmigration was mentioned in a couple of similar stories. The neighbors of one Augustus Linderman in 1909 Milltown, New Jersey, were convinced a dead army bugler had entered his bantam rooster, although I’m not sure anybody really took that idea seriously. In a 1905 case, a Theosophist sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of cruelty because he’d killed her cat, which she believed to contain her husband’s soul. All kinds of Theosophical ideas were floating around in the journalistic aether in the first decades of the 20th century and were probably responsible for the popular recognition of transmigration.
Returning to the Rooster Husband, I have no idea if this actually happened or was invented on a slow news day, only to have the story grow wings. If a true tale, we have to admire the elegant simplicity of the heirs’ solution. Cockam’s Razor. Or could it be called fowl play?
Other examples of spousal transmigration? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.