I saw him any number of times in his last years. The Chicken Man, real name Anderson Punch, who went by Casey Jones and was also called Chicken Charley, was a Jawa. Historically, Jawas were wandering junk men and performers who plied their trades on the streets and the corners of Chicago. They are scarce now, but as late as the 1970’s they provided services and entertainment to the citizens.
Legend has it that the Chicken Man, who described himself as a show-man, had played the accordion on the streets for many years prior to his chicken phase. When his accordion was broken, he broadened his repertoire to include the chicken act. Until his death at 104 in 1974, he was well-known throughout the South Side, Maxwell Street Market and the Loop for his big white performing rooster. One wag wrote, “that chicken could do anything but talk.”
The old black man with a beard and a cumulus of snow white hair walked along with the rooster atop his ancient, ruined fedora. He would draw a crowd by pulling out his old squeeze box from a battered tin case and playing, the chicken riding on his head the whole time. After the onlookers each put down a dime for the show, the old man took the bird off his head and laid it on the pavement. Covering it with a cloth, he told it to “Go to sleep. Go to sleep.” The rooster would lie there silently while he played and kept up a steady patter in a high-pitched, toothless voice, telling how he had trained 37 roosters during his years as a show-man. Then he would remove the cloth. The chicken would wake up, scratch-dancing around the sidewalk to the music. The rapt crowd watched as if hypnotized.
The show continued until it was either over or until a cop ran him off. I have heard people who were around in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who remember the Chicken Man fondly. Some say they saw him at 63rd and Halsted, his favorite corner. Many were introduced to him by their parents on Sunday mornings, bargain-hunting on Maxwell Street. Still more ran across him in the Loop, as I did in the late 60’s at the very end of his show biz career, nearly 100 years old. I’m glad I was born early enough to have the treat of enjoying one of the city’s most uniquely entertaining characters ever. I don’t know anyone who ever saw the Chicken Man describe the experience without a smile on his face. Except maybe a cop or two.
Note: Check out the short video: “The Chicken Man of Chicago” at this link www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6itbXNgVjc