Jeremy Bentham is my favorite old-timey guy. It’s a grim critique of our society that he is probably best known as a pseudonym on LOST, as before that he was a bitchin’ 18th-century English philosopher. Bentham was far ahead of his time on issues of social policy, suffrage, and law reform, and he spearheaded the utilitarianism movement, which holds that society should behave in a way that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Of course, I love him best for his revolutionary ideas on animal welfare. His famous quote, “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” often finds its way into my conversations.
Like most geniuses, he was underappreciated in his day, but this blog post will clearly fix that injustice.
I jokingly mention to a friend that Bentham is my dead boyfriend. She is a University College, London (UCL) graduate and tells me that, oddly enough, I can visit his preserved body at her school. Preserved body? Such weirdness is right up my alley.
The story of Bentham’s body becoming a tourist attraction is a strange one. Bentham leaves his body to a friend after his death in 1832 with a request that he be publicly dissected and then turned into an “auto-icon,” a preserved skeleton available for viewing. The dissection takes place, but during the preservation process something goes awry and his head is horribly distorted. A lifelike wax model is made as replacement, and Bentham’s remains are dressed in his original clothes and placed in a mahogany case.
In 1850, the auto-icon makes its way to UCL, but the administration is rather embarrassed by the curio and keeps it hidden away in a back room. Eventually it is wheeled to the Anatomical Museum where the clothes are found to be moth eaten but the skeleton intact. Museum preservationists unwrap a bundle included with the skeleton and are surprised to discover Bentham’s distorted, mummified head.
The auto-icon returns to UCL after WWII. It temporarily lives in the professors’ common room, no doubt sipping coffee and complaining about student essays, before finding a permanent home in a cabinet in the South Cloisters. The mummified head winds up in its own box and is placed over the Cloisters entrance.
Passports are stamped in 1992, when the auto-icon travels to Essen, Germany, for an exhibition. In 2002, it returns to Essen for display at the Ruhrland Museum. The auto-icon travels again later that year to be x-rayed in Portsmouth. However, for the majority of the time it remains on display at its home in UCL: “He is usually woken up around 8am, and put to sleep at 6pm, Monday – Friday.”
The auto-icon is the sort of historical item that begs for fantastical stories, and there are many surrounding it. One popular tale is that Bentham’s mummified head was stolen by students from a rival university and used in a game of football. Although not entirely true, in 1975 rival students did kidnap the head and hold it for ransom. (The head was eventually moved to UCL’s Institute of Archeology.) My favorite story is that Bentham’s body is wheeled into university council meetings, where he is noted in the minutes as present, but not voting. While this is usually not the case, Bentham did attend the meeting on UCL’s 150th anniversary, and he also occasionally attends university events. The thought of being at a fancy university function and seeing a preserved skeleton wheeled in is too wonderfully absurd for me to endure.
As it is getting closer to my visit, my friend lets me know that the alumni office is enticing alums to donate with a peculiar promotion: donate £100 and receive a paper lantern in the shape of Jeremy Bentham’s head. I am devastated that only alumni can participate.
It’s the middle of November when I finally get to see my dead boyfriend. We walk through the hallways, students rushing about, harsh lights flickering overhead. Turn a corner, and then bam! Jeremy Bentham is gazing back at me through wax-sculpted eyes.
It is incredibly surreal to stare at a preserved body while teenagers loaded down with books and binders swarm around you, their eyes so accustomed to an encased skeleton that they don’t even register it. It’s an experience I hope everyone gets to have once in their life. That said, I feel uncomfortable looking at him, like I’ve just stumbled into Brad Pitt at an airport and my mind has gone completely blank with shock. Hello, famous guy! You don’t know me, but I’m a big fan of your work…
Afterward, we hit up a UCL store in the hopes that I can find a Bentham-head lantern for sale. Sadly, I’m out of luck. Maybe in the future I will be fortunate enough to own a paper replica of a mummified body part, but, alas, not today.