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The Skeleton of Jeremy Bentham

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Pictured above is the council meeting of the University College London. The council meets every year, but this particular picture was taken during the 2013 meet. This was a special occasion for the board because it was Provost Malcolm Grant’s final UCL Council meeting before his retirement.

Seated around the table you can see several attendees dressed in formal attire of suits and ties, except one man who seems to be a little out of fashion and time. It’s easy to spot the guy with the big straw hat and frilly white collar. That is Jeremy Bentham, and he has been dead for nearly two centuries.

Bentham’s usual home is inside a wooden cabinet in the main building of the University College London. One of the founding members of the college, this 18th-century English philosopher and social reformer, who is often regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism, sits rigidly on a wooden stool with a wooden cane between his legs. The mannequin is made of hay mostly, while the head is sculpted out of wax. But the skeleton at its core—the one that makes Jeremy Bentham sit up like a live person more than a century and a half after his death, is real and belongs to non other than Bentham himself.

It was all Bentham’s idea.

Shortly before his death in 1832, Bentham made a will instructing his family doctor to cut open his body and preserve the skeleton, stipulating how the skeleton should be clothed (“clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me”) and postured (“seated in a chair usually occupied by me”.)

Jeremy Bentham called it “Auto icon”, which UCL’s curator, Nick Booth, believes means “self image”.

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The Auto Icon. Photo credit: UCL Public and Cultural Engagement

Originally, Bentham requested that his head be mummified using the process performed by indigenous New Zealanders. “Unfortunately,” as the University College London site notes, “when the time came to preserve it for posterity, the process of desiccation, as practiced by New Zealand Maoris, went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive.”

“Human skin discolors greatly after the preservation process and stretches a lot more than animal skin,” explains Katie Innamorato of Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. “This would mean that the maker would have to be very skilled in creating an exact body replica and painting and touching up the skin tone.”

So the skeleton was surmounted by a wax head instead. For many years, the real head, complete with glass eyes, lay on the floor of the wooden cabinet, between Bentham's legs. The head became the target of many student pranks. On one occasion, the head was kidnapped and held hostage for £100 but the UCL negotiated the ransom down to £10 and the head was returned. On another occasion, as the story goes, the head was stolen and later was found on the football field. Henceforth, the head was moved to secure storage.

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Jeremy Bentham’s head is the stuff of nightmares. Photo credit: UCL Public and Cultural Engagement

Another one of Bentham’s silly wishes—as noted on his will—was to have his glorified scarecrow wheeled into parties and meetings organized by his friends and disciples and “stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet.”

The bizarre request gave rise to the myth that the Auto-Icon regularly attends every meeting of the College Council, and is noted to be “present but not voting.” While that is false, the Auto-Icon did make three appearances at UCL’s council meetings—in 1926, on UCL’s 100th anniversary, in 1976, on UCL’s 150th anniversary and the last one in 2013.

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Jeremy Bentham sits quietly in the corner. He is not voting this time. Photo credit: UCL Public and Cultural Engagement

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The ladies cannot hide their excitement as they wheel Jeremy Bentham to the meeting room. Photo credit: UCL Public and Cultural Engagement

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Making final adjustments before attendees arrive. Photo credit: UCL Public and Cultural Engagement

His bizarreness aside, Jeremy Bentham was an exceptionally wise man with a vision far ahead of his time. He was a strong believer in individual and economic freedoms, and the freedom of expression. He advocated the separation of church and state, spoke about equal rights for women, the right to divorce and the need to decriminalize homosexuality. He called for the abolition of slavery, of the death penalty, and of physical punishment, including that of children. Bentham was also as one of the earliest proponents of animal rights.

While many people have debated why Bentham chose to have his body preserved in this way, with explanations ranging from a practical joke at the expense of posterity to a sense of overweening self-importance, the answer is actually right there on his will. This is the relevant quote:

This my will and special request I make, not out of affectation of singularity, but to the intent and with the desire that mankind may reap some small benefit in and by my decease, having hitherto had small opportunities to contribute thereto while living.

An atheist, Jeremy Bentham must have felt that instead of putting his body to ground and give the church money, he would rather have himself dissected and have science benefit from it. This was the whole philosophy behind utilitarianism that everything should be of use, and his “greatest-happiness principle” that states that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings.

Bentham also had a weird sense of humor. Before his death, Bentham used to carry in his pocket two glass eyes which he had forged to be used on his real head after his death. Whenever he was at dinners, he used to take them out and show to people just for the shock value.

Perhaps Bentham’s only needless contribution towards society was his invention of the Panopticon prison—an Orwellian style prison system that focuses on surveillance without the prisoners being able to see that they are being watched. Such a prison was built by the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado in the 1920s. It has been converted into a museum now.

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Photo credit: UCL Public and Cultural Engagement

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Photo credit: UCL Public and Cultural Engagement

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