Dressed-up corpse of Brit Jeremy Bentham is UK’s weirdest tourist attraction
DEEP in the bowels of one of Britain’s oldest universities lies a tourist attraction that’s like no other.
The preserved corpse of kooky 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, dressed up in his original hat and gloves and holding his favourite walking stick, is propped up at University College London – and he’s just moved to a new home.
The dressed-up skeleton of Jeremy Bentham was recently moved to a new location at University College LondonCredit: UCL
Bentham died almost 200 years ago, but his remains live on in honour of his request that his body be preserved so it could be wheeled out at parties for his friends.
The social reformer now sits in University College London’s (UCL) student centre, his walking stick between his legs and gloved hands resting on his knees.
While the body – or auto-icon (“self image”) – is essentially just Bentham’s bones dressed up in old clothes, what remains of his head is far more gruesome.
The preservation process went “disastrously wrong”, as UCL puts it, leaving the skull horribly disfigured.
13The ‘auto-icon’ (meaning ‘self image’) wears Bentham’s original clothes almost 200 years after his deathCredit: The Sun13The preservation of Bentham’s real head went disastrously wrong, so it’s too gruesome for public display. UCL keeps it under lock and key at a secret location, while Betham’s statue is topped with a wax likenessCredit: UCL
The process went so badly, in fact, that the head was eventually deemed too disturbing for public display, and a wax version was hastily made to be placed on the real skeleton instead.
Having been tucked in a wooden box in a dusty corner of the university for decades, UCL conservators recently moved Bentham to the student centre in a new high-tech container.
Shortly after the move in February (and long before the UK’s lockdown began), I went to speak to some of the experts responsible for mainting the bizarre exhibit.
“Jeremy Bentham believed that one should be as useful in death as one had been in life,” Christina McGregor, head of collections management at UCL, told The Sun.
13Bentham had his bones and head preserved for medical science. He believed that people should be as ‘useful’ in death as they were in lifeCredit: The Sun13A wax likeness sits atop the auto-icon in place of his real head, which is too gruesome for public displayCredit: The Sun
“He bequeathed his body to a surgeon friend so that he could be used for a psotmortem, alongside a request that his remains be preservered and displayed.”
Bentham was born in east London in 1748 and proved to be something of a child prodigy, heading off to study law at the University of Oxford aged just 12.
A radical thinker for his time, Bentham spent his life debating prison reform, welfare, animal rights and more.
But it’s what happened to him following his death aged 84 that for decades has both fascinated and shocked students and visitors at UCL.
13A painting of Bentham, whose remains are now on display at University College LondonCredit: Alamy
In his will, Bentham asked that his skeleton “be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living”.
Propped on his chair and wearing one of his favourite black suits, the philosopher requested that his body be wheeled out at parties attended by his friends to help ease their grief.
Bentham came into the hands of UCL in 1850, where according to UCL he has “been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors” for 170 years.
It’s long been rumoured that he’s occassionally wheeled out at important College meetings.
Bentham’s final wishes
In his will, drawn up shortly before his death, Bentham outlined what he wanted done with his body.
“My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in a manner hereinafter mentioned, and I direct … he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this my will and at the top of which I have written Auto Icon.
“The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing.
“I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me.
“The body so clothed, together with the chair and the staff in the my later years bourne by me, he will take charge of and for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon and also on the labels on the glass cases in which the preparations of the soft parts of my body shall be contained … my name at length with the letters ob: followed by the day of my decease.
“If it should so happen that my personal friends and other disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet .”
13Bentham requested that his body be wheeled out at the occassional party attended by his friendsCredit: The Sun
“One of the enduring myths about Bentham is that he regularly attends council meetings,” Christina said.
“In fact, we know that he’s only been to two – and the most recent was in 2013.”
Following the revent move, Bentham’s auto-icon now sits in an air-tight, glass container in UCL’s student centre in north London.
Unlike an Ancient Egyptian mummy, there’s no skin or flesh on it – it’s essentially a skeleton that has been wired together.
13Unlike an Ancient Egyptian mummy, there’s no flesh left on the dressed-up remansCredit: The Sun
The body has been wrapped in a special fibre to preserve the remains, with the whacky philosopher’s clothes – including his original underwear – laid on top.
His disfigured head, which was unsuccessfully preserved by holding over a vat of boiling sulfuric acid, is kept under lock and key by UCL in a secret location.
“It’s in a climate-controlled, very secure storage room somewhere on university premises,” UCL conservator Emilia Kingham told The Sun. “I’m not going to tell you where!”
It may sound paranoid, but that secrecy is for good reason – the long-dead philospher’s head was stolen by a group of cheeky students in 1975.
13Jeremy Bentham’s real head (not the wax one pictured) was stolen by cheeky students in 1975Credit: The Sun
Who was Jeremy Bentham and why was his corpse preserved?
Here’s what you need to know…
- Jeremy Bentham was an Engish philosopher who lived from 1748 to 1832
- Born in London, he studied at Queen’s College, Oxford, graduating at age 15
- Bentham had many radical idea about society, politics and the way we live our lives
- His philosophy, utilitarianism, held that all human actions must be judged by their usefulness in promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people
- After Bentham’s death, in accordance with his will, his body was dissected in the presence of his friends
- The philosopher’s skeleton was then reconstructed and preserved, while his head was mummified
- Bentham stated that he wished for his body to be left with a friend dressed in his original clothes and sat upon his favourite chair
- The skeleton, or “auto-icon”, is now on display at University College London
“The rumours that King College students stole Bentham’s head are true,” Christina confirmed.
“They demanded a ransom of £100 for its safe return. UCL agreed to pay £10 to the charity Shelter, and the head was returned.”
Following a century-and-a-half stint in a musty wooden cabinet, UCL experts decided to move the auto-icon in to a new case in February.
It had become impossible to ensure the body’s long-term preservation in the old box due to issues with dust and pest infestations, giving conservators a real headache.
Pictured is the old box in which Bentham was kept before his recent moveCredit: Alamy13… And here he is in his new homeCredit: UCL
Bentham’s new high-tech, theft-proof home takes pride of place in the student centre’s entrance hall and has been specially designed to keep him in tip-top condition.
“In the new box, he’s protected from pollution, dust and pests, and we’re able to control the light levels in the case,” Christina said.
“We’re giving him the best possible opportunity for his preservation.”
Not everyone is happy with the move, however.
13Jeremy Bentham asked for his head to be embalmed after he died, but the process went a little wrong…Credit: UCL
UCL has been accused of disregarding Bentham’s final wishes, as he had asked for his body to be put in “an appropriate box or case”.
Writing on Twitter, one Brit philosopher claimed a glass box was an innapropriate place for the skeleton.
Jonathan Birch, of the London School of Economics, wrote: “There is nothing in there about public display. Clearly, he wanted the body tastefully displayed at ‘Bentham commemoration events’.”
A second LSE philosopher, Michael Otsuka, accused curators of placing him in a “department clothing display”.
13Bentham was a social reformer who had forward-thinking ideas about prison reforms, policing and animal rightsCredit: Getty – Contributor
UCL hit back, arguing the move was necessary to keep Bentham remains from deteriorating.
A statement read: “Bentham’s new home provides greatly enhanced preservation conditions, better visitor access and a place at the centre of the student community.
“His auto-icon has been in a stable, albeit fragile, condition. By moving the auto-icon to a new sealed museum-grade case with filters to protect from ultraviolet light, dust, pollutants and bugs, we can continue to preserve the icon for generations of UCL staff, students and alumni.”
We’ll never know what Bentham himself would have thought of the move, but one thing’s for certain: His auto-icon remains one of Britain’s weirdest tourist attractions.