Friday, April 20, 2012

Bring Me The Head of Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham was a thinker, philosopher and a radical. He is best known for his doctrine of utilitarianism, the belief that humans should strive to achieve the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people possible. This at a time - he was born in 1748 - when religion and natural law were dominant, and the belief that one should accept one's lot, and that misery and poverty were God's will, were widely held.

It wouldn't be hyperbole to describe Bentham as a visionary. He believed in causes such as prison reform, universal suffrage, animal welfare, poor relief, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality at a time when people had only just got over the need to display the heads of executed criminals on spikes. He was a remarkable man. And when he died, in 1832, he made, for its time, a remarkable request - he asked that his body be made available for dissection.

There was widespread revulsion at the idea of carving up bodies, yet a great scientific need. Three days after his death his body was dissected by Bentham's friend Southwood Smith at the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine, while a storm raged outside, flashes of lightning piercing the afternoon gloom. The audience had all been issued invites. One read:

It was the earnest desire of the late Jeremy Bentham that his Body should be appropriated to an
illustration of the Structure and Functions of the Human Frame. In compliance with this wish,
Dr. Southwood Smith will deliver a Lecture, over the Body, on the Usefulness of Knowledge of this
kind to the Community. The Lecture will be delivered at the Webb-Street School of Anatomy and
Medicine, Webb-Street, Borough, Tomorrow, at Three o'Clock, at which the honour of your
presence, and that of any two friends who may wish to accompany you, is requested.'

Bentham asked that once his 'soft parts' had been used in whatever capacity, his skeleton be stuffed, his head mummified - Bentham reportedly carried the two glass eyes he wanted inserted into the head in his pocket in the days before his death - and the body dressed in his clothes. It was to be known as an 'Auto-Icon' and kept and displayed for posterity. However, the process of mummifying the head went wrong - Southwood Smith said 'all expression was of course gone' - and so he commissioned a French artist, Jacques Talrich, to construct a substitute head out of wax. The result was deemed to be excellent, and after the skeleton was wired together, stuffed with cotton wool, wood wool, hay, straw and paper ribbon, and dressed in one of Bentham's suits, the wax head was stuck on with a spike.

The mummified head of Bentham

For many years, Southwood Smith had Bentham on show in his house - first at New Broad Street and then at Finsbury Square. Then Bentham and the case he was kept in was transferred to University College London, of which he was considered the spiritual father. Despite his hallowed status at the university, it's not clear where they kept him initially but he eventually turned up in the anatomical museum. In 1898 the auto-icon was inspected:

January 3, 1898
We opened the case containing the figure of Jeremy Bentham, and took out the latter. It was
rather dusty, but not very much so. The clothes were much moth eaten, especially the undervest,
and if taken off it would probably have been impossible to get the last on again. We
undid the clothes, and found that they were stuffed with hay and tow, around the skeleton,
which had been macerated and skilfully articulated. Both hands are present inside the gloves
-the feet were not examined.
In place of the head is a wax bust, which is supported on an iron spike. The head was found,
wrapped in cloth saturated with some bituminous or tarry substance (a sort of tarpaulin) and
then in paper, making a parcel, in the cavity of the trunk-skeleton, being fastened by strong
wire running from the ribs to the vertebral column. On unpacking this the head itself was
found to be mummified, dried, and prepared, by clearing any suboccipital soft parts, so that
it looks not unlike a New Zealand head. In the sockets are glass eyes. The atlas, which had
been macerated, is fastened in its natural place below the occipital bone. At the top of the
head is a small hole in the skull, where the tip of the spike had doubtless come through, and
round the hole is an impression formed by a circular washer and nut which had fitted the screw
on the end of the spike, and by which the head was formerly fixed on the trunk.
The face is clean shaved-hair scanty, grey and long.
(Signed) T. W. P. LAWRENCE  and G. D. T.

Bentham's original head had been inside his body all along. 

In 1939 he was restored and cleaned and restuffed. At the outbreak of war, he was hidden in the cloisters beneath a mound of books, then taken out of the city to Ware, Hertfordshire for his own safety until 1945. On his return, or though it could have been before, it was decided to exhibit his head, placed between his feet inside the case. It must have been a genuinely macabre sight.

Alas, student will be students. Bentham's wizened mummified  head - those who have been near it says it smells of beef jerky - was too much of a temptation. Some students from Kings College stole the head in the 1970s and demanded a ransom of £100. They eventually returned it when UCL promised to pay a £10 sum to charity. By now, the head was in a pretty delicate state. There are stories that it was stolen and later found in a left luggage locker at Aberdeen Station, and that on other occasions it was used as a football in a drunken kickabout, but they are false. But, to be on the safe side, and because it was so disturbing for some visitors to the college, the head is now kept in a wooden box in particular environmental conditions in UCL's Institute of Archaeology. Here's a video if you want a fright:

Bentham's auto-icon still sits in its wooden case though, at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of UCL and can be viewed Monday to Friday (or here on the Internet.) It is one of London's most fascinating and macabre curios. There are several other myths that surround Bentham, the most delicious being that he still attends college council meetings where he is recorded as 'present, not voting.' Sadly it also turns out to be false, though he did attend the 150th anniversary of the founding of the College on 10 February 1976. Also in April 2006, the auto-icon 'attended' a dinner during the John Stuart Mill Bicentennial Conference at UCL. Basically, as Tim Causer, research associate of the Bentham Project at the UCL, told me, Bentham's auto-icon is like one of Dr Who's erstwhile enemies, the Daleks - as long as there are no stairs he can get there. Last year he was also photographed in high resolution, which meant lifting him in and out of his box, a job Tim had the dubious pleasure of performing.

But there's more to the man than a mummified, stuffed skeleton with a wax head. UCL are also producing new scholarly editions of his work, as well as transcribing many of his writings for online reference. More details can be found at


Dan - Friday


  1. In his official portrait, Bentham looks like Benjamin Franklin.

    I watched the 16 minute video about the head. People are beyond strange. I won't go into the details on the clip but perhaps too much schooling blinds people to reality or gives too many young men the excuse and opportunity to indulge their inner twelve year-old.

    The saga of his head is a testimony to the definition of "utilitarianism" as he saw it -
    "the belief that humans should strive to achieve the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people possible."

    He really didn't live beyond the era of spiked heads.

  2. I'm sorry, Dan, perhaps I missed it but did you say "Bentham was ahead of his times"?


  3. Jeff - *groan*. Executed with great skull though.

    Beth - academia tends to do that to men and women. It's a cloistered world after all. But UCL is one of the most famous academic institutions we have and, macabre though it might be, they are hugely proud of their links to Bentham and the oddity that is his auto-icon. They're not alone - The Daily Telegraph included it in a recent round-up of the best things to do in London (see the auto-icon, not to be stuffed, have your head mummified, and displayed in a case...) ahead of touring the London Olympic sites and the Jack the Ripper tour.

  4. I definitely needed something stronger than coffee to stand knowing all this.

  5. Definitely in the category of things I didn't know, didn't particularly care to know, and am glad I found out about.

    I've spent queasy moments with my head between my knees but never even in the worst of the bad old days did I feel the need to put my head between my feet.