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The curious case of Jeremy Bentham.

3 min read

Following the request attached to the will, the body of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was embalmed and preserved after his death in 1832 by his pupil Thomas Southwood Smith. In life he was an exceptional thinker, a forerunner of many social revolutions like equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery, the defense of animal rights, the separation of state and church, the right to divorce and the decriminalization of the crime of sodomy. The head and body were placed in a wooden cabinet that Bentham himself called “Auto-icon”. The body was dressed in the clothes of Bentham and so preserved for the following decades.

His Auto-icon was intended to show the real body of Bentham, mummified to look like, at least in the philosopher’s plans, to himself when he was alive. Southwood Smith’s efforts to mummify the head did not have the best results, and finally the face of the eminent English thinker assumed a macabre and discreetly terrifying appearance. Finally, Auto-Icon was equipped with a wax head depicting Bentham and exhibited at the University College of London, which acquired it in 1850.

Today Auto-Icon is exhibited in the south cloister of the University College of London, the university that Bentham himself helped to found as a lay institution, and is freely visited:

The head of the philosopher was first placed under the legs of the mummy, but was then closed in a shrine, following a theft for ransom operated by some students in 1975. He is subjected an annual check-up on the state of conservation, and the curators of antiquities present in the university are seriously worried about the loss of hair of the eminent philosopher who, after 183 years after his death, still has a completely respectable hair. Fake eyes were placed by the pupil during the mummification process. The singular hole in the upper part of the skull is not due to a shot from a firearm, but from the piece of iron used to hold the philosopher’s head in position in his Auto-Icon, before it was removed:

In Bentham’s intentions, the mummification of his head and the preservation of the skeleton should have served to carry his corpse around at parties and worldly events. Obviously no one wanted to carry around the mummy of the philosopher, who went into history for their bizarreness rather than for their actual social value. The choice to place the statue of the philosopher in one of the main areas of the University has given rise to the rumors that Bentham would still attend the College Council as a non-voting member. We wrote another stories about Victorian era that, as we know, was really extravagant! For example, you can read about funeral for pets, or the story of Frozen Charlotte’s dolls….

Images from the web / Public demain
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