It’s not every day a guy slides into your DMs and invites you to meet a severed head.
Wednesday, however, was one of those days.
Months back, I wrote about Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher who willed his body to be publicly dissected by his friends. Decades before he died, he laid out plans for his skeleton to be fully articulated and dressed in his own clothes, with his mummified head screwed to his shoulders, so that he could still be wheeled out for meetings or parties or whatever after his death. He was so into this plan that carried his future glass eyeballs around in his pocket.
But it all got a bit more complicated than that. Human heads are hard to preserve while still remaining unhorrific, and despite the best research and efforts of Bentham’s pal and dissector Dr Southwood Smith, his severed head went weird and purple and gross during the preservation process.
It was relegated to a wooden box, and a lifelike wax head was placed atop Bentham's fully dressed skeleton instead, because no one wants to see a weird purple gross head.
Even Nick Booth, the curator at UCL who looks after Bentham, wouldn’t let me see it. When I was interviewing him about why Bentham's skeleton is currently wearing underpants (“The people who dressed him, who were physically doing it or at least overseeing it, must have loved him. Because why would you put underpants and two pairs of socks on a skeleton?”), Booth said he'd rather not get Jeremy's head out of the safe because every time they move him some of his hair falls off.
But he promised he’d let me know when they get it out for the annual check-up. Once a year, the conservation team – Booth, Emilia Kingham, and Susie Pancaldo – have to take the head out of its box and file a detailed report on whether he's got more bald, or been eaten by insects, or changed colour, or become fundamentally more gross while sitting in his Victorian bell jar.
That's what happened on Wednesday.
Here’s what I learned when I went to meet Bentham during his check-up:
Severed heads smell weird.
Bentham’s head has been dead for 183 years and he smells like vinegar and feet and bad jerky and damp dust. “Oh, they all smell like that. Y’know, like mummies,” said Kingham, as if the smell of Egyptian mummies is wildly more relatable to me than the smell of a dead philosopher’s head.
Like mummies, Bentham’s excellent brain is no longer inside his head. “That would have been removed before the head was suspended over sulphuric acid,” she says. “The process would have liquefied the soft tissue of the face and it would have leeched out.”
"OK," I said.
"They also sewed his mouth shut and put cotton up his nose so it would stay nose-shaped."
The skin that covers Bentham’s skull is the same colour as all those oxblood leather jackets people were buying a few years ago, so I asked why he smells bad and leather doesn’t. Kingham said that while tanning chemicals affect the protein chains and make treated leather resistant to decomposition, untreated rawhide has a musty smell not too dissimilar to Bentham.
Key takeaway from that, probably: If you too want the rare treat of smelling a dead philosopher, stick your face in some rawhide.
BuzzFeed News is pleased to report that there have been no noticeable changes in Bentham’s head since last year's inspection – although the conservation team are worried about his hair, and suspect that someone may have coated his skin in some kind of waxy oil in the past which could make things go weird later.
The two indented lines on the side of his face are most likely from the vice that suspended him over the acid during the preservation process, so they’ve always been there.
The hole drilled into the top of his skull is from the spike that ran up the spine of his skeleton for his head to sit on, with a nut screwed on to hold it there.
There are semi-mysterious pinpricks on his forehead, and Kingham theorises that they were done to relieve pressure (I asked if it was like pricking a sausage but she wasn't keen on the analogy even though it totally sounds like pricking a sausage). But no one knows for sure and there’s no one left alive to ask.
Here’s another thing I learned when I met Jeremy Bentham: The smell of a severed head will stay with you for over 24 hours and you won’t be able to eat your lunch because everything tastes like Jeremy Bentham.
NB: Crisps are OK though.