This Guy Had Himself Dissected By His Friends And His Skeleton Put On Public Display
British philosopher Jeremy Bentham was publicly dissected, then had his skeleton dressed in his own clothes and his mummified head screwed to his shoulders. Because why not.
Q. DO YOU WANT TO BE BURIED OR CREMATED?
The question of what you want done with your dead body has more tick-box options than ever before. You can be composted with 30 others in a three-storey science fiction construction, donated whole to science or in live pieces to other people, liquified until you are just brown juice and weird ash, compressed into a diamond, or shot into space – the future of death is getting more complicated, just like everything else.
But in the early 19th century the choice was: buried. Cremation was illegal at the time – it didn’t become a thing people did legally until just prior to the start of the 20th century – so your choice was made for you. Unless you were British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had a whole other plan entirely.
When Bentham died in 1832 at the age of 84, he was – according to wishes laid out in a will he wrote aged 21 – publicly dissected by friends before his skeleton was padded out with straw, dressed in his own clothes, and propped up in a wooden box with a glass front. His own mummified head was placed on his padded skeletal shoulders, affixed there by a spike that ran from the seat of the chair all the way up his spine. In his plans he called it the “Auto-Icon”, and he imagined his friends would come and visit him, or just park him in the corner of a room during parties.
When you’re standing in front of this massive box in the South Cloisters at University College London – which now has a wax head on those shoulders instead of the real one, which went wrong and gross and now lives in a bell jar in a safe – you just want to know two things: why and how. But mostly why, with audible italics.
I asked Nick Booth, science and engineering curator at UCL and the man responsible for looking after Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon. “It’s kind of a weird outlier job that I’ve been given,” he said. “It’s fun having people ask questions like, ‘Is it true people played football with his head?’” (I’m getting to that.) If there is anyone who knows why Bentham would do this, Booth is probably that person. Even so, it’s not totally clear. He has a few theories.
POSSIBLE REASONS WHY JEREMY BENTHAM WOULD WANT TO SIT FOREVER IN THE CHAIR PICTURED BELOW
Reason 1: Atheism.
We're pretty sure Bentham was an atheist: His Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (1822) paper was a pretty damning attack on the damage done to society by organised religion. At the time, in order to be buried you had to pay the church a bunch of money – but if you don’t want to give the church any cash to fund their ongoing ruin of society, what do you do with your dead body?
Reason 2: Science.
Bentham had the idea very early in his life to be dissected, but it was decades until the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed (he died a month before it ultimately did). During his lifetime, only executed murderers could be used for dissection. The new Anatomy Act not only put an end to the body-snatching trade (as medical science flourished, demand had soon outstripped supply of dead murderers – you’ve seen Burke & Hare) but also gave physicians, surgeons, and students legal access to unclaimed corpses from prisons and workhouses, as well as giving the general population the option to donate their body to the anatomy school, which would front the money for the eventual burial of whatever was left of you. Bentham was technically a little early legality-wise, but it’s likely that he was the first person in history to donate his body to medical science.
This quote from his will, added as a footnote in the pamphlet handed out at his public dissection, sums it up:
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.
“It was pretty radical,” said Booth. “His whole philosophy is the greatest good for the greatest number, and everything should be of use, so rather than just putting your body in the ground and giving the church some money, why not be dissected and have people learn from it?”
What a guy.
Reason 3: It's funny.
“He had a bit of a weird sense of humour," Booth said. "His mummified head has two glass eyes, and before he died he used to carry them around in his pocket and take them out when he was at dinner just to show them to people for the shock value.”
Bentham had some unusual ideas for the time. “He was a really modern guy: a believer in animal rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. You could be executed for being gay at the time, and he believed that as long as it wasn’t hurting anyone it shouldn’t be illegal, as long as it’s between consenting people. He made a long list of things which shouldn’t be illegal – men and men should be fine, women and women should be fine, men and women and women should be fine. He also included animals in that list as well, which is really weird because…how can a pig consent? But anyway.”
He named his walking stick Dapple, his teapot Dickey, and had a cat called The Reverend Sir John Langbourne. He asked two different women to marry him, and neither did. He had a broken heart and, at one point, a pet bear.
Of course a man like that would have himself propped up in a box wearing a straw hat for eternity.
THE PRACTICALITIES OF BEING DISSECTED BY YOUR FRIENDS
The practicalities of having yourself dissected and mounted in your friend’s house are, just in terms of basic admin and spare rooms, something to think about.
Before anyone even moves your dead body, there’s the threat that a relation might step up, refuse your final wishes, and give your cash to the church like normal people. Bentham headed this off before it had the chance to go wrong by including this final line in his instructions:
Should any such opposition be made I charge my executor and enjoin him by all the affection he feels for me not to pay any regard for it.
There’s also the worry that your friend’s wife might not like it – the having-a-skeleton-wearing-a-hat-in-the-house thing.
“He left the Auto-Icon to the executor of his will, Dr Southwood Smith (also his dissector),” said Booth. “Apparently it used to sit at the dinner table for about 18 years. I was recently told that Southwood Smith wanted to get married and she gave him an ultimatum – her or the Auto-Icon. Sounds a bit too nice a story to me, but it might be true.” Southwood Smith eventually gave the Auto-Icon to UCL, and later wrote in a letter that the university stuck it in a cupboard or back room and seemed generally embarrassed by it.
Finally, there's the relatively minor problem that human heads aren’t made to be preserved and affixed to skeletons with a bolt. But we’ve all done mad stuff for our friends, so Southwood Smith tried anyway:
“I endeavoured to preserve the head untouched, merely drawing away the fluids by placing it under an air pump over sulphuric acid. By this means the head was rendered as hard as the skulls of the New Zealanders [“mokomokai”, the preserved heads of Māori, which were a curiosity in London at the time – they were full size, not shrunken]; but all expression was of course gone. Seeing this would not do for exhibition, I had a model made in wax by a distinguished French artist.”
This is not the wax model:
Bentham's mummified head sits in a Victorian bell jar inside a hand-carved wooden box that needs four keys and two people to open. We know it did sit on Bentham's shoulders before the wax head was ultimately made – there's a hole at the bottom for the spike to go through, and it's so well-preserved you can actually see where someone has tightened the nut. "It still got hair on it, although it’s not quite as thick and luxurious as his wax version, and it falls off every time you move it," said Booth, who won't fish the head out of the safe even if you beg him.
The wax head was given some of Bentham’s real hair, the only real part of Bentham visible from the front of the box.
In 1898, when UCL was checking him for damage, they removed his moth-eaten clothes and found the real head – purple and brown and monstrous – wrapped in cloth and suspended inside the ribcage. “It was just a good place to keep it, I guess,” said Booth. “It’s quite easy to lose a head otherwise.”
They also learned that his skeleton wasn't simply wired together to remain upright in the box. Each joint has a natural range of movement – even his fingers are delicately hinged. If you pick up him up, which Booth has to do occasionally to move him, his feet dangle like regular feet. Most tellingly though, they discovered that he was wearing underpants and two pairs of socks. “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?”
HERE'S WHAT HAPPENS TO DEAD PHILOSOPHERS AT UNIVERSITIES
“He hasn't just sat here the whole time," said Booth. "He’s been to Germany twice. In the ‘80s the conserver took him to a textile conservation centre in Hampton Court Palace and to do that they sat him in a red Ford Sierra and just drove him along the street.”
Despite the true stories sounding mad enough, there are a bunch of lies surrounding Bentham’s remains – obviously, if you’ve got a severed head lying around in a university somewhere, stories are going to be told. He’s not haunted, but he did appear in a student zombie film (fast forward to 12'48 for Bentham smashing out of his box). Students never played football with his real head, because his real head never would have survived it – but it did get stolen and then ransomed back to UCL for £10. His wax head was also stolen, this time by King’s College students in the early '90s. A picture of them looking drunk/pleased with themselves in the student union, with Bentham's head in a box, appeared in their alumni magazine. Booth would love to know how they managed it without smashing anything, but whoever did it has refused to reveal his ways until he has retired. He doesn't want an old case of a stolen head impacting on his current high-powered job.
People on Twitter who like to spout facts they found on the internet all day will tell you that Bentham gets wheeled out for all meetings at UCL, and is recorded in the minutes as “present but not voting”. This isn’t true, mostly because it’s a giant faff to get him out of his box and if it went wrong Booth would never sleep again. “It’s proper nerve-wracking. But he did attend the 150th anniversary of the founding of the college in the '70s, and another meeting a couple of years ago when our old provost was retiring. We got him out as a surprise and moved him down to the committee room down the corridor. Only one or two people knew, and it was quite funny to see who noticed and who didn’t. He was just sat at the end of the table. The students came in late and I don’t think they noticed.”
Here's Jeremy off to a meeting on a skateboard:
SO YOU WANT TO BE PUBLICLY DISSECTED AND MOUNTED
In 1993, the president of the Royal College of GPs received a letter from a fan of Bentham’s laying out a plan for a pub in which various members of the fan's local chess club would be preserved and then installed in their usual positions. The writer of the letter predicted that the club's secretary, Colonel Polhill, would be the first to go:
As other regulars depart one by one, they will join him in the cottage. Russell and Dennis, two true Devonian rustics will be mounted at the bar; I myself hope to be placed in a replica of my chair in the corner (if I am so honoured on my passing!) We have thought of tape recording each of these characters while they are still with us, so that we can really bring this “tableau” to life. Discreetly placed microphones will relay a recording of their actual conversations.
He went on:
While the people mentioned above are fairly sedentary characters, there are in our midst some very active customers. I am thinking in particular of Tim the cricketer, Paddy the washing machine man, and the Fruit Kate, none of whom can sit still for a minute. In order to achieve a life-like appearance, we will have to allow for the articulation of limbs, and possibly some kind of railway track through the bar. I shall be seeking advice from engineers on this subject, but this will have to be taken into account in the method of preservation.
Sometimes you’re remembered for your world-changing philosophies, sometimes you’re remembered for having your skeleton on show. Booth said he rang the pub and is sorry to report that the chess club no longer meet, in life or death.
You can visit Bentham yourself at the entrance to the South Cloisters in UCL: All info is here. If you're in front of the box on the hour you'll be live-tweeted from the Panopticam (a weirdly hypnotic Bentham's-eye view of the college named after his plan for a prison) and on its live feed. Vogue, vogue, strike a pose, etc.