When he was alive, Jeremy Bentham was a very unusual character. Since his death in 1832, he has continued to fascinate. Born in London in 1748, Bentham was one of England’s greatest thinkers and reformers. Bentham studied law and was called to the Bar in 1769, but quickly abandoned the practice of law; instead, he spent a lifetime trying to reform it.
Jeremy Bentham in Life
Bentham is famous for developing the philosophy of utilitarianism, that an action is right if it leads to, in his words, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. He used this as a critical standard by which to judge laws, institutions and practices. Bentham’s liberal and egalitarian ideas inspired the founders of University College London (UCL). A prolific writer, Bentham left his papers to UCL. He produced around 20 pages of manuscripts every day until his death. Overall, he produced around 100,000 pages which since 1968 have been collected into 34 volumes, with many more to still to come.
Before he died he left very detailed instructions about what he wanted to be done with his body. Bentham’s body was dissected by his friend, the surgeon Thomas Southwood Smith, and his skeleton was preserved as an Auto-icon (or self-image). He asked for the Auto-icon to be “put together in such a manner that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting while engaged in thought in the course of time occupied in writing” and also it is dressed in “one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me”.
Originally the Auto-icon was to have been topped by Bentham’s mummified head, but that experiment went wrong and resulted in a gruesome artefact that was deemed too frightening for public display. The Auto- icon came into the collection of UCL in 1850 and was housed in an imposing mahogany cabinet. The disfigured head was kept in a separate box, with the figure topped with a more acceptable wax head.
Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-icon
The cabinet was placed in a quiet corner of the South Cloisters of the Wilkinson Building (one of the original buildings of UCL) and although the doors of the cabinet were closed every evening it still had an eerie presence at night.
Wilkinson Building, University College London
One of the reasons Bentham created the Auto-icon was to fulfil his philosophy that he could be useful in death as well as in life by attending meetings etc. This did happen once in 2013 when the Auto-icon did attend, as a surprise, a former provost’s final UCL council meeting. Over the years there have also been rumours of student pranks connected with Bentham’s remains. The head was once kidnapped and held for ransom by students from King’s College (a £10 donation to a charity of the King’s College students’ choice) and having been duly paid the head was returned.
The final twist in this tale is that the Auto-icon was moved to a new home and given new housing in a temperature-controlled Perspex case in 2020. It now sits right in the heart of UCL life in the Student Centre among the students working on their laptops or rushing past on the way to lectures.