Jeremy Bentham: Gone but Still With Us

This is from the selection of Notes and Queries in Ringing Churchbells to ward off Thunderstorms. It relates to one of the most important and radical thinkers of 19th century England, Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher, reformer of prisons and campaigner for the Anatomy Act to allow surgeons to obtain bodies for study without having to rob graves. :

“It was part of Jeremy Bentham’s will that his body should be devoted to the purpose of improving the science of anatomy and in consequence it was laid on the table of the anatomy school in Webb Street, Borough. In compliance with Mr Bentham’s wish, Dr Southwood Smith delivered a lecture on the occasion. After the usual anatomical demonstrations, a skeleton was made of the bones, which were stuffed to fit Bentham’s own clothes, and a wax likeness, by a French artist, was fitted to the trunk.   This figure was seated on the chair which he usually occupied, with one hand holding the walking stick, called Dapple, which was his constant companion whenever he went abroad. The whole was enclosed in a mahogany case with folding glass doors, and may now be seen in the University College, Gower St. – 1857

The pioneer of  utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham, who famously argued that ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ should be he guiding principle of conduct and laws, conceived what he called his ‘auto-icon’ some years before his death.. Southwood Smith delivered his lecture … on 8 June 1832, while thunder and lightning raged outside. Many years later, he described the process whereby the auto-icon was subsequently created:

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 New Zealanders, but all expression was gone, of course. Seeing this would not do for exhibition, I had a model made in wax by a distinguished French artist [who] succeeded in producing one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen. I then had the skeleton stuffed out to fit Bentham’s own clothes, and this wax likeness fitted to the trunk.

The artist was Jacques Talrich, whose skill was much admired. Bentham’s former friend Lord Brougham described the wax head as ‘so perfect that it seems as if alive.’

In 1850, on giving up his consulting rooms in Finsbury Square, Southwood Smith found he o longer had a room large enough to hold the mahogany case and so donated it to the University College, London.

In 1898 the auto-icon was examined by Professor Sir George Thane and T.W.P Lawrence. They reported that the clothes were stuffed wit hay and tow, that both hands were present inside the gloves, and that the wax head rested upon an iron spike. The found the real head ‘wrapped i cloth saturated with some bituminous or tarry substance (a sort of tarpaulin) and ten 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… In the sockets are glass eyes… The face is clean shaven, hair scanty, grey and long.

Subsequently the real head was put on display on the floor between the auto-icon’s legs and became an irresistible target: in October 1975 it was stolen by students from King’s College, London who demanded a ransom of £100 payable to the charity Shelter; £10 was paid and the head was returned. There are also stories of a 2nd theft that led to the head being found in a left luggage locker at Aberdeen railway station, and an apocryphal tale that it was once used for football practice in the college’s front quadrangle. Nor surprisingly, the head is now locked away in a refrigerated safe in the college vault.


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