We’ve all heard of the expression ‘hiding skeletons in the closet‘… But UCL in London literally takes this to a whole new level. How many universities can boost an actual skeleton hiding in their closet? Well, as far as I know, University College London in England (UCL for short) seems to be the only one. Jeremy Bentham’s body, the university’s ‘philosophical founder‘ sits in a widely used corridor at the very heart of the university…
Who was Jeremy Bentham?
You may not have heard of him, but Jeremy Bentham’s ideas have touched many aspects of life in the U.K. today- for the better. His ideas helped influence the welfare state, promote equal rights for women following divorce (at a time when other women in Europe were being burned as witches), implement a secular state (i.e. a government that wasn’t affiliated with the church), promote LGBTQ+ rights and abolish slavery. Jeremy Bentham was a pretty cool guy!
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a utilitarian philosopher and political activist. An incredibly bright child, he started learning Latin at the age of 3 and headed off to study at Oxford University age 12. A utilitarian believes in the greatest good for the greatest number of people (i.e. in a burning building, he or she would first try to save the room with five people in it vs the one with only two). Bentham also happened to be an early proponent of animal rights and feminist…
Incredibly interested in the law and what was wrong with it, Bentham quickly became disillusioned with British law. As a result, he spent the majority of his life writing papers criticizing both the law and government. Following his father’s death in 1792, Bentham became vastly wealthy. This allowed him to spend the next forty years writing daily; he regularly produced between ten and twenty pages of manuscript.
So how did Bentham’s body end up in a well-frequented corridor at the heart of UCL?
Well, in a will made shortly before Bentham’s death, he stipulated that Jeremy Bentham’s body be made into an auto-icon of himself (i.e.a self-image using body parts that would be dressed and sat as if he were still alive). It’s clear that, from an early age, Bentham had plans for how his body would be dealt with upon his death. Records suggest that at as early as 21, he left a will stipulating that he wished to be dissected upon death.
An extract from Bentham’s Will stipulating the conditions Jeremy Bentham’s body were to be left in:
“The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing. I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor”.
Why did Bentham want his corpse to be turned into an auto-icon?
First and foremost, Bentham was a utilitarian as so he would most likely have asked himself, ‘how will my body benefit the most people’? He had his body dissected, it was shown at various events before finally being displayed in its cabinet for people to view.
Arrival at UCL
As requested by Bentham, his skeleton was kitted out with his clothes and his head mummified. However, the mummification process did not go quite to plan and his head was left looking rather macabre. (Presumably, even more than before). It was deemed inappropriate to display and his real head was replaced by a wax likeness within a few years. The wax replica was fitted with some of Bentham’s actual hair. The body was acquired by University College London in 1850.
In 2013, Jeremy Bentham’s body was wheeled into a UCL board meeting to be seated alongside his living university colleagues. He was listed as ‘present but not voting’. Today, he sits locked safely away in his own cupboard. The locks are in use as a result of numerous student pranks involving his body.
Until 2002, Bentham’s head sat at the base of the cabinet between his legs. It’s rumoured that rival university (King’s College London) were paramount in the pranks that involved Bentham’s head. Today, his head is carefully stored and preserved in a safe space at UCL. I feel uncomfortable posting a picture on solosophie but you can find a picture on U.C.L’s website here.