The Strange Case of Jeremy Bentham

By on February 18, 2013

Human taxidermy: The preserved body of philosopher Jeremy Bentham

Upon his request in a detailed letter attached to his will, the body of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham was dissected and preserved after his death in 1832 by his disciple Thomas Southwood Smith. The head and skeleton were placed in a wooden cabinet Bentham called the “Auto-icon.” The skeleton was dressed in Bentham’s clothes and padded with hay.

The Auto-icon was intended to incorporate Bentham’s actual head, mummified to resemble its appearance in life. However, Southwood Smith’s experimental efforts at mummification, based on practices of the indigenous people of New Zealand, left the head looking distastefully macabre with dried and darkened skin stretched tautly over the skull. The Auto-icon was therefore given a wax head fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair.

The real head was displayed in the same case as the Auto-icon for many years, but was locked away after it became the target of repeated student pranks at the University College London, who acquired the Auto-icon in 1850.

Jeremy Bentham Auto-icon on display in Britain's University College London

A 360-degree ‘Virtual Auto-Icon’ is available at the UCL Bentham Project website.

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