Like anybody else who studied English history, I knew who Jeremy Bentham was.
But I did not know he was still hanging around the University College of London until a respected U.S. newspaper pointed this out. The paper also reported as fact what turns out to be mainly a myth that accreted, as myths often do, around the truth.
Jeremy Bentham wanted his body preserved and kept on display. He definitely wanted to encourage dissection. He believed, too, that his preserved body would be a useful educational tool. He believed others’ bodies should be preserved for posterity, too, as what he called “Auto Icons.”
Though, having been dissected, his body wasn't actually preserved, his skeleton was duly stuffed with straw and dressed. He had hoped to have his head mummified, and somebody did try to carry out his wishes, but the result wasn’t pretty. Instead, a wax head was made and stuck on. The real one apparently sat at his feet for a while, then was stored in a cabinet. Now it’s in temperature-controlled storage, in the care of conservation staff.
This page shows you the full auto-icon and other images, including a photo of Bentham with his mummified head between his feet.
Contrary to myth, Bentham did not leave money to the University College of London on condition his body appear at University Board Meetings and noted as “present but not voting.” He did show up for a board meeting in 2013, though.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.