Corpse of Bentham Publicly Dissected by Pals, Taken to Parties

Bentham, with his head at his feet. (Cult of Weird)

Bentham, head over heels. (Cult of Weird)

Corpse of Bentham Publicly Dissected by Pals, Taken to Parties

The next time your friend asks you for an annoying favor, be glad that friend isn’t the late British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In a story resembling a cheesy 80’s movie starring Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman, Bentham’s dying wish was to be publicly dissected by his friends and taken about town. Bentham, who died in 1832 at age 84, wanted his buddies to dress his skeleton in his own clothes, topped off with his mummified head so that they could then escort his corpse to collegiate meetings and social gatherings.

That’s right, according to the instructions in the will documented at the tender age of 21, Bentham had his skeleton padded out with straw and propped up in a wooden box with a glass front so that he could be observed by all. His mummified head was held in place on his padded skeletal shoulders by a spike that ran all the way up his spine from the base of the chair in which he was placed. Bentham labeled the end result, the “Auto-Icon,” thinking that his pals would come to visit or bring him along to sit in the corner of parties that may need a little ‘life’ with the presence of a corpse.

Bentham Boxed at UCL (Cult of Weird)

Bentham Box at UCL (Cult of Weird)

Why Did Bentham Want This?

Since being cremated was illegal during the mid-19th century and cool options like having someone shoot your body into space weren’t available yet, the only choice for the final destination of your biological leftovers at that time was ‘burial.’ Instead, Bentham devised another method by ‘thinking outside-of-the-coffin.’

Bentham’s body can now be viewed in a large transparent box in the South Cloisters at University College London. As one might imagine, there were a few practical obstacles with preserving a disembodied head from the 1800’s, so there is currently a wax replica of Bentham’s head perched atop the skeleton in lieu of the ‘real deal.’ His biological head is locked up and being looked after by UCL science and engineering curator Nick Booth, who has a few ideas as to why Bentham might have chosen for his body to be displayed in such an odd manner.

One theory is that Bentham, who was an atheist, was protesting a church system that charged money for proper burials. Another possibility is that Bentham did this in hopes that it would provide an educational benefit to the scientific community.

“It was pretty radical,” said Booth. “His whole philosophy is the greatest good for the greatest number, and everything should be of use, so rather than just putting your body in the ground and giving the church some money, why not be dissected and have people learn from it?”

Booth also did not discount the idea that this death-altering decision was simply a result Bentham’s bizarre wit.

“He had a bit of a weird sense of humour,” revealed Booth.

“His mummified head has two glass eyes, and before he died he used to carry them around in his pocket and take them out when he was at dinner just to show them to people for the shock value.”

In Bentham’s own words taken from his will, below is a footnote placed inside a pamphlet handed out at his public dissection.

This my will and special request I make, not out of affectation of singularity, but to the intent and with the desire that mankind may reap some small benefit in and by my decease, having hitherto had small opportunities to contribute thereto while living.”

“He was a really modern guy: a believer in animal rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. You could be executed for being gay at the time, and he believed that as long as it wasn’t hurting anyone it shouldn’t be illegal.”

Bentham's Head (Cult of Weird)

Bentham’s Head (Cult of Weird)

Head on a Roll

Bentham’s head has been on ‘quite a roll’ over the years. Booth said that while there are many myths surrounding it (for instance, Bentham’s head was never used in a football game), it has still traveled to Germany, been stolen, and subsequently ransomed back to the university. It was also once used as a prop in a student zombie film!

For those of you who aren’t squeamish and would like to read about the further misadventures of Bentham’s detached and decaying head – head on over to the Bentham Project page on the UCL website, where you can also inquire about a viewing. Who knows? Maybe they’ll pull Bentham’s grotesque cranial remains out of retirement and get the band back together for a Halloween special. 

Share the thoughts that are going through your own noggin regarding this bizzarre story on, our Facebook page, or on Twitter, hashtag #DMtalk.

Staff Writer

Leo Ashcraft

A retired broadcast engineer, talk show host, news reporter - I have done everything there is to do in the radio broadcast business. I worked a year in television. I left that as my true passion has always been radio - plus I got tired of hearing - you have a face for radio.. I hope you enjoy my articles! Be sure to share them excessively on facebook - like our page and bug your friends with invites!

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