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Auto-Icon: Did You Know You Can See Jeremy Bentham’s Stuffed Head at UCL?

Auto-Icon: Did You Know You Can See Jeremy Bentham’s Stuffed Head at UCL?

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Heard about the peculiar Auto-Icon at UCL? Here’s why and how you can see Jeremy Bentham’s real head in London.

First up: What on earth is an Auto-Icon? Well, it’s a preserved dead body, clothed and displayed as if the person was still living. In this case, it’s Jeremy Bentham’s head and body – and we don’t mean to flex, but he’s kinda the most famous Auto-Icon in existence.

We totally get it, the thought of an embalmed head standing (sitting? lolling?) proudly in the student centre of University College London might seem a little strange, but at the end of the day, it’s just another of London’s weird things to see and do.

As fascinated by this weird Auto-Icon as we are? Read on if you dare…

… and you’ll definitely want to put that sandwich down.

So, Why is Jeremy Bentham’s Head and Body Chilling in UCL?

Jeremy Bentham Credit - Philip Stevens
Image: Philip Stevens

This is a great question, so allow us to explain.

First, a little background on our friend Jezza. Bentham was born in London, Spitalfields to be exact, on the 15th February 1748.

He was widely believed to be a child prodigy – in fact, as a toddler he was touted to have been able to read about the history of England and by three he was learning to speak Latin. Puts our dreadful school French to shame, to be quite honest.

No surprise then when Bentham was sent to Queen’s College Oxford at just 12 years old, where his father hoped he would follow him into law and eventually become the Lord Chancellor.

Jeremy had a different plan though, and he instead spent his years criticising the law and putting forwards ways in which it could be improved – much to his father’s disappointment.

If you didn’t already know, Jeremy Bentham went on to become a philosopher, economist, and juror, among many other things, and is hailed as the founder of modern utilitarianism. Which basically means that if you like doing something and it doesn’t hurt anyone, then it’s morally a-ok and you should go full steam ahead. 

We’ll think of this the moment we spot a bar of chocolate in our cupboards.

Whilst Bentham didn’t give his body directly to UCL, he did request that his body be preserved in his will which was made shortly before he died in 1832. 

His body was given to UCL in 1850, where his preserved skeleton and wax head sat in a wooden cabinet in the South Cloisters of the Wilkins Building. In 2020, it was given a new home in a case on Gordon Square, in the UCL’s Student Centre.

The Curious History of Jeremy Bentham’s Stuffed Head 

So the story goes that Bentham was so determined that his head would become an Auto-Icon, he decided to carry around the very glass eyes which would be placed on the waxy head in his pocket for ten years prior.

Sadly, when he actually died, the process of desiccation to preserve his head went totally wrong – resulting in an ugly mess. This led to the wax head being substituted with Bentham’s actual head for many years, situated in between his legs in the glass box.

In 1948, Bentham’s head was put inside a wooden box which aimed to give it more protection – though this meant that it was unable to fit inside the Auto-Icon box and was instead popped onto a plinth over the door to the Cloisters.

This proved too tempting for a group of cheeky students from King’s College London, who were said to have stolen the head in 1975 and demanded a £100 ransom to be paid to their chosen charity, Shelter, in order to return it. It’s believed that the staff at UCL eventually conceded, paying £10 in ransom money in order to retrieve the stolen head.

It should come as no surprise that this creepy icon has resulted in numerous spooky rumours across UCL’s campuses – the most common one being that Bentham often attends meetings and is wheeled into the council room in his little glass box. 

He is said to vote for every motion, in the case of an equally split decision. Is this true? Probably not, but we love to picture the scene.

Another hilarious rumour is that Bentham was, again, stolen by students, but this time made it all the way up to Aberdeen train station, where he was found inside a storage locker. We can only imagine the shock of finding a beheaded Jeremy Bentham in Scotland.

So there we have it, the fascinating (and gruesome) tale of Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head at UCL. Hands up if you’re curious to see it IRL.

Jeremy Bentham’s Head: Practical Tips 

  • Anyone is welcome to visit the Jeremy Betham UCL head – you don’t need to be a student and there is no entrance fee. Use the map below to plan your journey.
  • Be mindful that the head is inside a working college – head there to take your photos and be respectful of the students studying nearby.

Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon: Map 

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