When the moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham died in 1832, he left a will with specific instructions pertaining to the “disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame.” His skeleton was to be “clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me” and seated upright on a chair, under a placard reading “Auto Icon.”
Bentham suggested that his corpse might then be able to preside over regular meetings of his utilitarian followers. For ten years prior to his death, Bentham purportedly carried in his pocket a pair of glass eyes that were to be embedded into his embalmed head. Here, however, Bentham’s plan went awry. His face was grossly disfigured in the process of preserving it, and a substitute wax replacement had to be created.
The real embalmed head was placed on the floor between Bentham’s legs, where it resided until 1975, when it was kidnapped by a group of students demanding £100 for charity. The university paid £10, and the head of the great moral philosopher was returned. Since 2002, Bentham’s real head has resided in a climate-controlled storeroom at the UCL Institute of Archeology. Those with appropriate reasons to pay a visit may still do so by appointment.
In 2020, Bentham’s Auto-Icon was moved to a new display in the UCL Student Centre.
Know Before You Go
The Auto-Icon is located on the ground floor of the Student Centre on UCL's Bloomsbury campus.