Bentham, Jeremy

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was a founder of University College in London, Jeremy Bentham had his body mummified upon death and mounted on display in the college. His ghost is said to rise up at night, leave the cabinet and rattle about the halls. Bentham was a law reformer, natural scientist and philosopher. He was greatly interested in mummification and proposed the idea of turning corpses into permanent memorials for display—“auto-icons” as he termed them. Not surprisingly, this idea failed to find a popular following. However, Bentham pursued preserving his own corpse for generations to admire, and prior to his death discussed how his body should be handled.

His will gave the following instructions:

My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in manner hereinafter mentioned. And I direct that . . . he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this my will and at the top of which I have written “Auto-Icon.”

The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting engaged in thought in the course of the time employed in writing. I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me.

The Body so clothed together with the chair and the staff of my later years borne by me he will take charge of. And for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared in an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be offered hereon and also on the labels on the glass cases in which the preparations of the soft parts on my body shall be contained . . .

my name at length with the letters ob. followed by the date of my decease. IF it should happen that my personal friends and other Disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the Founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said Box or case with the contents there to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall meet.

Bentham’s preserved form is still on display in a mothproof case with glass sides near the entrance hall of the college. He resembles Benjamin Franklin, and strikes an authoritative pose seated in one of his favourite chairs, one hand on “Dapple,” his walking stick, which rests across one knee. He is dressed in tan breeches, a black coat, white shirt with jabot, white gloves and stockings and black shoes. He wears a straw hat. At his side is a small table that bears a pair of glasses and their case, and a cameo ring and pin.

Apparently the mummification of Bentham’s head was not successful, and it began to decompose. It was removed to a safe at the college and was replaced by a wax head modeled by French artist Jacques Talrich. Bentham’s ghost is said to be fond of walking about the halls especially during long winter nights. Sounds of his cane tapping on the floors can be heard.

Some persons have reported seeing his ghost, dressed as the body is in the case and carrying Dapple. According to another story, unexplained nocturnal noises are made by Bentham’s irate mummy, which raps Dapple upon the glass to demand a proper burial. See Haunting.

Further Reading:

  • Underwood, Peter. Haunted London. London: George G. Harrup & Co., 1973.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

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