7 Facts About Bertha Knight Landes, First Female Mayor of a Major American City

Bertha Knight Landes was Seattle’s first and only (so far) female mayor—and the first woman elected mayor of a major American city. Read on for seven facts about this determined, no-nonsense early city leader.


Born in 1868 as the youngest of nine children, Bertha Knight grew up in Massachusetts. She studied history and political science at the University of Indiana, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1891. After a few years as a teacher, she married a fellow Indiana student, Henry Landes, who became a professor of geology, prompting a move to Seattle when he secured a job at the University of Washington. In Seattle, Bertha Knight Landes gave birth to three children; the oldest, Katherine, died at age nine, while a son, Roger, did not survive infancy. A second son, Kenneth, came along later, and the family also adopted a daughter named Viola.

Landes first entered the civic arena through her involvement in women’s clubs. Popularized in the years following the Civil War, these clubs were initially organized to provide women with avenues for self-improvement and cultural opportunities. By the late 19th century, they had also become centers of political action for women who, otherwise generally kept out of politics, desired a method of civic engagement. Clubs lobbied for temperance, labor regulations, educational reform, improved public health, and other progressive causes.

Landes became heavily involved in club life after moving to Seattle. She was a charter member of a group called the Sunset Club and was actively involved in the Women’s University Club. In 1906, she joined the Women’s Century Club, which had been founded 15 years earlier by prominent suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt. From 1918 to 1920, Landes served as the club’s president, mobilizing its resources and members to assist the war effort after the U.S. entered World War I. She organized five Red Cross auxiliaries and then, feeling she could do more, helped found the Washington Minute Women, a group that raised money to support soldiers and their families.

Landes had, by this point, become a prominent figure in Seattle civic affairs. From 1920 to 1922, she served as president of the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs, and during that tenure, she planned a week-long economic showcase for Washington manufacturers that would be run by her and staffed by over a thousand clubwomen. The successful Women’s Educational Exhibit for Washington Manufacturers brought Landes to the attention of local businessmen and political leaders, and later in 1921, when Mayor Hugh Caldwell created a five-member commission to tackle Seattle’s unemployment problem, he appointed Landes as the solitary female member.

Landes so impressed her fellow commission members that one suggested she run for city council, insisting, “We need a woman in the city council, a woman of your type.” Landes took him at his word, and in 1922 ran her own campaign for a council seat with the help of four fellow clubwomen. While existing Seattle politicians worked within a political machine that ran on graft and favors, Landes staffed her 1922 campaign entirely with political amateurs and kept to a tight budget, avoiding “entangling alliances” with interest groups. She wanted to maintain “clean hands” amidst rampant political corruption, presenting herself as a reformer who would work to stop illegal gambling and foster a more upright police force. She succeeded, winning 80% of the vote, more than any previous candidate for Seattle’s city council. A second councilor elected in that race was another woman, Kathryn Miracle, and the two became the first women to serve on the Seattle City Council.


As one of her first acts on city council, Landes presented an ordinance to close Seattle’s taxi dance halls. At such establishments, working-class women called “taxi dancers” would dance with men for money, often while encouraging the men to buy alcohol. (These women occasionally also sold sex.) Bertha Landes looked at dance halls and saw dens of vice, but for many working-class women, they offered the best way to put food on the table. Charging 10 cents a dance, a woman could make $4 or $5 a night at the dance hall, while a week of factory work earned her less than $14. Several taxi dancers met with Landes in her home, explaining that their work in the dance halls was an economic necessity. Their appeal, combined with strong opposition from other members of city council, led Landes to alter her law so that it would regulate the dance halls rather than shutter them.

Passed in 1923, Landes’s ordinance mandated that dance halls obtain licenses, hire female chaperones, not allow indecent acts, and maintain bright lighting [PDF]. Landes was lambasted in public hearings and even received death threats for her crusade against the halls, but managed to push regulation through an unfriendly city council anyway. She was proud of the ordinance, which curbed the worst of dance hall excess while allowing women to keep their jobs.

Landes was a realist, not a radical. She wrote in Collier’s in 1929, “I believe in a sane, wise and reasonable enforcement of any law, including the prohibition law, and in the preservation of public decency.” She was a practical politician, noting the “necessity for compromise in small things in the hope of providing for greater ones.” But while Landes understood that vice would never be entirely banished from Seattle, she had little patience for those who let it run rampant.


In June 1924, Landes was elected president of the city council, and when Seattle’s mayor, Edwin J. Brown, left town later that month to attend the Democratic National Convention in New York City, she became acting mayor. By this time, Seattle was home to a corrupt police force that winked at Prohibition, and was a haven for illegal behavior. Henry A. Chadwick of the Argus newspaper wrote in November 1923 that the town was a legal free-for-all: “Saloons, in the guise of soft drink places, started up on every hand. Lewd women rented apartments and did a big business selling booze … Seattle has become … so rotten that it stinks.” Bertha Landes was not having it.

Shortly before Landes took over as acting mayor, the city’s police chief, William B. Severyns, argued to journalists that lax enforcement of prohibition, gambling, and prostitution laws was not his fault, as he had at least a hundred corrupt officers on his police force and local civil service regulations prevented him from firing them. On June 23, 1924, Acting Mayor Landes called Severyns into her office and handed him a letter demanding he remove all hundred of these apparently crooked policemen within 24 hours—she would handle the Civil Service Commission, if they were really the ones preventing the removal of corrupt officers. Severyns was furious that a woman temporarily in charge would dare give him orders, and he responded with his own letter, pointing to a section of the city charter allowing the mayor to take over the police department in an emergency situation. Landes later characterized his response as a “jeer,” writing that he told her, “Be chief of police yourself, if you don't like the way things are done!”

Landes took him at his word, declaring a state of emergency, firing Severyns, appointing Inspector J.T. Mason as acting chief (before firing him less than 24 hours later), and then assuming control of the police department herself. She appointed a former assistant police chief with a reputation for honesty, Claude G. Bannick, as acting chief, and within hours, he led raids of the city’s most notorious speakeasies, lotteries, and illegal punchboards.

Word soon reached Mayor Brown in New York that Landes had declared war on Seattle’s lawbreakers—and its corrupt cops. He left the DNC early and caught a train home, arriving five days later. Upon returning, Brown immediately reinstated Chief Severyns. The mayor argued that Landes’s actions were unnecessary because “Seattle is as good and clean as any city on the American continent.”

Newspapers around the country covered the incident, often in a mocking tone, with headlines like “Chief of Police Ousted by Woman” and “Cradle-Rocking Hand Rocked Police Department.” Mayor Brown was embarrassed, complaining that the situation had “put Seattle in a bad light all over the country.” But Landes was satisfied. “I do not believe in a Puritanical administration, even if I was born in Ware, Mass,” she told a journalist, “but there should be more rigid law enforcement by our police and I believe there will be henceforth. A score of places where there was gambling two weeks ago, are closed.” Landes hoped that she had shamed Brown into keeping a tighter lid on illegal activity, but he returned Seattle to the status quo. Two years later, Landes campaigned to replace him.


While campaigning for mayor in 1926, Landes described her platform as “municipal housekeeping.” First gaining popularity in the 1890s, the concept of municipal housekeeping justified women’s entrance into the public sphere by imagining the city as a macro version of a home. Using this logic, women’s domestic skills—like keeping to a budget and rearing moral children—could be well-applied to solving civic problems. Landes used this model to retain a traditional feminine role even while entering the masculine domain of politics.

When faced with the argument that “a woman’s place is in the home,” Landes replied that she had spent her life in the home, raising her children and supporting her husband, and only once her children were grown and married did she seek to enter public service. “I suppose some of the politicians believe I should merely stay at home and darn my husband’s socks,” she remarked to The New York Times. “Darning socks for one’s husband is a laudable occupation, no one will deny, but I found that my husband got along very well after I became a member of the City Council.”

Landes argued that since advances in technology had reduced women’s domestic workload, “if [a woman] is not to be a parasite […] she must turn her energies to public service of some kind.” But Landes proposed that only older women whose children were already grown should enter politics, and she spoke of it as a calling more than a job. In fact, she argued that male politicians were corrupt in part because they saw politics as a career, and sought to make money from their positions. Conversely, a woman would depend on her husband for financial stability, Landes assumed, and so would not be concerned about low government salaries or tempted by opportunities for graft. “Women are actually better fitted than men for the post of mayor,” Landes told the Oakland Tribune, “because they are not thinking of future political careers.”

As a candidate in the nonpartisan mayoral election (she had no declared party), Landes pledged to clean up Seattle—enforce Prohibition, shut down illegal gambling houses and brothels, and root out corruption in law enforcement. Seattle found her message appealing; she defeated the incumbent Mayor Brown by about 6000 votes, with a record voter turnout of over 90,000 (in a city of about 350,000).


Landes was serious about “closing the town” to illegal liquor, and during her tenure as mayor, the number of annual arrests for alcohol violations more than doubled. Speakeasies fled across the Seattle city line into the rest of King County, which retained its lackadaisical Prohibition enforcement. Landes also worked to root out corruption in the police department and shut down illegal gambling and prostitution. “Vice and lawlessness cannot be completely eradicated,” she later wrote, “But open flagrant violations of law should not be tolerated for an instant.”

In addition to campaigning as a moral reformer, Landes had emphasized her commitment to the bottom line. Upon taking office, she inherited a city-owned streetcar system that was hemorrhaging money. Her administration overhauled the system’s budget, cut back on less-used routes, and appealed to Washington state to refinance the entire railway, making Seattle’s streetcars profitable. A supporter of municipally owned utilities, she also cut expenses in the water department and maintained public control of City Light, the local electricity utility, which faced an attempted private takeover.


While Landes recognized the increased pressure she faced as the first woman mayor of an American city—“In politics it commonly takes a superior woman to overcome the handicap of traditional prejudice,” she wrote in Collier’s—she also insisted that she be treated the same as a male politician. During her time on the city council, Landes demanded to be called “councilman,” like her male peers, rather than “councilwoman,” and she later wrote in the magazine Woman Citizen, “I threaten to shoot on sight, without benefit of clergy, anyone calling me the mayoress instead of the mayor.”

During her tenure as mayor, Landes refused to let her gender—and gendered ideas about respectability—stand in her way. She visited the same places and greeted the same visitors as a male city leader would; she opened baseball games, broke ground for new buildings, flew in a Navy hydroplane, and rode in a submarine. When Seattle began construction on a new dam, Landes “put on [her] oldest clothes and tramped with muddy shoes all about the site, to observe conditions at first hand.” To celebrate the opening of a railroad terminal, she drove the first electric locomotive into Seattle. She entertained foreign dignitaries, like the royal family of Romania, and American celebrities, like Charles Lindbergh. “An English woman mayor once asked me: ‘Whom do you have to do the things a woman cannot do and go to the places a woman cannot go?’” she wrote in 1929. “There were no such things, or places, in Seattle when I was mayor.”


In Landes’s day, Seattle’s mayors served two-year terms, and she faced reelection in 1928. By this point, Prohibition had become increasingly unpopular, and Seattle’s citizens were growing tired of Landes’s reformist ways. Her efforts to remove dishonest officers from the city’s police department had also won her a host of enemies. A local businessman and political unknown named Frank Edwards ran against her, funded by policemen Landes had fired, opponents of her public power plan, and those who yearned for a government that winked at liquor and gambling laws.

Edwards’s campaign spending was unprecedented in Seattle—“variously estimated at from $20,000 to $50,000 for election to a position which pays a salary of $7,500 a year,” wrote The New York Times. He employed hundreds of paid workers, purchased billboard, radio, and newspaper ads, and embarked on a general PR blitz. The campaign was light on policy proposals, and his main message seemed to be that Landes was unsuitable for office because she was a woman.

When Landes challenged him to a series of debates Edwards declined, saying, “Any married man knows the danger of getting into an argument with a woman.” So at the first planned debate Landes spoke alone, with an empty chair onstage to represent the absent Edwards. “Can it be true,” she asked the empty chair, “that a man is afraid of a woman? If we need a man as Mayor of Seattle, why is it that the man who is the nominee for this office is afraid to meet me in debate?” The New York Times wrote, “She laughs as she conducts these one-sided debates and appears to get as much ‘kick’ out of them as her hearers, and the audience is usually in an uproar.” But outside the debate hall, Edwards’s message found an audience. “Seattle is sensitive to its reputation as a he-man city,” Julia N. Budlong wrote in The Nation at the time, “It did not like to be teased about its mayor.”

During her time in politics, Landes had not created a political machine or developed a network of officials and businessmen who depended on her. Her commitment to honest government meant that she was easy to oust. Meanwhile, supporters who backed her 1926 campaign over a desire for reform were less motivated to vote now that Landes had cleaned up the city. Local newspapers including The Seattle Times endorsed Landes for mayor, but come election day, Edwards trounced her by over 19,000 votes.

Despite speculation that she might run again, Landes never reentered politics. During the 1930s, she and her husband led University of Washington students on a series of study trips to Asia. After Henry died in 1936, Landes lived alone in their apartment in Seattle, moving to California in 1941 for health reasons. She died in 1943 at age 75, in her son’s home in Michigan.

Additional Sources:An Alumna in Politics,” Indiana Alumni Magazine, April 1939; Bertha Knight Landes of Seattle: Big-City Mayor; “Municipal Housekeeping in the American West: Bertha Knight Landes’s Entrance into Politics,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3; “The Origins of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, 1934,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 4; “What Happened in Seattle,” The Nation, Aug. 29, 1928.

iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
When German Scientists Tried to Rename Bats and Shrews, Hitler Threatened to Send Them to War
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski

In The Art of Naming (The MIT Press), Michael Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, delves into the art, science, language, and history of taxonomy. There are some 1.8 million known species—and scientists estimate that 100 million more await discovery. Every one will need a name. How does the process work? 

Ohl takes us into the field with the explorers and scientists at the forefront of naming the natural world, including Father Armand David, a French priest who was the first to describe the panda to the Western world; American paleontologists Edward Dinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who bitterly battled in the Bone Wars; and Polish biologist Benedykt Dybowski, whose unique naming system for crustaceans called gammarids (a.k.a. "scuds") resulted in tongue-twisters such as Cancelloidokytodermogammarus (Loveninsuskytodermogammarus) loveni.

In the excerpt below, Ohl tells the story of one of the little-known footnotes to World War II: When Adolf Hitler threatened the German biologists who wanted to rename bats and shrews. And, read on for the best bat nickname of all time: "bacon mouse."

—Jen Pinkowski


On March 3, 1942, a brief item with a rather peculiar headline appeared tucked away in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. "Fledermaus No Longer!" the bold letters proclaimed. The following short text was printed underneath:

"At its 15th General Assembly, the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to change the zoologically misleading names 'Spitzmaus' [shrew] and 'Fledermaus' [bat] to 'Spitzer' and 'Fleder.' Fleder is an old form for Flatterer [one that flutters]. The Spitzmaus, as it happens, has borne a variety of names: Spitzer [one that is pointed], Spitzlein, Spitzwicht, Spitzling. Over the course of the conference, several important lectures were held in the auditorium of the Zoologisches Museum […]."

To this day, despite the problems announced by Germany's leading specialists on mammals on the pages of one of the capital's daily papers, fledermaus and spitzmaus remain the common German names for bats and shrews. Neither dictionaries nor specialized nature guides contain entries for fleder or spitzer (provided one disregards the primary definition of spitzer, which is a "small implement used for the sharpening of pencils").

Indeed, a swift response to the item in question arrived from an unexpected source. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler's private secretary, sent a message on March 4, 1942, to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery. The missive contained remarkably unambiguous instructions from Hitler:

"In yesterday's newspapers, the Führer read an item regarding the changes of name ratified by the German Society for Mammalogy on the occasion of its 15th General Assembly. The Führer subsequently instructed me to communicate to the responsible parties, in no uncertain terms, that these changes of name are to be reversed immediately. Should members of the Society for Mammalogy have nothing more essential to the war effort or smarter to do, perhaps an extended stint in the construction battalion on the Russian front could be arranged. Should such asinine renamings occur once more, the Führer will unquestionably take appropriate measures; under no circumstance should terms that have become established over the course of many years be altered in this fashion."

There's no question that the "responsible parties" understood and responded to the injunction, which could hardly have been misinterpreted. On July 1, 1942, at least, a notice was printed in the Zoologischer Anzeiger—at that time, the "organ of the German Zoological Society"—that comprised a scant five lines. The notice has no byline and can most likely be attributed to the journal's publishers:

"Regarding the discussion [in earlier issues of the Zoologischer Anzeiger] about potential changes to the names 'Fledermaus' and 'Spitzmaus,' the Editors wish to make public that terms that have become established over the course of many years are not to be altered, following an announcement by the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture, as per the Führer's directive."

It's conceivable that Lammers forwarded Hitler's instructions (which had reached him by way of Bormann) to Bernhard Rust, the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture. Rust will then likely have ordered one of the "parties responsible" for the unpopular initiative to publish the retraction in the appropriate platform. The Zoologischer Anzeiger fit the bill, considering the fact that by 1941 it had already featured two articles debating whether the name spitzmaus should be changed.

What is the problem, though, that veteran scientists have with spitzmaus and fledermaus, those innocuous terms for the shrew and the bat? And how could it come to pass that Adolf Hitler—preoccupied as he was in 1942— should personally join in the campaign for the correct classification of these small mammals?


The common thread in these two unremarkable and familiar terms is of course the second word component, maus, or "mouse."

Fledermaus and spitzmaus … are (linguistically) first and foremost mice. By referencing certain characteristics in these compound words (fleder comes from flattern, "to flap"; spitz, or "point," refers to the shrew's pointy nose or rather head shape), it becomes possible to provide a clear name—or almost clear, at least, because there are many bat and shrew species, but more on that later.

Both names, of course, imply affiliation with mice, and that's the sticking point. In zoological terms, mice are a group of rodents known at the higher level of classification as Muroidea, "muroids" or the "mouse-like." The group includes quite the mix of animal groups, with occasionally curious names like zokor, blind mole-rat, spiny tree mouse, and Chinese pygmy dormouse, not to mention our pet hamsters and those domestic but unwelcome mice and rats. Common to all muroids are sundry and complex structural features in the skull, coupled of course with the oversized, continually growing incisors typical of rodents. Beyond that, although endless evolutionary gimmickry can revolve around this mouse theme (long or short legs, different fur colors and tail lengths, and much more), and even without biological expertise, most muroids tend to be identifiable as mice, if only vaguely.

Zoologically speaking, a mere mouse-like appearance is insufficient to denote a muroid. Instead, the specific anatomical features of the skull must be in evidence.

Field, house, and deer mice are familiar to many North Americans, although they typically live hidden away, and we don't often encounter them. These animals with the "mouse" base in their name are truly mice in the zoological sense.

The same cannot exactly be said for the bat and shrew—the fledermaus and spitzmaus—despite their names. Neither of them is even a rodent or, consequently, a muroid. Then what are they?

In the classification of mammals, a whole series of groupings is traditionally distinguished, usually assigned the rank of order within the class of mammals. Depending on scientific opinion, there are 25 to 30 of these orders of mammals. Rodents comprise one of these orders, to which muroids and several other groups of mammals belong.

Bats, meanwhile, are typical representatives of the order of flying mammals. Their scientific name is Chiroptera, from the Greek words chiros (hand) and pteros (wings). Chiroptera, then, means "hand-flier," which is a fitting name for bats and their closest relatives, flying foxes.

The systematic placement of the shrew, or spitzmaus, is determined in much the same way. They, too, fail to possess the mouse characteristics in question, although they do share traits with moles and hedgehogs, as well as with the solenodon (meaning "slotted tooth"), which is a venomous critter native exclusively to the Caribbean islands. They are now situated under the wondrous designation Eulipotyphla, but only since 1999. How they are related—along with ties to an array of other mammal families, such as tenrecs, desmans, and golden moles—has not been conclusively explained.

Experts have known for a long time—since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae at the latest—that neither bats nor shrews are related to mice, to which common parlance pays no heed. The fledermaus and spitzmaus comfortably maintain their spots in the lexicon.


One of the first mammal biologists to campaign for the standardization of German mammal names was Hermann Pohle. Born in Berlin in 1892, Pohle remained faithful to the city until his death and spent a large part of his life working at the natural history museum there. His career as a mammal biologist started early, when as a university student he worked as an unpaid hireling in the museum's famed mammal collection. Through diligence, endurance, and scientific acumen, he worked his way up to head curator of mammals. He thus held one of the most influential positions, of both national and international significance, in the field of systematic mammal research.

In 1926, Pohle—along with Ludwig Heck, the former director of the Berlin Zoo, and a number of other colleagues—founded the German Society for Mammalogy, of which he was the first head. Pohle thus had his finger on the pulse of mammal research, as it were, and he followed the history of the society over the next five decades "with keen interest," as one biographer noted.

In addition to his work as a researcher and curator of the mammal collection at Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History), Pohle's interests also lay with German mammal names. Not only did he push for standardization of names, Pohle also campaigned to have existing names assessed for scientific plausibility and changed, should they not pass (his) zoological muster.

In 1942, Pohle published a summary article addressing the question, "How many species of mammals live in Germany?" He appended a comprehensive list of all German mammals, each with its correct "technical name," as Pohle called it, as well as its corresponding German name. When it came to the various species of spitzmaus (of which the Germans have eight, incidentally, despite the long-standing impression that there is "the" one and only shrew) and the 16 species of bats that have the base word "fledermaus" in their name, Pohle consistently uses alternative terms. The eight shrew species thus became waldspitzer, zwergspitzer, alpenspitzer, wasserspitzer, mittelspitzer, feldspitzer, gartenspitzer, and hausspitzer. For the bats, the base of their compound name was changed to fleder: teichfleder, langfußfleder, wasserfleder, and so on, all the way to a term of particular elegance, wimperfleder.

Pohle's article, which predates the society's 15th General Assembly and Hitler's emotional veto by more than a year, is a particularly interesting source because he also shares his actual motivations for the suggested changes. His emphatic objective is to see "the term 'Maus' disappear, responsible as it is for laypersons' wont to lump the animals together with actual mice."

In the estimation of these laypersons, mice are something "ugly and destructive that must be fought, or ideally exterminated." Shrews and bats, harmless as they are to humans, are thus subject to the same brutal fate. Pohle hopes for a "shift in perspective" to occur, once the endangered animals are no longer referred to as mice.

What to do, then? Pohle would prefer the term spitz for spitzmaus, but it's already been assigned to a dog breed. Rüssler could also work, only it already applies to some other insectivore. That leaves spitzer, a name that emphasizes the pointy head as a distinguishing characteristic and is still available.

Pohle wants a name for bats without "maus" but happily with a nod to the animals' flying ability. Most names of this kind are already employed for birds, and "flatterer" or "flutterer" could only logically be used for a certain population of bats, namely, those bad at flying. "Flieger" or "flyer," another hot candidate, is also in use by various other animal groups.

But why, Pohle asks the reader, would one even need to say "fledermaus," when "fleder" actually makes perfect sense? Pohle mentions that the original meaning of "fleder" was different, but few people were aware of this fact anymore.

On the off chance that he was correct in this assessment, let it be noted that fledermaus can be traced back to the 10th century, to the Old High German "vledern" or "flattern" (the infinitive form of "flatterer"). The image of the bat as a "fluttering mouse" has existed since this time in many languages, including "flittermouse" in English. A number of other German terms exist for bats. In some regions of Germany, such as Rhineland-Palatinate and Southern Hesse, the Old High German "fledarmus" is said to have been used to describe nocturnal creatures, such as moths. There, bats were apparently called "speckmaus," instead of fledermaus, because while hibernating, they could be seen hanging like pieces of bacon (speck) in the smoke.

Pohle's dedication to promoting the protection of bats and shrews through a bold name change reached its temporary culmination a year later, when—at the 15th General Assembly of the German Society for Mammalogy in Berlin—a resolution was passed on a universal and binding adoption of the spitzer- and fleder-based names Pohle had suggested. The results are known: Hitler was not amused.


We can only guess at what Hitler's actual motive was in issuing such drastic threats to prevent the name alterations proposed by the German Society for Mammalogy. It could have been his outrage that in 1942—hard times because of the war—leading German intellectuals were concerned with something so unimportant and banal as the appropriateness of animal names. Perhaps this anecdote is just a further example of Hitler's hostility toward intellectuals.

It is ultimately unclear, even, to what extent Hitler was the driving force behind this directive or whether this is a case of subordinates "working towards the Führer," as historian Ian Kershaw describes it. Conceivably, after reading the Berliner Morgenpost, Hitler may have remarked negatively regarding the zoologists' plans. His circle—in this case, Bormann—may have immediately interpreted this as "the Führer's will" and sprung to action accordingly. As for Pohle and his colleagues, it can't have mattered much whether the "invitation" to the Eastern Front came directly from Hitler or was communicated in an act of premature obedience.

Whatever the case may be, Pohle's suggested name changes did not fail because of Hitler's intervention, which presumably resonated as little with the German-speaking public as the original notice. Pohle failed because he wanted to take the basic idea of a standardized naming system out of the scientific context and transfer it into the realm of vernacular. Everyday German is not formally and officially regulated, and like every other vernacular, it follows different rules than scientific speech. It is shaped by a multitude of factors and influences that have their own unpredictable dynamic, which leads to some word usages changing while others stabilize.

In kindergarten, we learn that small, furry four-legged animals with a tail are "mice." This act of naming fulfills the exact function expected of it. It "tags" specific linguistic content—a meaning—that is generally understood. The difference between muroids and insectivores, which is important to zoologists, has no application in everyday confrontations with "mouse-like" animals and makes no difference to most people. A mouse is a mouse, whether a striped field mouse or a shrew.

Mental Floss
How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death
Mental Floss
Mental Floss

One day toward the beginning of March, an unusual object arrived at a New York City airport. Carefully encased in a foam-padded, specially built wooden chair and strapped in with a bright-blue sash, it was the stuffed skeleton of one of Britain's most famous philosophers—transported not for burial, but for exhibition.

"We all refer to him as he, but the curator has corrected me. I need to keep referring to it," says University College London conservator Emilia Kingham, who prepared the item for its transatlantic voyage.

The stuffed skeleton belongs to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. But for well over a century, his "auto-icon"—an assemblage including his articulated skeleton surrounded by padding and topped with a wax head—has been on display in the south cloisters of University College London. Starting March 21, it will be featured in The Met Breuer exhibition "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)," marking its first appearance in America.

While the auto-icon has sometimes been seen as an absurd vanity project or memento mori, according to Tim Causer, it's best understood as a product of Bentham's trailblazing work. "I would tend to ask people to reckon with the auto-icon not as macabre curio or the weird final wish of a strange old man," says the senior research associate at UCL's Bentham Project, which is charged with producing a new edition of the philosopher's collected works. Instead, "[we should] accept it in the manner in which Bentham intended it, as a sort of physical manifestation of his philosophy and generosity of spirit."


Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite

Bentham is best known as the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that evaluates actions and institutions based on their consequences—particularly whether those consequences cause happiness. A man frequently ahead of his time, he believed in a world based on rational analysis, not custom or religion, and advocated for legal and penal reform, freedom of speech, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His then-unconventional ideas extended to his own body. At the time Bentham died, death was largely the province of the Church of England, which Bentham thought was "irredeemably corrupt," according to Causer. Instead of paying burial fees to the Church and letting his body rot underground, Bentham wanted to put his corpse to public use.

In this he was influenced by his friend and protégé Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had published an article called "Use of the dead to the living" in 1824. Smith argued that medical knowledge suffered from the limited number of bodies then available for dissection—the Crown supplied only a handful of hanged criminals each year—and that the pool of available corpses had to be expanded to allow surgeons more practice material, lest they begin "practicing" on the living.

From his earliest will, Bentham left his body to science. (Some scholars think he may have been the first person to do so.) But he also went one step further. His last essay, written shortly before his death, was entitled "Auto-icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living." In it, Bentham lambasts "our dead relations" as a source of both disease and debt. He had a better idea: Just as "instruction has been given to make 'every man his own broker,' or 'every man his own lawyer': so now may every man be his own statue."

Bentham envisioned a future in which weatherproofed auto-icons would be interspersed with trees on ancestral estates, employed as "actors" in historical theatre and debates, or simply kept as decoration. The point, he felt, was to treat the body in terms of its utility, rather than being bound by superstition or fear.

"It was a very courageous thing to do in the 1830s, to ask yourself to be dissected and reassembled," Causer says. "The auto-icon is his final attack on organized religion, specifically the Church of England. Because Bentham thought the church had a pernicious influence on society."

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham's corpse laid out for dissection
"The Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for dissection, by H. H. Pickersgill

There was only one man Bentham trusted with carrying out his last wishes: Smith. After a public dissection attended by eminent scientific men, the devoted doctor cleaned Bentham's bones and articulated the skeleton with copper wiring, surrounding them with straw, cotton wool, fragrant herbs, and other materials. He encased the whole thing in one of Bentham's black suits, with the ruffles of a white shirt peeking out at the breast. He even propped Bentham's favorite walking stick, which the philosopher had nicknamed "Dapple," in between his legs, and sat him on one of his usual chairs—all just as Bentham had asked for.

But not everything went quite according to plan. The philosopher had asked to have his head preserved in the "style of the New Zealanders," which Smith attempted by placing the head over some sulfuric acid and under an air pump. The result was ghastly: desiccated, dark, and leathery, even as the glass eyes Bentham had picked out for it during life gleamed from the brow.

Seeing as how the results "would not do for exhibition," as Smith wrote to a friend, the doctor hired a noted French artist, Jacques Talrich, to sculpt a head out of wax based on busts and paintings made of Bentham while alive. Smith called his efforts "one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen"—a far more suitable topper for the auto-icon than the real, shriveled head, which was reportedly stuffed into the chest cavity and not rediscovered until World War II.

The preserved real head of Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham's preserved real head
Matt Brown, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Smith kept the auto-icon at his consulting rooms until 1850, when he donated it to University College London, where Bentham is often seen as a spiritual forefather. It has been there ever since, inside a special mahogany case, despite rumors that students from Kings College—UCL's bitter rival—once stole the head and used it as a football.

"His head has never been stolen by another university," Kingham confirms. Causer says there is reason to believe the wax head was stolen by King's College in the 1990s, but never the real head. The football part of the story is particularly easy to dismiss, he notes: "We all have human heads, and kicking them doesn't do them much good, particularly 180-year-old human heads. If anybody kicked that, it would disintegrate on impact, I think." (Kingham also notes that the real head is not decomposing, as is sometimes claimed: "It's actually quite stable, it just doesn't look like a real-life person anymore. The skin is all shrunken.")

Another beloved myth has it that the auto-icon regularly attends UCL council meetings, where he's entered into the record as "present but not voting." Causer says that's not true either, although fiction became reality after the auto-icon graced the council meetings marking the 100th and 150th anniversary of the college's founding as a nod to the legend; it also attended the final council meeting of the school's retiring provost, Malcolm Grant.


Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham. UCL Culture, London

Bentham always wanted to visit America; Causer says he was "a big admirer of the American political system" as the one most likely to promote the greatest happiness for its citizens. But before he could accomplish in death what he failed to do in life, UCL had to mount a careful conservation operation.

The first step: a spring cleaning. The conservation team at UCL removed each item of clothing on the auto-icon piece by piece, holding carefully to the delicate areas, like a loose left shoulder and wrist, where they knew from previous x-rays that the wiring was imperfect. After a detailed condition report and an inspection for pest damage (thankfully absent), the team surface-cleaned everything.

"The clothes were quite grubby because the box that he's sitting in, it's actually not very airtight," Kingham says. A vacuum with a brush attachment took care of surface dirt and dust, but the inner items required a more thorough clean. "We determined that his linen shirt and also his underwear could do with the wash, so we actually washed those in water. It was quite exciting saying I've been able to wash Jeremy Bentham's undies." The wax head was cleaned with water and cotton swabs, and occasionally a little spit, which Kingham says is a common cleaning technique for painted surfaces.


Kingham's team rearranged the stuffing around the skeleton, plumping the fibers as you would a pillow. The stuffing around the arms, in particular, had started to sag, so Kingham used a piece of stockinette fabric to bind the area around the biceps—making them look more like arms, she says, but also reducing some of the strain against the jacket, which threatened the stitching.

But the most labor-intensive part of the preparation, according to Kingham, was devising a customized padded chair for the auto-icon's transport. Their final creation included a wooden boarded seat covered in soft foam that had been sculpted to hold the auto-icon lying on its back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle to minimize stress on the pelvis—another weak point. The auto-icon was bound to the chair with soft bandages, and the whole thing inserted into a travel case. The wax head was also set inside a foam pad within a special handling crate (the real head will stay at UCL, where it is currently on display), while Bentham's regular chair, hat, and walking stick got their own crates.

"We had originally joked that it might be just easier to buy him a seat on the plane and just wheel him in on a wheelchair," Kingham says, laughing.

The special chair constructed for transporting Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
UCL Culture

Luke Syson, the co-curator of "Like Life," says it was touching to watch the stick and hat emerge from their travel boxes, even if the auto-icon's special chair did look a bit "like how you would transport a lunatic around 1910—or indeed 1830."

Reached by phone just after he had finished installing the auto-icon, Syson says he wanted to include the item as part of the show's emphasis on works of art made to persuade the viewer that life is present. "This piece really sums up so many of the themes that the rest of the show looks at, so the use of wax, for example, as a substitute for flesh, the employment of real clothes … And then, above all of course, the use of body parts." And the auto-icon isn't the only item in the show to include human remains—when we spoke to Syson, he was looking at the auto-icon, Marc Quinn's "Self" (a self-portrait in frozen blood), and a medieval reliquary head made for a fragment of Saint Juliana's skull, all of which are installed in the same corner of the museum.

Syson says he was initially worried the auto-icon might not "read" as a piece of art—worries that were dispelled as soon as he installed the wax head. "The modeling of the face is so fine," he says. "The observation and expression, the sense of changing personality … there's a lovely jowliness underneath his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes are really speaking, and the kind of quizzical eyebrows, and so on, all make him really amazingly present."

And unlike at UCL, where the auto-icon sits in a case, viewers at the Met are able to see him on three sides, including his back. "He sort of springs to attention on his chair, he's not sort of slumped, which you couldn't see in the box [at UCL]."

Those who have worked with Bentham's auto-icon say it encourages a kind of intimacy. Taking the auto-icon apart, Kingham says, "you really do feel a closeness to Jeremy Bentham, because you looked in such detail at his clothes, and his bones, and his skeleton." The wax head, she says, is particularly lifelike. "People who knew him have said that it's a very, very good realistic likeness of him," she notes, which made it both eerie and special to handle so closely.

"This is both the representation and the person," Syson says. "We've been calling him 'Jeremy' these last few months, and he's sort of here, and it's not just that something's here, he's here. So that's an amazing thing."

Nearly 200 years later and across an ocean, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon has arrived to serve another public good: delighting a whole new set of fans.