Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

15 Facts About Leif Erikson

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Leif Erikson's foray into North America began over a thousand years ago—long before Columbus's 1492 journey. Read on to find out more about the intrepid explorer.


Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Icelandic Sagas were a set of around 40 historical narratives about the bygone Age of Vikings. Nobody knows who authored them; it’s likely that the stories came from Iceland’s rich oral tradition, passed along verbally from one generation to the next until someone committed them to paper. Like Homer’s The Iliad, the sagas seem to mix fiction and fact. However, there is archaeological evidence to back up some of the historic claims they make. Two sagas—titled The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders—retell the adventures of a Viking named Leif Erikson. Both works agree that he traveled west of Greenland around 1000 CE. Then, he reportedly founded a settlement in present-day North America. The two accounts diverge on specifics, but both agree that Leif Erikson was one of the first Europeans—if not the first European—to ever tread on the continent.


In Iceland and Scandinavia, the name Leif is usually pronounced “Layf” and rhymes with the English word safe (or like “life,” depending on the region). Yet, in America, people often say “Leef” instead. If you grew up with Nicktoons, you might remember Spongebob Squarepants raving about “Leef” Erikson Day in a season two episode.

The spelling of Leif's name is also all over the place. In the Old Norse Language, “Leif Erikson” is spelled Leifr Eiríksson. But in Nynorsk—a younger version of Norwegian writing—it’s spelled Leiv Eiriksson. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To complicate things even further, some writers favor alternate spellings like Ericson, Eriksson, and Erikson. In the U.S., the most widely-used version is Leif Erikson, so we’ll just go with that.


Saint Brendan the Navigator was a well-traveled Irish abbot who died around 577 CE. Tales of his deeds remained popular after he died, and in the 9th century, his legend was bolstered by a Latin-language biography called The Voyage of St. Brendan.

Some portions of the book seem a bit far-fetched. According to The Voyage of St. Brendan, Brendan and a small crew took a leather-bound wooden sailboat and launched it from the Dingle Peninsula. They went westward in search of the Garden of Eden—and, according to the book at least, he found it: Brendan landed on a beautiful island, stayed for a time, and then left when an angel told him to go back home. The story is probably just a religious folktale, but there are those who think it’s based on a real, transatlantic voyage Brendan made (it's been suggested that the paradise he found was either a Bahaman Island or North America’s eastern seaboard).

In 1976, adventurer Tim Severin decided to test whether or not the Irish abbot could have actually made the journey. Using historical records, he built a 36-foot duplicate of the type of ship Brendan would have used, and on May 17, he and his four-man crew went to the Dingle Peninsula and set sail. Following a long pit stop in Iceland, they made it to Newfoundland on June 26, 1977. This seemingly proves that 6th-century Irishmen did have the technology to cross the Atlantic, but it doesn’t mean Brendan—or any of his contemporaries—actually made the trip.


Erik Thorvaldson, better known as Erik the Red, had crimson hair and a rough childhood. He was born in Norway, but when his father committed manslaughter there, the family was banished to Iceland, where Erik would go on to marry a rich woman and have four children—including a son he named Leif. Unfortunately, Erik killed a neighbor in a skirmish and was temporarily exiled. Instead of going back to Norway, Erik went west, settling in a huge, uninhabited region that another explorer had sighted a few years earlier. Once his banishment was lifted in the year 985 CE, Erik decided to try and establish a new colony on the island he’d found. Luckily, he was a PR genius. To entice others into moving there, he gave the place an appealing name: Greenland. The strategy worked.


The sagas have little to say about Leif’s upbringing, but he was probably born in Iceland sometime between 970 and 980 CE and grew up in Greenland. In 999 CE, Erik sent Leif to Norway so that he could work for King Olaf Tryggvason as a royal bodyguard. Tryggvason vigorously promoted the Christian religion, and he found an eager convert in Leif.

In 1000 or 1001 CE, the monarch handed his bodyguard a special mission: Preach Christianity in Greenland. Upon returning to his father’s island, Leif spread the gospel—with some difficulty. His mother, Thjodhild, was quick to embrace the new faith. She also insisted that a chapel be built near her Greenland home. On the other hand, Erik the Red refused to give up his Pagan beliefs. So in retaliation, Thjodhild stopped sleeping with him, which—according to one saga—“was a great trial to his temper.”


On his voyage to join Olaf Tryggvason, Leif’s crew got a bit lost and landed on the Hebrides near Scotland. Terrible weather forced the men to remain there for a month, and Leif got a lord’s daughter pregnant, then went to Norway and left her behind. But when she gave birth to a son—a boy christened Thorgills Leifson—Leif agreed to raise him. Thorgills’s mother sent him away to live with Leif in Greenland. At some point, Leif had another male child who was called Thorkel.


In The Saga of Erik the Red, Leif parts ways with King Olaf and then discovers the American continent while journeying back to Greenland. (Apparently, he veered off-course.) The Saga of the Greenlanders tells it differently. This text maintains that, one day, a trader named Bjarni Herjólfsson caught sight of the landmass from his ship but didn’t go ashore. Bjarni began telling tales about this strange new place, and Leif, fascinated by the story, bought Bjarni’s vessel and set out to locate the mysterious land with a 35-man crew. Over the course of an adventurous summer, he did just that. And unlike Bjarni, Leif explored the place on foot.


Baffin, Canada’s biggest island, is 932 miles long and home to lemmings, caribou, and polar bears (and people). It might also be one of the three North American areas that the Icelandic Sagas reference.

When Leif’s men begin their westward journey in The Saga of the Greenlanders, they soon discover an icy countryside filled with large, flat rocks. “Now I will give the land a name, and call it Helluland,” Leif says in the text. Translated from Old Norse, the moniker means “stone-slab land.” Based on the descriptions in the sagas of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red, most historians think Helluland was really Baffin Island. Some Norse artifacts have been found there.


After leaving Helluland, the Vikings went south. Their next stop was a timber-filled expanse which received the name Markland, or “land of wood.” The sagas report that Markland was south of Helluland but north of a third area that the Nordics named Vinland. Generally, Markland is thought to have been a portion of Canada’s Labrador coast. Wherever it was, we know that Greenlanders continued to visit the place well into the 1300s. That’s because one document from 1347 mentions a ship that had recently stopped in Markland—though there are no specific details about its location.

The location of Vinland is a total mystery. In the sagas, it’s described as a vast area with a prized commodity: grape vines. Salmon, game animals, and wild grasses were also said to be present. In Vinland, Leif’s party built a settlement, where they spent the winter before journeying back to Greenland. Subsequent Viking forays into Vinland are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas. Other texts reveal that the Bishop of Greenland traveled there in 1121 CE.

But at some point, Nordics stopped going to Vinland. Today’s historians argue about where the place once stood, but in 1960, archaeologists found what turned out to be a Viking-made settlement in Newfoundland. The site is named L’Anse aux Meadows—and according to radiometric dating, it was built between 990 and 1030 CE and was occupied for around 10 years. That lines up neatly with the timeline of events in Leif’s story from the Icelandic Sagas.

Is L’Anse aux Meadows the long-lost settlement of Vinland? Maybe. Some experts argue that it was just an offshoot of that legendary colony and would have served as a waystation for seafaring travelers. Others think the site might be Markland rather than any part of Vinland.


Erik the Red didn’t accompany his son to North America, and he died shortly after Leif returned to Greenland. By then, the island’s population had exploded to around 2400 people. When he became chieftain, Leif put his voyaging years behind him. We don’t know when he died, but it was probably before 1025 CE, when Leif’s son Thorkel succeeded him as chieftain.


In The Saga of the Greenlanders, we’re treated to a disturbing tale about Erik the Red’s daughter, Freydis (who The Saga of Erik the Red tells us was illegitimate). While Leif was presiding as Greenland’s chieftain, she and her husband Thorvard undertook a voyage to the New World with two brothers named Helgi and Finnbogi. For a few months, the couple lived in Vinland, and it was not a pleasant time. One day, Freydis told Thorvard that Helgi and Finnbogi had beaten her (which the saga says was a lie), and demanded that he kill the men.

Helgi and Finnbogi were living at a separate campsite along with several other Vikings. Thorvard, Freydis, and many of their neighbors headed to the camp, where all the men there were slain. But that didn’t satisfy Freydis, who grabbed an axe and proceeded to massacre the camp’s unarmed women. Upon her return to Greenland, Leif heard about this atrocity but couldn’t bring himself to punish his half-sibling.

Rather bizarrely, The Saga of Erik the Red treats Freydis as a hero for fighting off an attack by native North Americans and never mentions her as a murderer. It’s unknown which saga is closer to the truth.


In the Arctic Circle, Norse artifacts are sometimes found at Inuit archaeological sites—and vice versa. We know from the sagas that the Vikings didn’t always interact with indigenous residents peacefully. The Vinland settlement was occasionally attacked during their stay by a group of natives—whom the Nordics called “Skraelings.” One one occasion, the indigenous people terrorized the Vikings with catapults and other advanced weapons—but they were ultimately driven off (perhaps thanks partly to Freydis). On another occasion, Leif’s brother Thorvald was killed near the Vinland encampment by an indigenous warrior.


Christopher Columbus drawing
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Christopher Columbus didn’t become a household name until Washington Irving published a wildly inaccurate biography of the explorer in 1828. Misleading as the book was, the idea of celebrating Columbus really appealed to Italian immigrants. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison publicly encouraged his fellow Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. At the urging of Italian residents, Colorado adopted Columbus Day as an official state holiday in 1907. Presidents began issuing Columbus Day proclamations in the 1930s, although it wouldn’t become a true federal holiday until 1968.

Not all Americans approved of that version of history. Forty-six years after Irving published his biography of Columbus, Wisconsinite Rasmus Bjorn Anderson published a book called America Not Discovered By Columbus, which pointed out that Leif Erikson was traversing North America 500 years before the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria crossed the Atlantic. Anderson decided that Erik the Red’s famous son needed his own holiday to offset Columbus’s, and settled on October 9 as the perfect date for it: On that day in 1825, a group of Norwegian immigrants landed in New York City, an event that is generally credited as starting organized Scandinavian migration to the United States. At Anderson’s urging, Wisconsin became the first state to recognize Leif Erikson Day in 1929.


America Not Discovered By Columbus—and other books like it—gave Leif Erikson a rabid U.S. fanbase. Early on, though, it became clear that some admirers didn’t just like him because he was a great explorer: They liked him because he wasn’t Catholic. The surge of immigrants from places like Poland and Italy led to an anti-Catholic backlash in the States. To many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, honoring Christopher Columbus—an Italian who practiced Catholicism—seemed odious. From their perspective, Leif Erikson looked way more appealing.

Nevertheless, Columbus Day emerged as a federal holiday, and Leif Erikson Day has yet to achieve that distinction. It is, however, customary for the sitting U.S. president to honor Scandinavian-Americans every year on October 9 by way of a proclamation, a tradition that started in 1964.


Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral and the statue of the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson
Marcel Mochet, AFP/Getty Images

A Harvard chemist with a passion for Viking lore saw to it that Boston erected one in 1887. In the next few years, Milwaukee and Chicago had set up their own Leif Erikson statues. Others preside over Norway, Newfoundland, and Iceland. Speaking of Leif’s birthplace, the statue of him in Reykjavík (above) once had its own bodyguards. This sculpture—which weighs a full metric ton—was a gift from the United States. After it went up in 1931, city officials started to worry that drunk pedestrians might try to urinate on it. Night watchmen were stationed by Leif’s metal feet in 1935. The statue continued to receive guarding services until the outbreak of World War II.

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.


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