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."

EVERY MAN HIS OWN STATUE

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.

FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE

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.

5755620827001

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.

Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

[h/t Smithsonian]

9 Colors Named After People

Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress/Wikimedia // Public Domain

Throughout history, a variety of famous people have lent their names to shades of brilliant blue, shocking purple, grassy green, muddy brown, and other hues. While many of these figures are artists who were known for using or developing these hues, other color eponyms come from the scientists who invented them or those who loved to wear them. Consider this list the place where the history books meet the artist’s palette.

1. Alice Blue

A pale azure blue named for Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for wearing gowns of the color and thus sparking a trend for it. (She was also known for smoking in public and other forms of mischief-making, leading her father to declare: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”) Her ice-blue dresses inspired the song "Alice Blue Gown" by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Tierney, which premiered in the 1919 Broadway musical Irene. ("I once had a gown that was almost new / Oh, the daintiest thing, it was sweet Alice Blue / With little forget-me-nots placed here and there / When I had it on, I walked on air.")

2. Yves Klein Blue

Visitors look at 'Monochrome Blue, without title' (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
Visitors look at Monochrome Blue, without title (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

The artist Yves Klein was interested in art as transcendence, and he’s perhaps best known for painting monochromes in a brilliant ultramarine meant to suggest the infinity of sea and sky. (As Klein once explained, "Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions.") In 1960, he registered a formula for the color—known as IKB, or International Klein Blue—with the French government; the formula relied on ultramarine pigment mixed with a synthetic resin that wouldn't dilute the color.

During his “blue period,” Klein exhibited only blue paintings and objects, releasing a thousand and one blue balloons into the sky in Paris to celebrate one show, and serving gin, Cointreau, and blue-dye cocktails at another. Don’t copy that last idea, mixologists: everyone who drank them peed blue for days.

3. Titian Red

Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

A person with red hair is sometimes said to be a Titian, after the great 16th century Venetian painter who was notably fond of painting redheads. (Examples of such paintings include Bacchus and Ariadne and Noli me Tangere, now in London's National Gallery.) In the 1960s, redheaded Barbie dolls were officially known as “Titians.” More loosely, the term has come to mean any orange-red color, although people seem to love to debate exactly what shades count.

4. Scheele's Green

Svenska Familj-Journalen, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Arsenic-based green pigments were all the rage in the 19th century, coloring everything from hosiery to hats to children’s toys. The first such pigment on the scene was Scheele’s Green, discovered by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775. The vibrant yellow-green hue caught on, especially after it was discovered that arsenic also produced a variety of other greens, from deep emerald to pale peridot. Although Scheele and others knew how toxic these pigments were, that didn't stop the colors from being used for clothing, candles, papers, playing cards, book-bindings, and sometimes even food. In perhaps the most famous example of its use, arsenic green wallpaper graced Napoleon’s last bathroom while he suffered through his exile on St. Helena, and some think the fumes caused by his long baths may have been what killed him.

5. Isabelline

José Reynaldo da Fonseca, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

If true, this color's origin story has to be the most off-putting in history. Once used to describe the pale champagne color of certain horse coats and bird feathers, the term Isabella-colored or isabelline is said (by no less than Isaac D'Israeli's 1791 Curiosities of Literature) to come from Isabel of Austria, the devoted daughter of Philip II of Spain.

Supposedly, when Spain laid siege to the city of Ostend in 1601, Isabella vowed not to change her undergarments until the city was taken. She expected a speedy victory, but much to her dismay (and presumably that of everyone around her), the fighting continued for three years before Spain won.

The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this origin story, noting that Isabella as a color is first noted in 1600, a year before the siege began. But linguist Michael Quinion notes that accounts in French, German, Spanish and Italian (where isabelline has a similar color meaning) refer to the earlier Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) and the siege of Granada—which means the story might just be true, even if it's about a different Isabella and a different set of 7-month-old dirty underwear.

6. Fuchsia

Heinrich Füllmaurer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Here's a more pleasant etymology: The vivid red-purple of fuchsia, the color, comes from fuchsia, the flower, which is in turn named for 16th-century German botanist Leonhart Fuchs. (His last name, by the way, comes from the German word for "fox.") And if you think fuchsia and magenta are the same color, you're closer than you might think: Magenta was originally an aniline dye named fuchsine, named after the fuchsia flower. The name was changed in 1859, the year it was patented, in honor of the French victory at the Battle of Magenta. That apparently helped the dye become a stunning success.

7. Vandyke Brown

Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep, warm, transparent brown was made with a high concentration of organic matter (basically: actual dirt), and was popular with the Old Masters. It was named for the innovative Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who often used the color in his paintings, and who also lent his name to an early photographic printing process—which also produced a brown color, but did not actually involve dirt.

8. Perkin's Mauve

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like so many scientific discoveries, the invention of synthetic dyes happened by accident. In 1856, chemistry student William Henry Perkin, then only 18, was trying to find a new way to make quinine (a popular treatment for malaria, and the ingredient that still gives tonic water its slightly bitter taste). The experiment didn't quite work as planned, but Perkin noticed some purple sludge left over in his flask after rinsing it with alcohol, and realized its potential.

His instincts were good: After Perkin patented his creation and began mass-producing it, the color swept England, becoming so popular that the magazine Punch condemned an outbreak of “the mauve measles.” The color was originally called aniline purple by Perkin, as well as Perkin's purple or Perkin’s violet. The mauve part of “Perkin’s mauve” came a few years later thanks to the French, who named it after their word for the mallow flower.

9. Hooker's Green

Thomas Herbert Maguire, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The warm, grassy "Hooker's Green" is named for botanical illustrator William Hooker (1779–1832), who created a special pigment just to convey the exact green of leaves.

Bonus: Mummy Brown

A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
iStock.com/izanbar

OK, it’s not a color named after one person, but a color named after many people—many dead people. First made in the 16th and 17th centuries, but a special favorite of the 19th century painters, this rich brown pigment was created by mixing both human and feline mummy crumbles with white pitch and myrrh. (Although we tend to think of them as protected antiquities today, people in centuries past often considered mummies just another natural resource.)

In part because of its curious components, the pigment wasn’t the most stable in the world, and it fell out of favor once its origin story became better known. According to one biography, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones gave his tube of Mummy Brown a funeral in his garden when he discovered where it came from. The pigment was sold into the 20th century, although if you see the name “mummy brown” used today, rest assured it contains no actual corpses. Probably.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER