Oct 7, 2020

Jeremy Bentham

by Aspen, Trainer of the Things

British history is full of extremely weird stuff. For example, one of the most influential statesmen of the Georgian/Regency period was a man named Jeremy Bentham. He was the founder of the Utilitarian movement. He wrote unpublished pieces advocating for the decriminalization of homosexuality, believed women to be intellectually inferior to men but fought for equality of law, was one of the first animal rights advocates, and was one of the founders of the University College of London. 

At the same time, he was one of the arbiters of some of the most brutal tactics a government has ever utilized to convince poor people to “stop being poor.” Believing poverty was a moral failure rather than an economic one, he was an advocate for making government aid in the form of “poor houses” where those seeking government assistance had to essentially check themselves into labor prison camps to receive government support. The conditions were so severe you were likely to die there, Bentham pushed to use the poor houses as a source of cadavers for physician students. Dissection was believed to be tantamount to giving up eternal salvation, so many people chose to die on the streets rather than turn to the government for aid. Bentham made himself an example and donated his own body to science to try to overcome the fears of the general public. 

He gave instructions that his head be mummified and displayed as an “auto-con,” but when he died, the embalming process went terribly wrong, and the head looked too awful to display. So they made a wax head, put his bones in his clothes, filled them out with hay, and displayed the original head next to him. His remains still sit in the hallway of the University College of London (though the actual head became a target for inter-collegiate pranks so is now locked away), where he is listed on the Board of Directors and his body is sometimes rolled into meetings and listed as “present but not voting.” Yep. Weird.