The Philosopher Whose Head Keeps Getting Stolen

Wednesday June 20, 2018 Written by Smith


If you’ve ever felt that you’ve contributed insufficiently to a meeting, console yourself with the knowledge that one of the finest and most influential thinkers in Britain’s history has attended many at which he has not uttered a word. Jeremy Bentham does, admittedly, have the excuse of having been dead since 1832. Nevertheless, Bentham’s alma mater, University College London, occasionally indulges the great philosopher’s presence at council meetings, at which he is recorded as “present, but not voting”.

Bentham’s will requested that his body be preserved as an “auto-icon”: his skeleton clad in his own clothes, and his head preserved through a process of desiccation (extreme drying, like coconut). The second part of the operation did not go as planned, and so the actual head in which the modern creed of utilitarianism was gestated – along with remarkably progressive ideas about female emancipation and gay rights – was replaced with a wax facsimile.

The original cranium was placed first on the floor of the cabinet containing Bentham. Then it was stored in a wooden box on top of the cabinet, then on a plinth over a door in UCL’s South Cloisters, and finally in a safe in the Institute of Archaeology. (It returned to public display in late 2017.)

The problem was that Bentham’s head kept getting stolen.

Once, it was returned upon the making of a charitable donation; on another occasion, it was recovered from a luggage locker in Aberdeen. A man as clever as Bentham should have been able to foresee the inevitable consequences of spending eternity among students.

This story appears in Smith Journal volume 27, on sale now. 

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Photo: Tony Slade, Courtesy of UCL Culture