Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dead Man Walking: The Strange Story of Jeremy Bentham

I thought I heard it all, but this is by far, the most bizarre story I’ve heard in a long time. In the University College London in the main building of the college is a polished wood-paneled cabinet holding the embalmed body of its founder, Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. Born to a wealthy family in 1748 and educated at Westminster School, and Queens College, and Oxford. Because he was wealthy he had nothing but time to dedicate to study and writing. According to a contemporary, William Hazlitt, Jeremy became a hermit for forty years…”reducing law to a system, and the mind of a man to a machine.” In 1789 he publishes his first book, “Introduction to the Principles of Morals,” and establishes the principles of utilitarianism.

Bentham died on June 6, 1832 and he left his entire estate to the University College London under one condition, that his body be wheeled into the college’s board meetings! Wow, ok…. His body is embalmed and sits in a cabinet at the college, and yes it attends the board meetings. Bentham is listed on the minutes as “present but not voting.” So if you ever walk into this college, you will see Bentham’s embalmed body on a chair and dressed in a black jacket, fawn breeches, and straw-colored hat, and holding a stick. His real head was damaged when they tried to embalm it, so they used a wax head instead. The real head was kept in a case for many years. It is now locked away in a vault.

The college did what it had to do to get the money, but still I can’t help but think this story to be…. well, gross, macabre, and bizarre.

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