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The mummified head of Jeremy Bentham

The Quest For The Golden Rings Of An Eccentric Mummified Philosopher


Scientists are calling out for help as they try to solve the mystery of 20 missing gold rings issued upon the death of an eccentric 19th century English philosopher, just before he was mummified and put on public display.

Bentham’s Major Philosophical Influence

Jeremy Bentham (1748 to 1832) was a philosophical and political legend. This famous English philosopher was a super liberal and political radical who helped establish the first police force in Britain, London's Thames River Police, in 1800. He influenced the beginnings of welfarism, advocated the separation of church and state, fought for equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery and the decriminalization of homosexuality. All things considered, we can forgive Bentham’s eccentric deathbed wishes - for a collection of 26 gold rings to be sent to a group of intellectuals, and that his body be surgically mummified and put on public display.

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill. (Public Domain)

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill. (Public Domain)

Bentham’s Memorial Rings

When Bentham was only 21 years old he came up with the idea to leave behind 26 gold memorial rings, according to a statement from University College London (UCL) in an article in Live Science. Before he died Bentham commissioned John Field, an artist who had worked for King William IV to make the rings and Tim Causer, a senior research associate with the UCL Bentham Project told reporters "The mourning rings were probably commissioned by Bentham in 1822, when he had his silhouette painted by Field.”

The gold memorial rings each feature a profile of Bentham's head, his signature, and a lock of his hair. UCL has four of the 26 rings, including one that has not been inscribed, and the research team is calling on the public for help tracking them down.

One of Bentham’s 26 memorial or mourning rings. (Image: UCL)

One of Bentham’s 26 memorial or mourning rings. (Image: UCL)

Distribution of the Rings

Bentham's mummified body is on display at the UCL and a collections curator at the museum, Subhadra Das, said in an article on their website that the rings "help to highlight how attitudes to death and memory have changed over time… and the lock of hair might seem morbid to some today, but it was fairly common practice at the time.”

Among those intellectuals who received a ring were; military commander Marquis de Lafayette (1757 to 1834), a French aristocrat who fought in the Revolutionary War; the Guatemalan philosopher and politician José del Valle (1780 to 1834); and the editor and linguist Sarah Austin (1793 to 1867), whose husband, John Austin, was the first professor of jurisprudence at the University of London, according to the UCL website.

Another famous man who received a ring was the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806 to 1873) and it was discovered by two UCL alumni in a jewelry shop in New Orleans. Another is owned by the descendants of Bentham’s servant, William Stockwell and the ring belonging to the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say was recently sold at Christie’s in London.

Bentham’s ‘Auto-Icon’ plus mummified head (now in a safe) in the South Cloisters of University College London. (Image: UCL)

Bentham’s ‘Auto-Icon’ plus mummified head (now in a safe) in the South Cloisters of University College London. (Image: UCL)

Bentham’s Mummified ‘Auto-icon’

Although the gold rings are making the headlines they were but one of Bentham’s quirky funerary requests. When Bentham died on 6 June 1832 aged 84 he had made careful preparations for the dissection of his body and its preservation as an auto-icon by his friend Dr Southwood Smith. An “auto” what? After he was dissected his head and skeleton were stored in a wooden cabinet, which was called the “Auto-icon”, in which the skeleton padded out with hay and dressed in Bentham's clothes. But things didn’t go according to plan…

Unfortunately, Smith's experience in mummification was gained while reading the lore of indigenous New Zealand cultures and he placed Bentham's head under an air pump over sulfuric acid. While this successfully drew all the fluids, it completely dehydrated Bentham’s head leaving a dried leathery skin over the skull. To cover the mess-up the auto-icon was given a wax head with some of Bentham's own hair and his real head was locked away securely.

Jeremy Bentham’s wax head representation on the auto-icon. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Jeremy Bentham’s wax head representation on the auto-icon. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Was Bentham More than an Eccentric?

More than 180 years after his death, Bentham’s head was brought out just last year in a brilliantly inventive bid to test his brain matter DNA for signs of autism. According to a report in the Daily Mail last year, in 2006 experts suggested specific traits of Bentham's “quirky” character resulted from his suffering Asperger’s syndrome, which is an autistic spectrum disorder. Among the clues scientists gathered to suspect he was a sufferer was his intelligence; it’s quite normal to find a raised IQ in Asperger's sufferers who characteristically struggle with social interaction and forging meaningful emotional connections to people and situations. Being unable to handle unpredictability is also another symptom of Asperger’s and, according to historian Charles Bahmueller, Bentham was deeply intolerant of uncertainty and unpredictability, with much of his work focused on “the banishment of chance and the consolidation of certainty.” He was also vocally suspicious of abstract terms such as 'intuition', which he labelled ‘fictitious entities.’ Results of Bentham’s DNA tests are yet to be published.

Attempting to answer why it was in the mind of this political and philosophical thinker to be cut open, preserved and put on display we might consider his lifelong commitment to liberating, freeing and helping others. “Why,” he might have asked, “should my body stop serving others upon death?”  That said he donated his remains to “advance the field of science” and that “his actions epitomized the Anatomy Act 1832, which allowed medical practitioners and students to dissect donated bodies.”

If you have any knowledge regarding the whereabouts of any of the dispersed rings, University College London would love to hear from you.

Top image:  The mummified head of Jeremy Bentham         Source: University College London

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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