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.

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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.

This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

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17 Surprising Facts About Frida Kahlo

Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The life and work of Frida Kahlo—one of Mexico's greatest painters—were both defined by pain and perseverance. Getting to know how Kahlo lived provides greater insight into her masterful paintings, which are rich with detail and personal iconography.

1. Frida Kahlo was born in the same house she died.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in a building nicknamed “La Casa Azul” for its vivid blue exterior. There, she was raised by her mother, Matilde, and encouraged by her photographer father, Guillermo. Years later, she and her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, made it their home as well. And on July 13, 1954, Kahlo died there at age 47.

2. Frida Kahlo's beloved home is now a museum.

Casa Azul is also known as The Frida Kahlo Museum. As a tribute to Kahlo, Rivera donated the house in 1958 as well as all of the artwork, created by both him and Kahlo, that it contained. Much of the interior has been preserved just the way Kahlo had it in the 1950s, making the space a popular tourist attraction that allows visitors a look at her work, life, and personal artifacts, including the urn that holds her ashes.

3. A third of Frida Kahlo's paintings were self-portraits.

Kahlo folded in symbols from her Mexican culture and allusions to her personal life in order to create a series of 55 surreal and uniquely revealing self-portraits. Of these, she famously declared, "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

4. A surreal accident had a big impact on Frida Kahlo's life.

On September 17, 1925, an 18-year-old Kahlo boarded a bus with her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias, only to be forever marred when it crossed a train's path. Recalling the tragedy, Arias described the bus as "burst(ing) into a thousand pieces," with a handrail ripping through Kahlo's torso.

He later recounted, "Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer."

5. Frida Kahlo’s path to painting began with that collision.

The accident broke Kahlo's spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, fractured her right leg in 11 places, and dislocated her shoulder. Those severe injuries left her racked with pain for the rest of her life, and frequently bedbound. But during these times, Kahlo picked up her father's paintbrush. Her mother helped arrange a special easel that would allow her to work from bed. Of her life's hardships, Kahlo once proclaimed, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

6. Frida Kahlo once dreamed of being a doctor.

As a child, Kahlo contracted polio, which withered her right leg and sparked an interest in the healing power of medicine. Unfortunately, the injuries from the train accident forced the teenager to abandon her plans to study medicine.

7. Frida Kahlo’s poor health shaped her art.

In the course of her life, Kahlo would undergo 30 surgeries, including the eventual amputation of her foot due to a case of gangrene. She explored her frustrations with her body's frailty in paintings like The Broken Column, which centers on her shattered spine, and Without Hope, which dramatically depicted a period where her doctor prescribed force-feeding. On the back of the latter, she wrote, "Not the least hope remains to me ... Everything moves in time with what the belly contains."

8. Frida Kahlo didn’t view herself as a surrealist.

She rejected the label, saying, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

9. Frida Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage sparked more pain and paintings.

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Kahlo met Rivera, she was a student and he was already a father of four and on his way to his second divorce. Despite a 20-year age difference, the pair quickly fell for each other, spurring Rivera to leave his second wife and wed Kahlo in 1929.

From there, they were each other's greatest fans and supporters when it came to their art. But their 10-year marriage was wrought with fits of temper and infidelities on both sides. They divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. Paintings like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, The Two Fridas, and The Love Embrace of the Universe boldly illustrated their relationship from Kahlo's perspective.

10. Frida Kahlo grieved privately and publicly for the children she never had.

Modern doctors believe that the bus accident had irreparably damaged Kahlo's uterus, which made pregnancies impossible to carry to term. In 1932, she painted Henry Ford Hospital, a provocative self-portrait that marks one of several devastating miscarriages she suffered.

The piece would be displayed to the world in a 1938 gallery show. But Kahlo kept private personal letters to her friend, Doctor Leo Eloesser, in which she wrote, "I had so looked forward to having a little Dieguito that I cried a lot, but it's over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it.'" This letter, along with others from their decades-long exchange, were released in 2007, having been hidden for almost 50 years by a patron worried about their contents.

11. Frida Kahlo once arrived to an art show in an ambulance.

In 1953, toward the end of her short life, the painter was overjoyed about her first solo exhibition in Mexico. But a hospital stay threatened her attendance. Against doctors' orders, Kahlo made an incredible entrance, pulling up in an ambulance as if in a limousine.

12. Frida Kahlo is rumored to have had several famous lovers.

When she wasn't recovering from surgery or confined to a recuperation bed, Kahlo was full of life, relishing the chance to dance, socialize, and flirt. While American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was in Mexico City for the creation of his History as Seen from Mexico in 1936, he and Kahlo began a passionate affair that evolved into a life-long friendship.

Three years later, while visiting Paris, the bisexual painter struck up a romance with the city's "Black Pearl" entertainer Josephine Baker. And many have speculated that the artist and activist also bedded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, while he and his wife Natalia stayed in Kahlo's family home after they were granted asylum in Mexico in 1936.

13. Frida Kahlo was fiercely proud of her heritage.

Though she'd lived in New York, San Francisco, and Paris, Kahlo was always drawn back to her hometown, Mexico City. She favored traditional Mexican garb, the long colorful skirts she was known for, and the Huipile blouses of Mexico’s matriarchal Tehuantepec society. Perhaps most telling, she told the press she was born in 1910, cutting three years off her age so she could claim the same birth year as the Mexican Revolution.

14. Frida Kahlo had several exotic pets.

Casa Azul boasts a lovely garden where Kahlo had her own animal kingdom. Along with a few Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintli (a dog breed that dates back to the ancient Aztecs), Kahlo owned a pair of spider monkeys named Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal, which can be spotted in Self Portrait with Monkeys. She also cared for an Amazon parrot called Bonito, who would perform tricks if promised a pat of butter as a reward, a fawn named Granizo, and an eagle nicknamed Gertrudis Caca Blanca (a.k.a. Gertrude White Shit).

15. Frida Kahlo has emerged as a feminist icon.

Though in her time some dismissed this passionate painter as little more than "the wife of Master Mural Painter (Diego Rivera)," Kahlo's imaginative art drew acclaim from the likes of Pablo Picasso and film star Edward G. Robinson. After her death, the rise of feminism in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in her work. Kahlo's reputation eclipsed Rivera's, and she grew to become one of the world's most famous painters.

Feminist theorists embrace Kahlo's deeply personal portraits for their insight into the female experience. Likewise, her refusal to be defined by others' definitions and the self-love shown in her proud capturing of her natural unibrow and mustache speak to modern feminist concerns over gender roles and body-positivity.

16. Frida Kahlo’s personal style has become a vibrant part of her legacy.

Frida's art and its influence were not simply spawned from the paint she put to canvas. Her distinctive personal style has proved influential in the world of fashion, inspiring designers like Raffaella Curiel, Maya Hansen, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dolce & Gabbana. (In 2019, Vans even launched a collection of shoes featuring her work.)

17. Frida Kahlo's work is record-breaking.

On May 11, 2016, at the first auction to put a major Frida work up for sale in six years, her 1939 painting Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) sold for over $8 million—the highest auction price then paid for any work by a Latin American artist.

This story was updated in 2020.