Jeremy Bentham: The Man Who Mummified Himself

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University College London isn’t just the home of renowned social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s body; his ghost is said to inhabit the hospital too. CHRISTINE MILLER explains. 

Jeremy Bentham: The Man Who Mummified Himself 1

University College Hospital (UCH), located on Euston Road in London, has undergone extensive reconstruction and modernisation since its original establishment in 1906.

The current iteration of the hospital was established in 2004, coexisting with the historic cruciform building that has garnered a reputation as a dwelling place for several entities, one of which is said to be the famous social reformer and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. 

Jeremy Bentham’s Peculiar Decree: The ‘Auto Image’

In a rather eccentric testament, Bentham made an unusual decree that, upon his earthly demise, his body should, post-dissection, be preserved as a timeless ‘auto image.’ 

Dr. Southwood Smith, a friend of Bentham who was tasked with the job, didn’t possess the skill level that his late friend may have hoped for, and so the head was deemed unsuitable for public view, at least for a time.

Despite this, Bentham’s presence endures at UCH, or at least, or at least part of his presence does.

Seated regally in a vintage chair in the Student Centre of University College Hospital, the reformist’s skeletal form, clad in the very garments he once wore, has been stuffed with straw, preserving his essence. His visage, however, has been replaced with an eerily lifelike wax replica that gazes hauntingly out from its glass case. 

Jeremy Bentham's Head
Jeremy Bentham’s Head

But what of Bentham’s real head, I hear you ask? 

The genuine article has managed to survive the test of time and was, for a period at least, reunited with the body. 

However, it managed to embark on an adventure when some mischievous students decided to steal it. It was, thankfully, soon returned. But, given the head’s escapade, a decision was made to keep it safely tucked away from any further tomfoolery. Nowadays, it emerges from its secure resting place only on special occasions. 

It seems that Jeremy Bentham’s corpse isn’t the only part of him dwelling in University College Hospital. 

There’s some evidence to suggest his spirit resides close by, too. 

Bentham’s Ethereal Residency

According to an article published in The Psychic News in 1935, Dr. H. J. Spenser, one-time headmaster of UCS, had a bizarre encounter with Bentham’s ghost. 

The story goes that late one evening, Dr. Spenser was walking to his apartment within the hospital when he was abruptly alerted to the presence of loud approaching footsteps echoing ominously down the corridor. The gait was oddly distinct: a peculiar shuffling, with one foot seemingly dragging reluctantly behind the other. 

With his curiosity now fully piqued, the doctor cautiously swung the door open, expecting to encounter the source of the unsettling sounds.

However, to his utter bewilderment, no one occupied the corridor before him. Puzzled but undeterred, Spenser closed the door behind him, only to find that the shuffling gait persisted, this time in retreat, fading into the distance along the corridor.

Far from being a one-off event, the unsettling footstep became a regular nocturnal occurrence. It was always the same: the shuffling gait, closely resembling the dragging of one leg behind the other. 

Struggling to make any sense of these inexplicable events, Spenser ventured an extraordinary explanation. He proposed that none other than the famed Jeremy Bentham, even from beyond the confines of the grave, continued to take a keen interest in the affairs of his former college. It’s a notion both eerie and intriguing.

A portrait of Jeremy Bentham in life.
A portrait of Jeremy Bentham in life.

A few years down the line, the doctor unearthed some evidence to bolster his claim. He discovered that Jeremy Bentham, in the later years of his life, had indeed suffered from a condition that caused him to drag his right foot, resulting in a distinctive shuffling gait. 

It wasn’t just Dr. Spenser that Bentham has been known to show himself to. Only a few years ago another staff member had an altogether chilling introduction to the ghost. 

As the lecturer worked busily into the night at UCL, the solitude of his workspace was disrupted by an eerie sound: a rhythmic tapping of a stick against the floor. Initially faint and distant, the noise steadily drew closer and closer, prompting the man to cease his work and investigate the source of such noise.

To his horror, the figure of Jeremy Bentham stood before him, steadily advancing with each deliberate tap of his stick. The spectral presence drew so close that the man braced himself, fully expecting the apparition to forcefully thrust him to the ground.

It didn’t, however. Instead, the ghostly image dissolved into the air, leaving the man alone with his bewildered thoughts.

Tell us your thoughts on Jeremy Bentham’s haunting of UCL in the comments section below!

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