Myth and legend

There are a great many myths surrounding the Auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. The majority of these are untrue, however with all good tales there is usually some grain of truth. The major myths are discussed below, however if there is anything missing or incorrect please contact nicholas.booth@ucl.ac.uk.

'Present but not voting'

Henry Tonk's mural of Bentham as the 'founder of UCL'- ©UCL Creative Media Services

It is often said that Bentham is taken into meetings of the College Council (the College’s Governing Body), and that it is recorded in the minutes that Mr Bentham is present, but not voting.

Sadly, it is not true that Bentham presides at meetings of the College Council. In fact he does not even attend meetings of the Council...except once. He attended the 150th anniversary of the founding of the College on 10th February 1976. In this instance myth became a reality.

Moreover, Mr Bentham does every now and then accept invitations to events, providing he does not have to climb any stairs. In April 2006 he attended a dinner during the John Stuart Mill Bicentennial Conference held at UCL. Unfortunately, the stairs prevent him attending events in the Jeremy Bentham Room.

'Founder of UCL'

It is widely believed that Bentham was one of the founders of the University of London, now called UCL.

This is not, in fact, true. Bentham was 80 years old when the new university opened its doors in 1828, and took no part in the campaign to bring it into being. However, the myth of his participation has been perpetuated in a mural by Henry Tonks (1862 - 1937), in the dome above the Flaxman Gallery in the main UCL library. It shows William Wilkins (1778 - 1839), the architect of the main building, submitting the plans to Bentham for his approval while the portico is under construction in the background. Needless to say, it is pure fantasy.

'Misuse of his head'

It is said that Bentham's head was stolen by students from Kings College, London, and used for an impromptu game of football in the college quadrangle.

The rivalry between UCL and KCL goes back to the founding of the respective institutions in the 1820s. The Church of England responded to the foundation of 'the style of Infidelity at the end of Gower Street' with the foundation of King's College.

The head is in a delicate condition, and would have quickly disintegrated should anyone have tried to kick it around.

The head was, however, kidnapped by students from King's College Students in October 1975. it was returned unharmed following the payment of a ransom of £10 to the charity Shelter.

Bentham’s head is now kept in special environmental conditions in the Institute of Archaeology.

'Bentham's restless Ghost'

According to 'The Demon in the Glass Cage' in Ripley's Believe It Or Not, number 87, March 1979, Bentham had instructed in his will that his clothed skeleton should attend all meetings of the College Board.

In 1955 the College Board had decided they had had enough of Bentham's auto-icon and it was removed to a storeroom. Late that night, however, Bentham crashed out of the storeroom and went on the rampage. And did so time and time again over the next few months. The wanton destruction then stopped, but as Ripley’s reports, 'students and faculty wait in dread for the day that the vengeful demon, Jeremy Bentham, walks again, Believe It Or Not'.

Ironically Bentham himself was scared of ghosts. This fear had been installed by his family's servants when Bentham was a child, and remained with him throughout life. He was plagued by nightmares if he slept alone, and so in later life always ensured a servant slept in the bedroom with him. From an intellectual point of view, he knew very well that ghosts do not exist. He recognised, however, that his fear of ghosts showed how strongly the imagination could operate on the mind.

Fact or Fiction?

There are a number of stories concerning the auto-icon that we are unable to prove either way. This section lists a few we would like to know more about. If anyone does have any information concerning these we would ask that they please get in contact with the curator using the e-mail at the top of the page.

The head was stolen by students and was found in a station locker in Aberdeen.

The head was displayed on a plynth outside the provosts office.