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A Skeleton in the Cupboard

My name is Jeremy Bentham and for most of the past one hundred and eighty three years my skeleton has sat in a corridor in central London. It doesn't look like a skeleton because it's dressed in my clothes which are padded out with straw. You should come and see it, all you have to do is to come to University College London during normal business hours, and ask for me by name. The people on reception know me well. I usually sit at the end of the South Cloisters, except when there's a meeting of the College Council. On meeting dates my skeleton is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. That's what the legend says anyway. You can decide for yourself whether it's true or not. Just don't believe everything you read on the internet.


I should warn you though, that you can't see my real head. It's not what I intended when in 1832 I left my body to what was then the Webb Street School of Anatomy & Medicine, but back then people in London weren't very good at mummification. They tried to copy the process of desiccation, as practiced by the Maoris, but it went disastrously wrong, robbing my head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive - so they had to make a false one.


For over a hundred years they kept my badly mummified skull by my feet in the same cabinet as the rest of me, but by the 1950s student rag weeks became the fashion, and at least once each year my real head was stolen from the cabinet and paraded through the streets and tossed about by people wearing duffle coats, CND badges and college scarves. The University took a dim view of this, so nowadays my real head is locked away in a secret place and only ever brought out for research purposes. Even I don't know where my head is now. And I'm a philosopher!




You've probably noticed that I refer to my skeleton in the third person, so I think that it is safe to assume that this is my soul talking, not my mortal remains, although the separation of body and soul was never my area of scholarship. My contributions to the great debates of my period ranged from legal and penal reform, the rooting out of corruption in the London Docks, and above all to the concept of Utilitarianism, which can be summarised by the statement that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number, is the measure of right and wrong".

 

I was the first philosopher to suggest that there might be a concept of "animal rights" and one of the first thinkers to suggest that man and woman are created equal. My essay "Offences Against One's Self", which was never published in my lifetime, argued for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting homosexual acts.


Some people said I was a bit paranoid. I complained that my ideas for penal reform were thwarted by the King and an aristocratic elite acting in their own interests. But I look at what the students here put on Twitter today, and many of them are making the same claims today, so was I wrong? And have things improved?


 

University College London acknowledges me as its inspiration, which is why my remains are on display here. Prior to UCL's foundation, only members of the Church of England were eligible to go to university. UCL was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed, colour, political belief or ability to pay.


But the title of this piece is A Skeleton in the Cupboard and I nearly forgot to tell you about the cupboard. It's more of a display cabinet really, and it - and I - are collectively called the auto-icon. I sit on a stool in this mahogany and glass cabinet wearing my own clothes, and some of my smaller personal possessions are laid out on a small table so that I can see them. Beneath my stool (you can't see them) are a lot of scientific instruments that control the auto-icon's temperature and humidity. The cabinet is on castors, so that it could - if my vote were ever needed - be moved into the council chamber quite easily.

 

I died when I was eighty four in 1832, and I never married. I fell in love many times but my love was never reciprocated. Frankly I was just not good with girls - according to one of my biographers I made passes at hundreds of society beauties at country houses but they found me a bit strange - too obsessive and paranoid. So in my will I left my body for dissection, together with detailed instructions about how to preserve my remains in the auto-icon as well as £100 to this University which has taken good care of me since 1850.


I do love to get visitors, so if you're in Bloomsbury come and see me. And I love to read your thoughts about the things I cared about -penal reform, justice, equality, inclusivity, transparency and animal experiments. You can tell me about your visit on Twitter using my twitter name @jeremybentham32, but I'm not on Facebook. If you're a member of a creative writing group you can share a story about me with others. I've really enjoyed talking to you.

 


 



 



 


 

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