You Can Take Jeremy Bentham’s Mummified Head Through Airport Security, But Please Don’t

Image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

The TSA runs a customer service line on Twitter, at @AskTSA. Most of the questions and complaints it handles are of exactly the sort you’d expect: can I bring an empty water bottle through security? What’s going on with PreCheck? This line at this airport too long!, and so forth. But its staff is dedicated, and will honestly and to the best of its ability answer any question you politely ask of it. Including, for example, the handling of certain… artifacts.

A wag asked @Ask TSA very forthrightly: “wondering if it’s OK to bring this mummified head of Jeremy Bentham as a carry-on item. Thanks!”

Bentham was an English philosopher of the 18th and early 19th centuries. During his life, he espoused the philosophy of Utilitarianism — a school of thought that at its most basic, boils down to the idea that all actions should be taken to maximize utility, which Bentham then defined as “the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.”

(TV fans may remember hearing about Bentham, and his peers, on certain episodes of Lost.)

When Bentham died in 1832, he requested to have his body publicly dissected — yes, the 19th century could get very strange — and his head preserved. His head was, indeed, mummified and, as of its annual inspection in 2015 at least, remains preserved and “smells weird” (and also looks pretty gross).

The TSA took this request at face value, and replied in the affirmative: yes, you can bring a severed, mummified head through security — as long as it’s properly packaged and declared. But getting it onto your aircraft may be a different story.

Alas, it is almost certain that the Twitter user who was posing the question was indeed pulling the TSA’s non-mummified leg: although Bentham’s head was indeed on public display at University College London for several years, it has since 2002 been quietly stored in a climate-controlled room at the college’s Institute of Archaeology and is not available for loan.

The TSA did not specify if mummified parts of David Hume, John Locke, or Adam Smith would be permitted through security, but one may presume that, were any found, the same rules would apply.