nthposition online magazine

The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his visionary madness


[ strangeness - july 03 ]

There were two compelling reasons why, in 1810, the resident apothecary at the Royal Bethlem Hospital - Bedlam - wrote the first ever book-length psychiatric report on a mad patient's delusions. One was professional: the delusions in question were the most unusual and systematic that anyone had ever come across. The other was rather more personal: the apothecary, John Haslam, was determined to prove, against a great deal of contrary opinion, that the patient was indeed mad, and by the same token that he himself was the model for a new and specialist category of doctor.

His patient's name was James Tilly Matthews, and his view of the world had by this point become one of the strangest ever recorded in the annals of psychiatry. Haslam's account is still acknowledged as the first example in history of the now-familiar notion of mind control by an 'influencing machine'. For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through fillings, mysterious implants or TV sets, or via hi-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero.

Matthews was convinced that outside the grounds of Bedlam, in a basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting his mind with diabolical rays. They were using a machine called an 'Air Loom', of which Matthews was able to draw immaculate technical diagrams, and which combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, brass retorts and magnetic fluid, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged air currents, rather as the stops of an organ modulate its tones. It ran on a mixture of foul substances, including 'spermatic-animal-seminal rays', 'effluvia of dogs' and 'putrid human breath', and its discharges of magnetic fluid were focused to deliver thoughts, feelings and sensations directly into Matthews' brain. There were many of these mind-control settings, all classified by vivid names: 'fluid locking', 'stone making', 'thigh talking', 'lobster-cracking', 'bomb-bursting', and the dreaded 'brain-saying', whereby thoughts were forced into his brain against his will. To facilitate this process, the gang had implanted a magnet into his head. As a result of the Air Loom, Matthews was tormented constantly by delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad.

The Air Loom was being run by a gang of undercover Jacobin revolutionaries, bent on forcing Britain into a disastrous war with Revolutionary France. These characters, too, Matthews could describe with haunting precision. They were led by a puppet-master named 'Bill the King'; all details were recorded by his second-in-command, 'Jack the Schoolmaster'. The French liaison was accomplished by a woman called Charlotte, who seemed to Matthews to be as much a prisoner as himself, and was often chained up near-naked. 'Sir Archy' was a woman who dressed as a man and spoke in obscenities; the machine itself was operated by the sinister, pockmarked and nameless 'Glove Woman'. If Matthews were to see any of these characters in the street, they would grasp batons of magnetic metal which would cause them to disappear.

But all this activity wasn't directed solely at Matthews. There were many Air Loom gangs all over London, influencing the minds of politicians and public figures, and with a particularly firm grasp of the Prime Minister, William Pitt. They were lurking in streets, theatres and coffee-houses, where they tricked the unsuspecting into inhaling the magnetic fluid which would place them under the control of the Air Loom. By poisoning the minds of politicians on both sides of the Channel with paranoid 'brain-sayings', they were threatening national and international catastrophe.

Matthews had originally been committed to Bedlam after standing up in the public gallery of the House of Commons and accusing the Home Secretary, Lord Liverpool, of treason. When examined, he insisted that he had been involved in top secret peace negotiations between the British and French governments, but had been betrayed by the Pitt administration and left to rot in a Paris dungeon. At the time, his convoluted narrative of plot, counter-plot and conspiracy had been seen as a symptom of his grandiose madness. But a great deal of it was true.

Matthews had been a well-to-do tea broker, originally from Wales, who had strong Republican sympathies and, after the French Revolution, began travelling between London and Paris as a self-appointed peacemaker, trying to head off the looming war between France and England. Initially, he had spectacular success in persuading the moderate Republican faction that Britain would sooner be at peace than at war with a stable and constitutional French nation, and met several times with Pitt, Lord Liverpool and others to attempt to sell them on his secret proposal. But the moderate leaders with whom Matthews was negotiating had lost power to the hard-line Jacobins, and Matthews had been arrested on suspicion of being an English double agent. He was imprisoned for three years during the height of the Terror; when he was released and returned to England, and began accusing the cabinet of washing their hands of him, they denied all knowledge of his mission.

So Matthews may have been delusional, but his wild conspiracy theories held more than a grain of truth. Furthermore, when he wasn't under assault from the Air Loom, he appears to have been extremely lucid and articulate. Certainly his family didn't believe that he was mad; their view was that he was a good-natured man, a peacemaker, who had become eccentric as a result of his misfortunes and had developed cranky views on politics. But John Haslam, Matthews' overseer at Bedlam, had strong opinions about the nature of insanity. As he put it in his book on Matthews, Illustrations of Madness, "Madness being the opposite to reason and good sense, as light is to darkness, straight is to crooked &c., it appears wonderful that two opposite opinions could be entertained on the subject". Matthews was mad, and anyone who argued otherwise was a danger to the medical profession.

Some of Haslam's prickliness can perhaps be put down to the fact that Bedlam itself was, at the time, a fairly eccentric institution. Apart from Haslam, there was a resident physician, DrThomas Monro, who showed up about once a month, and a surgeon, Bryan Crowther, whose passion was dissecting the brains of lunatics and who himself lapsed terminally into alcoholism and lunacy to the point where 'he was so insane as to have a strait-waistcoat'. This left Haslam as the sole bulwark of sanity, dealing with Matthews on a daily basis.

The asylum system's recently-granted powers to restrain and imprison the mad came at a price: they needed to demonstrate that their patients would be a danger to the public if freed. Haslam was in no doubt that Matthews was dangerous: he had harassed Lord Liverpool and, in any case, "there are already too many maniacs allowed to enjoy a dangerous liberty". But Matthews' family persisted with the case that he was merely a mistreated gentle soul, and moreover that he had learnt to control his oddness in public. In 1809 they engaged two London doctors, Henry Clutterbuck and George Birkbeck, to examine Matthews independently. They both concluded that he was in his right mind, and that his alleged symptoms of madness - hostility to authority and insistence that he was being conspired against - were equally understandable as the response of a sane man unjustly confined.

On the basis of this testimony, Matthews' family brought a writ of Habeas Corpus against Bedlam, forcing the governors to state their precise legal reasons for holding him. They produced a stack of affidavits from other doctors contradicting Clutterbuck and Birkbeck's testimony, but the case eventually turned on a letter from Lord Liverpool, who insisted that Matthews was a dangerous lunatic who should be confined in perpetuity. So the writ failed, but on grounds which suggested that Matthews' alleged lunacy was irrelevant: he was effectively, though apparently unconstitutionally, being confined as a state prisoner.

It was the ambiguity of this verdict that turned Haslam's insistence that Matthews was mad into a personal vendetta. His book opened with a broadside against Clutterbuck and Birkbeck: they weren't psychiatrists, they'd only examined Matthews briefly rather than living with him for years, and "how they failed to detect his insanity is inexplicable". At stake in this was not only Haslam's personal reputation but that of Bedlam and, ultimately, the entire question of the medical profession's role in treating the mad. Haslam's strategy was simply to detail Matthews' madness at unprecedented length and allow it to speak for itself. In addition to writing Illustrations of Madness, he took possession of extensive writings by Matthews as evidence, including a manuscript he had written in 1804 calling himself "James, Absolute Sole and Sacred Omni Imperious Arch Grand Arch Sovereign Omni Imperious Arch Grand Arch Proprietor Omni Imperious Arch-Grand-Arch-Emperor Supreme", and offering millions of pounds in rewards to every nation on earth for the capture of the Air Loom Gang. On this, Haslam must have felt, he could rest his case.

But while Haslam was assembling these damning illustrations of Matthews' madness, Matthews was engaged in illustrating his own sanity. He learnt architectural drawing and engraving, and drew up accomplished plans for a new Bedlam building which so impressed the governors that they paid him 30 in recognition of his 'labour and abilities'. In 1814 he was moved to a more congenial private asylum, Fox's London House in Hackney, where he became a much loved and trusted inmate. Dr Fox regarded him as entirely sane, and he assisted with book-keeping, gardening and management of the house until his death in 1815.

Yet Matthews' death was not the end of the saga. A House of Commons Committee, set up in 1815 to investigate complaints of malpractice in Bedlam, brought his case back from the grave. Various witnesses testified that Haslam had been so frustrated by Matthews' refusal to accept his own madness and the doctor's authority that he had chained him up in punishment - a practice which had become emblematic of the bad old days of the madhouse, and which Haslam had specifically criticised in his own books. Other staff members testified that Matthews had been a harmless and talented eccentric, and Haslam's persecution of him had been irrational and sadistic. When the Committee's report was published in 1816, John Haslam was dismissed by the Bedlam governors.

His career was ruined. He sold everything he owned, doggedly retrained as a physician and eventually qualified as a full MD at the age of sixty. But Matthews' case seems to have destroyed his conviction that the mad could be unfailingly distinguished from the sane. In his old age, he appeared as a forensic witness in a court case, and was asked if the defendant was of sound mind. His reply was: "I never saw any human being who was of sound mind". When pressed on this opinion, he simply added: "I presume the Deity is of sound mind, and He alone".