James Tilly Matthews

From Academic Kids

James Tilly Matthews was a London tea merchant with republican sympathies who became embroiled in a self-styled peace mission between France and England in 1793. He became ignored, then jailed, by the French. He returned to England to warn the Prime Minister that teams of "magnetic spies" had infiltrated England and were preparing to use 'air looms' (a type of mind control machine that used "animal magnetism" and mesmerism) to overthrow the government.

Matthews also believed he was subject to control by the air loom, which he believed was operated by the sinister 'air loom gang' consisting of seven members led by a man called "Bill, or the King". He was convinced that the gang were trying to destroy him by using "torture-at-a-distance" which included torments such as "foot-curving, lethargy-making, spark-exploding, knee-nailing, burning out, eye-screwing" and other fantastical effects.

Missing image
Airloom.png
John Haslam's illustration of James Tilly Matthews' Air Loom

After shouting 'treason' in the House of Commons he was arrested. By now a pauper and apparently unreasonably claiming to have been involved in high level affirs of the state, he was admitted to Bedlam psychiatric hospital in 1797. His family argued for many years for his release. Two distinguished physicians, Drs Birkbeck and Clutterbuck, subsequently declared him completely sane, in opposition to the opinion of the doctors in Bedlam. Family and friends took the case to court, whereupon it became unclear whether Matthews was in fact being held at the personal request of the Home Office minister, Lord Liverpool, rather than due to his mental condition.

In 1810 John Haslam, the apothecary at Bedlam, decided to publish a book entitled Illustrations of Madness: Exhibiting a Singular Case of Insanity, And a No Less Remarkable Difference in Medical Opinions: Developing the Nature of An Assailment, And the Manner of Working Events; with a Description of Tortures Experienced by Bomb-Bursting, Lobster-Cracking and Lengthening the Brain. Embellished with a Curious Plate. Haslam believed his book would demonstrate both Matthews' insanity and the laughable state of medical understanding of madness.

The book was the first full-length study of a single psychiatric patient in medical history and has become a classic in the medical literature.

Matthews was also important in the history of psychiatry for more practical reasons. During his involuntary confinement he took part in a competition to draw plans for the rebuilding of the new Bethlem hospital. The drawings used to build the new hospital show some features proposed by Matthews.

James Tilly Matthews was eventually released from Bedlam and transferred to a private asylum run by a Mr Fox, in Hackney, where he died in 1815.

Although it is impossible to make a unequivocal diagnosis of a long-dead person, Matthews' description of his torment by the "Air Loom Gang" reads as a classic example of paranoid delusions brought on as part of a psychotic episode. From this, it can be concluded that his disorder was most likely schizophrenia, although other explanations are possible.

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