Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rage Against the Machines

The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness (2003) by Mike Jay is a fascinating book that I recently picked up from a charity shop in downtown Canton. As the title suggests it concerns one James Tilly Matthews, a Welshman, who suffered from what we would today describe as paranoid schizophrenia. Basically, Matthews believed that he was at the centre of a Europe-wide political conspiracy and that he was being tormented by a gang who operated "influencing machines" called air looms.

Matthews left Wales when he was a teenager and moved to London where he began a career as a tea merchant. In 1793 he went to Paris with his friend, Welsh philosopher David Williams, to participate (in a minor way) in the drafting of the new-born Republic's constitution. However, when the Girondists were replaced by the Jacobins, he was thrown into prison. He would remain incarcerated for 3 years.

The French at first believed he was a double agent but released him when they decided he was just mad. In 1796 he returned to London. Convinced that a Revolutionary plot was afoot to overthrow the government he began writing to contacts at the House of Commons. They ignored him. Matthews responded by turning up at the public gallery of the Commons where he shouted accusations of treason at Home Secretary, Lord Liverpool. Soon afterwards he was detained indefinitely at the Royal Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam).

It transpired that Matthews believed that French agents lurked in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster armed with air looms. These machines could aim beams of "animal magnetism" at politicians and turn them into easily manipulated puppets. The beams of the air looms were generated, he believed, by gases which originated from dog shit and horses farts.

Because he was aware of the plot Matthews was particulary vulnerable to torments. He reckoned that a gang of Air Loom operators with names like the Glove Woman and Bill the King were subjecting him to weird tortures that included the introduction of fluids to his skull. While in Bedlam Matthews also declared himself to be Emperor of the Whole World and penned a long and intricate set of laws and decrees.

Despite efforts by his family to get him released Matthews would remain incarcerated for the rest of his days. In 1814, due to illness, he was transferred to a private lunatic asylum in Hackney run by a Dr Fox. He died there in 1815 from TB which he had contracted in Bedlam. Apothecary to the Royal Bethlehem Hospital, John Haslam, published an account of James Tilley Matthew's condition, Illustrations of Madness, in 1810. It was the first full-length study of a single psychiatric patient in medical history. It is also probably the first fully documented case study of paranoid schizophrenia.

Furthermore the Matthews case is significant because his mental illness was absolutely linked with technology. Hitherto people had believed in possession by spirits, fairies and goblins but this was a new, modern kind of delusional paranoia that involved machines. Matthews can, in addition, be regarded as an early poster boy for conspiracy theorists everywhere - after all, nobody has ever disproved that interesting air loom theory.