Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2005 Jan 1; 49(1): 115–116.
PMCID: PMC1088261

Book Review

The air loom gang: the strange and true story of James Tilly Matthews and his visionary madness
Reviewed by Rhodri Hayward

Mike Jay.
The air loom gang: the strange and true story of James Tilly Matthews and his visionary madness.
London and New York: Bantam Press. 2003, pp. xiv, 306, illus, £12.99 (hardback 0-593-04997-7); £7.99 (paperback 0-553-81485-0).

For a man who spent much of his life incarcerated in English asylums and French prisons, James Tilly Matthews enjoyed a remarkable and varied career. A sometime tea-merchant, peace activist, secret agent, draughtsman, mesmerized pawn, lunatic and self-styled “Omni-Imperious Arch-Grand-Arch Emperor Supreme”, he is now better remembered as a psychiatric exemplar: joining Freud's Dora, Judge Schreber, Sally Beauchamp and Mary Barnes in the addled pantheon of representative case histories on which psychiatrists and historians draw in their arguments over the nature of illness and politics of diagnosis. Yet in Matthews' case, the academic co-option of his troubled life does, for once, seem oddly appropriate. As Mike Jay shows in this brilliant historical account, Matthews' biography can be characterized as a struggle for self-determination within the competing philosophical schemes and political agendas of Hanoverian England.

Matthews is now remembered as a prototypical schizophrenic. A philosophical radical and follower of the eminent Welsh republican, David Williams, he had devoted his energies to preventing the threatened war between England and revolutionary France. His mission would end in disaster. A self-elected intermediary, he was imprisoned by the Jacobins as an English spy. Freed after three and a half years, he returned to London only to find himself reincarcerated within the walls of Bethlem. Matthews recognized the source of his misfortunes. At each step of his sorry progress, he had been frustrated by the secret machinations of the “Air Loom”: a mesmeric mechanism which could control action and thought. Words would suddenly fail him. Sympathetic audiences would abruptly lose interest. Politicians, who must have known the details of his peace mission, were mysteriously rendered ignorant. His struggle for peace and self expression was subverted by invisible forces, with agendas quite different to his own.

Clandestine mesmerists were not the only group interested in conscripting Tilly Matthews. At Bethlem, he fell under the control of James Haslam, an ambitious apothecary determined to establish his reputation within the nascent discipline of psychological medicine. Theirs was to be an unhappy relationship. Haslam was harassed by Matthews' wife, who, over the course of a decade, repeatedly raised his detention with Bethlem's governors and issued a writ of habeas corpus against the asylum. Believing that his professional authority was being impugned in these proceedings, Haslam responded with a detailed history of Matthews' delusions: Illustrations of madness: exhibiting a singular case of insanity and a no less remarkable difference in medical opinion: … with a description of the tortures experienced by bomb-bursting, lobster-cracking and lengthening the brain (1810). It was the first book-length study of an individual's madness published in England. If Bethlem had been intended to silence Matthews, its staff would end up preserving his voice.

Haslam might have wanted to convict Matthews out his own mouth but, as Jay demonstrates in his penetrating analysis of Illustrations, many other readings are possible. “It is a book that cannot simply be read: but demands to be hijacked” Jay writes, and as Haslam had forced new meanings from Matthews' life, Jay reveals the unintended significance of the Illustrations. Jay takes the description of the air loom, not simply as a deranged fantasy, but as a metaphor for the individual's loss of agency within an asylum system bent on breaking the patient's will upon the physician's reason. If Matthews had been a pawn in the mesmerists' scheme, so too was he used by Haslam to advance his own medical agenda. Yet he was never entirely defeated. From his cell he would draw up new plans for Bethlem, which would later be incorporated in the rebuilding of the asylum. From his deathbed, his description of his forced detention would inspire the Parliamentary Select Committee's investigations into the asylum, investigations that would wreck the career Haslam had so ruthlessly pursued. It is a salutary lesson for those who would give a voice to the mad, whether mesmerists, psychiatrists or historians. Such work demands the same kind of sympathy and insight as Jay demonstrates in his riveting account of The air loom gang.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press

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