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James Tilly Matthews

James Tilly Matthews was a London tea merchant who became embroiled in a self-styled peace mission between France and England in 1793. After being thrown in jail for his troubles 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.

John Haslam's illustration of
James Tilly Matthews' Air Loom

His delusions got him admitted to Bedlam psychiatric hospital in 1797 where his family argued 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.

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 became involved in drawing plans for the rebuilding of the new Bedlam hospital. It is somewhat ironic that some of his designs were incorporated into the final drawings used to create the new hospital buildings.

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

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 brough 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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