In the late 18th century, Europe was in a state of profound cultural psychosis. The American revolution had rocked the British Empire’s global aspirations, the French Revolution had evolved into such a frenzy of paranoia that we now refer to that time period as The Reign of Terror or, simply The Terror, and there were rumors of widespread war circulating among the elite. James Tilly Matthews was having none of it and when he left from England for France to broker peace among the quaking powers.
Mental asylums have not always housed individuals we now refer to as schizophrenic. It is a popular misconception that such was the case. While there are scattered cases strewn throughout history that seem to fit some of the symptoms of what we now call schizophrenia, not only was there not a label for it, there is not even a case of a persistent machine based delusion prior to the end of the 18th century. In fact, the oldest mental asylum in the world did not have any experience with such a modern illness when it encountered its first case in Matthews.
It is nearly inconceivable that what we now refer to as paranoid schizophrenia could have even existed in the ancient world. During the lifetime of James Tilly Matthews, the world had become so fractured, mysterious and mechanized that questioning the fabric of civilization and reality became possible. Indeed, the modern concepts of paranoia and conspiracy theory begin with Matthews.
An Unlikely Ambassador
The only thing we know about James Tilly Matthews prior to his diplomatic efforts in France was that he was a British tea broker. Somehow, he had a friendship with David Williams, who himself had been such a close friend of Benjamin Franklin that Franklin once hid in his house to avoid a political situation. During one of the trips to Paris in the early 1790s, David Williams brought Matthews with him and James Tilly Matthews enters the historical record.
In the tempestuous seas of French politics, Matthews soon found himself on the wrong side of justice. The Gerondists, whom Matthews had been assisting, had been defeated by the Jacobins, ushering in The Terror. As a result, Matthews was imprisoned in Paris for three years and, for the first time, we have an inkling of his mental condition. Writing back home, Matthews outlined in detail how, due to the threat of his estimable diplomatic skill, he had been wrongfully imprisoned. It is important to note that Matthews was also suspected of being a double spy creating a cloud of suspicion and paranoia around him.
Animal Magnetism and the Collective Subconscious
It would be difficult to overstate the profound cultural interest in the cultural phenomenon known as animal magnetism. No other name is more synonymous with the subject than Franz Mesmer whose work was so intriguing, we turned his last name into a verb which essentially means beyond intriguing. In fact, hypnosis itself was invented by Mesmer since there is no other way to describe the cultural product we now call hypnosis.
Animal magnetism was/is the idea that there is an energy which circulates in all living things and that blockages in those energy flows manifest in the form of disease or psychological distress. It is essentially the same concept of qi in Asian spiritual systems. Mesmer would heal people of these conditions by altering their energy flow through various methods. In one approach, Mesmer would grab the person’s thumbs in his hands, put his knees against their knees and stare into their soul, as it were, while rubbing their arms and shoulders until the individual had a reaction. A similar approach was explored by the modern artist Maria Ambromovic in her performance “The Artist is Present”.
This strange social experiment, now known as Mesmerism, became a widespread fascination. Mesmer himself famously cured a renowned young musician, named Maria Theresia Paradis, of total blindness, albeit temporarily. Fearing the loss of her disability pension, she stopped doing sessions with him. Mesmerism became such a hysteria that a mysterious Royal Commission was appointed by Louis XVI to investigate it. Members of the commission included Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier (more below), Jean Sylvain Bailly (prominent freemason and mayor of Paris after the revolution), and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the very man who proposed using the guillotine for the death penalty in France and whose name we used to christen the device. Ironically, Louis XVI was guillotined himself in 1791, marking the end of the monarchy.
Although the guillotine was not invented in France for the French Revolution, its use as the merciless instrument of justice was synonymous with the overthrow of the old order. When John Tilly Matthews was in Paris in the early 1790s, dozens of people per day were being guillotined in massive public demonstrations that were so popular programs were sold with the names of the soon to be headless. While in prison, he was sentenced to the guillotine and it was a great source of dread and fear, compounding his psychological distress.
The massive public executions were not only a symbol of the overthrow of the Ancien Régime, but also a symptom of the cultural uncertainty of the time. This schism of uncertainty bordered on mass paranoia at times with widespread rumors of cults, conspiracies and spies circulating among the citizenry of France and England. While Matthews was imprisoned, one of the pioneers of pneumatic chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, who had been on the Royal Council investigating Mesmerism, was arrested and guillotined the same day. That event that would figure largely in Matthew’s future delusions.
While in prison, Matthews began to show signs of grandiose delusions. He had come to believe that he was imprisoned by an elaborate conspiracy against him, due to the sheer threat of his diplomatic intellect. It was at this point that Matthews began believing himself to be the emperor of all things. Fortunately for Matthews, his mental condition had become so unsettling to the French that they released him after pronouncing him a “lunatic” in 1796, allowing him to return home to London.
Upon returning home, Matthews’s notion that a vast conspiracy had been the reason for his imprisonment grew in his mind. He began to believe that the Home Secretary had committed treason. He wrote two letters to Lord Liverpool outlining his theories. When his letters went unanswered, he went to the House of Commons and shouted treason, at which point he was arrested and promptly moved to Bethlem.
From Bethlehem to Bedlam
Bethlem Royal Hospital in London was originally founded in 1247 and was known as the New Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem. Its purpose was a priory for traveling crusaders. It did not become a hospital for nearly another century. Over time, it began to accommodate more and more people who were deemed insane. By the 1400s, the name of the institution was synonymous with insanity, giving us the English word bedlam.
Mental asylums prior to the 18th century, such as Bethlem, housed not only the “insane” but people who were depressed, pregnant out of wedlock, epileptics and even people with speech impediments. The conditions of such forced confinement during the pre-modern era itself would cause frequent panic attacks leading to the invention of the straightjacket to confine such episodes. The straightjacket was actually first referenced in literature in 1772 but it was in widespread use by the time Matthews would encounter it twenty years later.
Bethlem does have a very storied past, especially around the time of the Enlightenment. In fact, while Matthews was at Bethlem, a man by the name of James Hadfield was brought there after trying to shoot King George III during a play. The King was bowing at the time of the shot, missing him by inches. Having suffered a massive head injury in battle years before, he had come to believe that he might hasten the second coming of Christ if he could manage to get himself executed. Hadfield, who would also feature in Matthew’s delusions, made history by being the first person to ever plead insanity and be forced to confinement in an asylum in 1800 being the first modern use of the insanity plea.
John Haslam was the Apothecary of Bethlem. At the time, drugs for mental illness were nearly all based on ancient traditions of herbalism going back to ancient Greece and Rome. Common herbs were used for sedation, emetics, diuretics, etc. Lithium would not be discovered as an effective treatment for bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia for another century and a half.
At the end of the 18th century, the world of psychiatry, as we now call it, was experiencing a revolution. William Battie had written the single most important psychiatric text in history, up to that point, entitled Treatise on Madness, published in 1758. Battie, who was writing mostly in response to the cruel treatment of patients at Bethlem, outlined his theory that the physical brain was the root cause of psychiatric illness and proposed creating a more peaceful setting, free of the distractions of friends and family, in a clean environment and with clean food, allowing the patient to convalesce and recover. Battie’s work paved the way for the modern mental health system.
Haslam was fighting his own battle at Bethlem. Some of his colleagues had developed the idea that the ramblings of the patients were not entirely arbitrary and that there may be meaning in their delusions. Although this never developed to the point of psychoanalysis, it is an important motif in the history of psychiatry, one that Carl Jung would take up in his own work on schizophrenia. In fact, some of his colleagues had begun to believe that Matthews, although clearly eccentric, was not insane. This is when Haslam began using his notes to mount his case that John Tilly Matthews was insane.
From Demons to Schizophrenia and Back Again
It is not widely known that both Carl Jung’s psychiatric career, as well as his deep interest in the occult, were both directly related to his early experience with schizophrenic patients. In fact, schizophrenia and madness were windows into other realms for Jung, the realm of the subconscious as well as the realm of the supernatural. It is ironic that the man who gave us the terms concepts of introversion/extrovesion, archetypes, the collective unconscious, etc also gave us the term synchronicity and spent so much time researching alchemy and astrology. However, the link between psychology and the occult is as old as our concept of demons.
Prior to housing the insane in mental institutions, a process that is thoroughly outlined by Foucault as a consequence of the rise of the state, they wandered among us. Without a framework for understanding the mind, such conditions were deemed to be the results of demonic activity, at least in the Judaeo-Christian world. Demons seized the mind of the individual and prevented her or him from being able to think properly. In fact, up until the modern era, the scientific term for insanity was mente capti, Latin for “captive mind”.
Jung began working with schizophrenic patients under the Swiss eugenicist and psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler. In fact, it was Bleuler who encouraged Jung to write his first ever publication, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena in 1902. It is actually from Bleuler that we get the term schizophrenia, as well as the terms autism and ambivalence. Bleuler used the term for the first time in 1907, five years after Jung’s publication.
During his work with schizophrenic patients at Burghölzli, Jung began to develop a theory that our conscious minds are always in a state of tension with our subconscious and that tension is not fixed but in a state of constant flux. Our sense of self preserves us from the encroaching uncertainty of our subconscious throughout our waking day but overcomes our minds in our dreams. If this tension becomes too extreme while we have a sense of self, it manifests as delusion and hallucinations. In even more extreme cases, our sense of self can disintegrate and we are then in the cruel and unforgiving sea of our darkest fears and deepest desires which we interpret through the most elemental symbols we have, archetypes. Such is the state of the schizophrenic mind.
While working as a research scientist at Burghölzli Hospital under Bleuler, Jung began to notice that the hallucinations and delusions of schizophrenic patients were not random but dealt with familiar arrangements of what he would later call archetypes. In fact, sometimes the hallucinations were identical to myths from the ancient world, leading Jung to look to astrology, mythology and alchemy for a better understanding of the distillation of these ideas. Jung would come to believe that occult research had gone much further than the academic world in understanding these ideas.
We now know that most of our sense of self comes from something called the Default Mode Network or the DMN for short. The DMN is also responsible for the common misconception that we only use 10% of our brains. While the 10% concept is a gross oversimplification, it is true that our brains are not fully used all of the time. In fact, they are never fully used at any point, at least in the same sense that we may refer to as analogous to computation. The DMN is what routes activity in various parts of the brain, turning them on or off as it sees fit and it does this through the construction of the self. In fact, the ongoing narrative that we tell ourselves about ourselves is the primary responsibility of the DMN and its impairment is now known to be at the heart of the mystical experience. Even temporary impairment such as intense emotion, resulting in a panic attack puts one in a state of temporary psychosis.
Jung’s fascination with schizophrenia and its connection with the occult came full circle when Jung began to channel demonic entities in infamously mysterious work, The Red Book. Jung himself described the time period a “confrontation with the unconscious”.
Weaving it All Together — The Air Loom
While at Bethlem, James Tilly Matthews had impressed the staff so much that many of them thought he could not actually be insane. He was highly intelligent, kind and well spoken. The problem, however, was that Matthews believed that a gang of people were operating a complicated machine outside the walls of the facility and beaming him with a mind control ray. They did this by operating the device continuously.
The apparatus was a complicated piece of pneumatic machinery which took in air from putrid sources (at one point, a horse’s anus is revealed as a source) and, through complex pneumatic chemistry, created a magnetic, mesmeric beam which was used to block Matthews’s thoughts or to relay information to him. Matthews had information about the Air Loom Gang because they sometimes sent him brain-sayings and dream-workings. Brain-sayings were auditory messages which only Matthews was able to hear. Dream-workings were visual hallucinations, in which Matthews was often taken to the banks of the Nile on a particularly putrid day and whose stench would immediately bring Matthews back to reality. From this, Matthews was able to construct the story of who was tormenting him and why.
The gang was lead by “Bill the King”, a man who Matthews stated never smiled a day in his life. Bill was the overseer and was brutal and cold in his management of the team. The machine itself was operated by the “Glove Woman” who was also cruel, had bad skin and was generally unhappy. “Sir Archy” was actually a woman who dressed as a man and sometimes served as an “active worrier” to compound his psychological distress. “Jack the Schoolmaster” took notes while sarcastically narrating his work and flipping the long hair out of his face. “Charlotte” was a French prisoner of the gang, sometimes chained naked. Occasionally, Matthews would be assaulted by their dream-workings in which he was forced to watch them have sex with each other or act in other repulsive ways.
If Matthews was not willing to comply with their wishes, they had various ways of torturing him. Sometimes, they tortured him just for the pleasure of it. The most well known of these “assailments”, as he called them, were “Lobster Cracking” in which they would stop the circulation of his blood with the beam, causing the sensation of being crushed, “Apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater” which would introduce fluids into his skull and “Stomach-Skinning” which seemed to be as unpleasant as it sounds.
The Air Loom, according to Matthews, was not just being used against him. There were gangs throughout London using the devices to control the government and others. The gangs were responsible for major British military defeats in Argentina and Walcheren as well as the Nore Mutiny. Hadfield, who had attempted to assassinate George III was a fellow patient with Matthews. Matthews believed that Hadfield had also been targeted by the gang and was often under their control.
Because of his elaborate paranoia, Matthews kept meticulous notes about the staff, particularly John Haslam. During their conversations, Haslam convinced Matthews to draw the Air Loom, forming some of the material Haslam would release in his account of Matthew’s case, 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).
Matthew’s depiction of the Air Loom underscores the confusing nature of his case. His skill and technical knowledge were well above average for a patient at Bethlem, leading to substantial dissent among the doctors about his condition. Haslam wrote Illustrations in Madness in order to demonstrate the patent insanity of Haslam by sarcastically depicting his delusions in the book. Haslam’s efforts would backfire though, when Matthew’s own notes about Haslam proved useful when the latter was fired in 1815 after a committee was established to look into mental health care.
The Influencing Machine
In 1919, a controversial psychoanalyst by the name of Victor Tausk published the article On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia, which outlines what had become a common delusion among schizophrenic patients after Matthews. In it, Tausk outlines some of the interesting features of the influencing machine delusion, which are characteristic of the paranoid schizophrenic delusions of modern times.
The device imagined by patients is always just outside their own technical grasp. In the case of Matthews, the machine was a product of pneumatic chemistry, probably due to the psychological impact of the execution of Lavoisier while he was in France. In modern times, the device might be a microchip implanted by the CIA or 5G cell phone signals. In any case, the patient can almost grasp the technology, but is unable to fully understand it.
Often, the device itself cast pictures in the mind of the individual. Modern schizophrenic patients often report a two dimensional display of a movie playing somewhere in their visual field. In the case of Matthews, these were referred to as dream-workings. Most often, the individual reports that they are unable to not see what is being shown.
The ray of the machine is also reported to either interfere or block an individual’s thought. The ray can event produce strange physical sensations and can, in some circumstances, control the actual movement of the individual. Matthews thought that Hadfield was often under such control.
Tausk himself would later turn to researching fetishism and masturbation, leading to a strained relationship with Freud. He ended upcommitted an elaborate suicide by tying a curtain around his neck before shooting himself with a pistol, hanging himself as he fell.
A New World
The diagram of the Air Loom was not the only instance of Matthew’s artistry. While a patient at Bethlem, he drew up a series of renovations to the facility as part of a public contest for its improvement. The drawings were so impressive that he was not only paid £50 (a few thousand dollars today) for them but some of his work was actually adopted in the renovations.
In 1814, Matthews was moved to a private asylum named Fox’s London House after having been in Bethlem for nearly twenty years. The Air Loom Gang had disappeared from his mind and Matthews took over the bookkeeping and gardening of the facility, living out the remainder of his life, by all accounts, in productive peace. Haslam himself fell under scrutiny shortly after Matthew’s departure. Matthew’s own notes about Haslam were cited during the investigation as evidence of his mistreatment of patients and mismanagement of the facility.
While we now know much more than we did before, the causes and neurological underpinnings of schizophrenia are still not well understood. Studies on twins indicate that the condition does have some genetic basis but it appears that environmental conditions play an important role. In the case of Matthews, his elaborate Air Loom seems to have partially been the result of his traumatic life experiences during the French Revolution. Matthew’s case is the beginning of all conspiracy theories involving influencing machines which encompasses everything from UFOs to elaborate Nazi war machines. Since then, the feedback loop between paranoid delusion and culture has become mainstream.