James Tilly Matthews was a peace activist 200 years ago, during the Napoleonic Wars. He was confined to Bedlam asylum because he attributed the bloody conflict to a secret society using futuristic mind-control devices, which he illustrated in exquisite detail, rivaling the technical drawings of engineers.

The blueprints were published in an 1810 book, Illustrations of Madness, which was written by John Haslam, an apothecary at Bedlem who spent a decade observing and "treating" Matthews. As Mike Jay writes at the Public Domain Review, this account is cited as the first fully described case of what is now known as the "influencing machine"— a type of paranoid schizophrenia characterized by delusions that a covertly operated device is being used to control an individual's mind and body.

Advertisement

Matthews named this device the "Air Loom," which he believed was brainwashing European leaders:

The Air Loom worked, as its name suggests, by weaving "airs", or gases, into a "warp of magnetic fluid" which was then directed at its victim. Matthews' explanation of its powers combined the cutting-edge technologies of pneumatic chemistry and the electric battery with the controversial science of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. The finer detail becomes increasingly strange. It was fuelled by combinations of "fetid effluvia", including "spermatic-animal-seminal rays", "putrid human breath", and "gaz from the anus of the horse", and its magnetic warp assailed Matthews' brain in a catalogue of forms known as "event-workings". These included "brain-saying" and "dream-working", by which thoughts were forced into his brain against his will, and a terrifying array of physical tortures from "knee nailing", "vital tearing" and "fibre ripping" to "apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater" and the dreaded "lobster-cracking", where the air around his chest was constricted until he was unable to breathe.

To facilitate their control over him, the gang had implanted a magnet into his brain. He was tormented constantly by hallucinations, physical agonies, fits of laughter or being forced to parrot whatever words they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad. The machine's operators were a gang of undercover Jacobin terrorists, who Matthews described with haunting precision.

Despite these delusions, Matthews' family believed he posed no threat to himself and others, and that the inhumane conditions of his confinement at Bedlam were only making him worse. Over the objections of Haslam, Matthews was released into the care of his family, following the diagnosis of two outside physicians.

Advertisement

Haslam published Illustrations of Madness to smear the reputations of those physicians and prove that he was justified in wanting to keep Matthews confined. But, his plan backfired. The quality of Matthews' technical drawings were so impressive that people became more convinced that his incarceration had been unjustified. Matthews even submitted architectural plans for a new Bedlam facility that earned him a cash award.

And Haslam? Five years later he was dismissed from his position after an investigation into the inhumane conditions at Bedlam. Matthews lived the remainder of his life as a gardener and bookkeeper at a more congenial private asylum.

A digitized version of Illustrations of Madness is available online at the Wellcome Library.