James Tilly Matthews

From Kook Science

James Tilly Matthews
Born 1770
Died 10 January 1815 (45)
Ethnicity Welsh
Known for Air Loom Gang claims

James Tilly Matthews (1770 - January 10, 1815) was a British tea merchant and political activist, noted today as one of the more well-known examples of the influencing machine delusion, having been committed to the Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam) in 1797 after shouting "treason" in the British House of Commons. Matthews was convinced that a cabal of Jacobin conspirators, referred to as the Air Loom Gang after their machine for mental coercion via magnetic fluid, were controlling many important figures in British life, including Matthews himself. He provided extensive detail of their operations and techniques, which were documented by John Haslam in his 1810 book Illustrations of Madness.


Press Coverage

Contemporary (1796-1815)

  • "FRIDAY, NOV. 4.: Disturbance in the Gallery.", The London Review and Literary Journal 30: 434, December 1796, 

    A few minutes before the House adjourned, and during a short interval in which the Engrossing Clerk had been inserting a clause in a Bill, a person who sat in the front of the gallery stood up, and raising his right hand, which held a piece of paper, broke forth into the following exclamation: "Treason! Treason! I come to disclose treason to the House! I wish to surrender myself to the Sergeant at Arms, and to be examined at your bar!"

    The gallery was immediately ordered to be cleared, and the person being pointed out to the Sergeant at Arms, he directed to messengers to detain him in the anti-chambers until he returned with the pleasure of the House. In this interval the man stated, that his name was James Tilly Matthews; his father was a Welshman, himself a native of Staffordshire, and that he resided at No. 6, Camberwell Grove; that he had been imprisoned at Christmas 1794 in Paris, and removed from one prison to another for fourteen months. Upon his release from prison, he returned to this country, waited upon several Members of Administration, and informed them of a traitorous correspondence between several members of the Cabinet of this country and the French government; that no attention had been paid to these charges, and he had taken this step as the last resource he had left; for he was determined to let the country know the fact, or perish in the attempt; that three millions, in specie and jewels, had been distributed in this kingdom by the French for treasonable purposes, and to the influence of that bribe were to be attributed all the defeats and disasters that attended the British forces in the Netherlands, Westphalia, and Holland. These facts, he declared, he could establish by the conviction of the House, if they deigned to grant him an audience.

    He complained very much of being followed every where by spies, and a man personated him. His life, he said, was in danger, for people were employed to kill him. He had given a copy of the charges to Mr. Fox a few days ago, and when he called upon him the next day, Mr. Fox asked him his name, and observed, that the signatures to the papers were different; this, he said, was a clear proof that somebody watched him very closely, and that he could not give a paper out of his hand without its being immediately changed.

    Strong marks of insanity appearing, no farther notice was taken of this man.

  • "Review of Haslam's 'Illustrations of Madness' (London, 1810)", The Critical View 21 (4): 404-407, December 1810, 

    THIS curious little tract is the offspring of a singular controversy, which has occupied the attention of the Court of King's Bench concerning the intellectual sanity of a man cone fined in Bedlam, of the name of James Tilly Matthews. The medical officers of the hospital of course cousidered the wan to be a lunatic, nor could they have any other motive for continuing his detention. The relatives of the man, and the officers of his parish considered him to be recovered; and demanded his release. To support their demand, they employed two physicians, Drs. Clutterbuck and Birkbeck, who made affidavits, that they thought the man to be of sound mind. This step was somewhat hardy, in opposition to the judgment of persons so well versed in cases of this nature.

    'But aware,' says Mr. Haslam, 'of the fallibility of human judgment, and suspecting that copious experience, which sheds the blessings of light upon others, might have kept them in the dark: perhaps startled at the powerful talents, extensive learning, and subtile penetration which had recorded in the face of day the sanity of a man whom they considered as an incurable lunatic: and flinching at an oath contradictory of such high testimony, the medical officers prudently referred the determination of the case to the constituted and best authorities in the kingdom.'

    These authorities were the commissioners of the College of Physicians for visiting private mad houses, viz. Sir Lucas Pepys, and Drs. Budd, Ainsley, Haworth, and Lambe; Dr. Powell, secretary to the commissioners; Dr. Robert Willis, son of the celebrated Dr. Willis; and Dr. Simmons, physician to St. Luke's hospital. These gentlemen unanimously pronounced 'the patient to be in a most deranged state of intellect, and wholly unfit to be at large.' Under the weight of these combined opinions, the court, we believe, (for Mr. Haslam has neglected to inform us of the fact), decided that the governors of the hospital were justified in the detention of the patient.

    Such is the history. It having become an affair of considerable notoriety, Mr. Haslam has chosen to detail the peculiar extravagances of this man's conceptions and ideas. They certainly excite some surprise, that there should have been any question upon the real state of his intellect; and teach a useful and somewhat humiliating lesson on the fallibility of human judgment, and the uncertain evidence afforded by human testimony. Mr. Hastan has animadverted with considerable severity (couched under a strain of irony), on the conduct of the two physicians, whose opinions were in opposition to his own. But we see no reason to impute their conduct to corrupt or improper motives, and as the man had deceived the judgment of unprofessional observers (his relatives and the parish officers), it is but candid to suppose that it required to be put in possession of the particular train of the patient's ideas, in order to detect his hallucinations. It would seem that on these points these two gentlemen were in the dark. They did not touch the proper key; and failed therefore to produce the sound, which disclosed the imperfection of the instrument.

    It falls to our lot to read nonsense enough. But we have not frequent opportunities of producing specimens of absolute insanity. Perhaps our readers may not be displeased with an example of this nature. We shall select the following, which Mr. Haslam informs us is the composition of the lunatic himself.

    'The assassins opened themselves by their voices to me about Michaelmas, 1798, and for several years called their infardies, working ſeats of arms, but seldom using the term Event working: though, after four or five years, when I, by perseverance, had beat them out of their insolence of assumption, (for they assumed the right of interfering with every body having heraldic bearings particularly, and for this part of their villanies called themselves the efficient persons to all those having titles to colleges of arms), and by such titles also they used the term event-working for their actions. It is an easy matter to define fully any regular instance of such, their called event-working, because they in every thing introduced the names of some, or other personages, as concerned therewith, but who certainly, were not only ignorant of their very existence, but more or less victims to their abominations. However, to shew what the nature of such events working is, namely, how infamous human beings, making a profession of pneumatic chymistry, and pneumatic magnetism, hire themselves as spies; and by impregnating persons, singled out by them as objects for interfering with, obtaining their secrets, actuating them in various ways, in thought, word and deed, as well as they can, to model their conduct, ideas, or measures to favour the ends of assassin spies or event-workers, or their employers, &c. in bringing about which ends they sometimes are years and many years, varying from mode to mode from stratagem to stratagem, and sometimes partially fail at last, according to the difficulty of getting near the object to operate upon, the strength of such persons nerves, brain, and personal affections, as well as nature of soul, &c. &c. The following, divested of their offensive introductions may suffice, being a few instances out of numberless events.

    'While I was detained in Paris by the then existing French government, during the years 1793-4-5, and beginning of 1796, I had even in the early part thereof, sufficient information, to be certain that a regular plan existed, and was furthering by persous in France, connected with persons in England, as well for surrendering to the French every secret of the British government, as for the republicanizing Great Britain and Ireland, and particularly for disorganizing the British navy, to create such a confusion therein as to admit the French armaments to move without danger.

    'My sentiments having been resolutely hostile to every such plan, idea, and person assisting therein, proved, as the assassins, bave ever avowed, the real cause of my having had gens d'armes placed with me to prevent my return, and their having by such magnetic means of workers in Paris ascertained, that my said sentiments were so determined for the counteracting such plans, as well as others more dreadful in their nature, that I should persevere even to the loss of my life in my efforts to expose them. They have even avowed also: that my having immediately on my return set about exposing the quoted infamies, occasioned a magnetic spy to be appointed from each gang of event-workers in London, specially to watch and circumvent me: for that the chiefs of such gangs were the real persons who were cloked under certain names and titles used in the information given me, and which I bare for years found such vile spy-traitor-assassins called by among their fraternity.'

    Our readers will see that the strange terms in Mr. Haslam's title page, assailment, event-working, bomb-bursting, &c. are coinages of the brain of this poor lunatic. If this circumstance be not understood, the acute and intelligent writer of this pamphlet runs some risk of being suspected to be the subject of the inquisitions of the conclave of doctors assembled on this occasion.

  • "Review of Haslam's 'Illustrations of Madness' (London, 1810)", Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal 7: 351-354, July 1811, 

    James Tilly Matthews, whose case has given rise to this curious publication, was admitted a patient into Bethlem Hospital, by a petition from the parish officers of Camberwell, on the 28th of January 1797. Although his insanity was then most evident, yet his relatives did not possess the faculty of perceiving his disorder. After one year's residence in the hospital, he was put upon the incurable establishment, and in this situation he has continued till the present time. In the year 1809, his relatives again interfered; and confiding in their own opinion, that he was of sound mind, and possessed the proper direction of his intellects, requested that he might be discharged. They applied to two very respectable physicians, Drs Birkbeck and Clutterbuck, to visit Mr Matthews, who pronounced him perfectly recovered, and affirmed the same on oath in the Court of King's Bench. The medical officers of Bethlem Hospital considered this patient insane, and they assembled a consultation of the most eminent men of the Royal College, who, after a deliberate examination, made oath, that he was in a most deranged state of intellect, and wholly unfit to be at large.

    We shall not step out of our department to inquire into this remarkable difference in medical opinion, especially since a counter-statement of the affair has been advertised by one of the dissentient physicians. Until that rejoinder has been read, it would be wrong for us so say more, than to express a hope, that the Controversy will be carried on with less acrimony than what is already displayed in the beginning. For surely madness can be illustrated, without speaking disparagingly of doctors of physic.

    That Mr Matthews labours under mental derangement, or, in other words, that he is mad, there can be scarcely a doubt in the mind of any man who is in his sober senses, and is unbiassed and undeceived by prejudice. This unfortunate maniac seems to be affected with the morbid habit of watching his own sensations so closely, and he sees every thing through the discolouring and distorting glass of his disordered imagination, that he has brought on a train of diseased feelings, and endures thereby the actual suffering which he describes, from an imaginary cause. His peculiar opinions may be judged of by the following extract. Some of the history is faithfully copied from the manuscript of the patient himself, and the whole is said to have been collected from him since the termination of the legal proceeding :—

    "Mr M. insists that in some apartment near London Wall, there is a gang of villains profoundly skilled in pneumatic chemistry, who assail him by means of an air loom. A description of this formidable instrument will be given hereafter; but he is persuaded that an account of it is to be found in Chambers's Dictionary, edited by Dr Rees in 1783, under the article loom, and that its figure is to be seen in one of the plates relating to pneumatics.

    "It is unnecessary to tell the reader that he will fruitlessly search that work for such information.

    "The assailing gang consists of seven members, four of whom are men and three women. Of these persons four are commonly resident, and two have never stirred abroad since he has been the subject of their persecution. Of their general habits little is known; occasionally they appear in the streets, and by ordinary persons would be taken to be pick-pockets or private distillers. They leave home to correspond with others or their profession; hire themselves out as spies, and discover the secrets of government to the enemy, or confederate to work events of the most atrocious nature. At home they lie together in promiscuous intercourse and filthy community.

    "The principal of this crew is named Bill, or the King: he formerly surpassed the rest in skill, and in the dexterity with which he worked the machine: he is about 64 or 5 years of age, and in person resembles the late Dr De Valangin, but his features are coarser; perhaps, he is a nearer likeness to the late Sir William Pulteney, to whom he is made a duplicate. It was on account of something worked by this wretch, that another, by the force of assailment, actuated Rhynwick Williams to the commission of his monstrous practices. He also took Hadfield in tow, by means of magnetic impregnations, and compelled him to fire the pistol at his majesty in the theatre: but on this subject there is a difference of opinion, as some of the female part of the gang attribute this event to blue-mantle, of whom no thing farther is known. In working the machine Bill exerts the most unrelenting and murderous villany; and he has never been observed to smile.

    "The next in order, is a being called Jack the schoolmaster, who is the short-hand-writer to the gang: he styles himself the recorder; somewhat tall, and about sixty years of age. It is not well ascertained if he wear a wig, but he generally appears in the act of shoving his wig back with his forefinger, and frequently says, "so you shall, when you can ketch (catch) us at it." Sometimes he says, "I'm to see fair play," and makes a merriment of the business. Jack has very seldom worked the machine.

    "The third person is Sir Archy, who is about 55 years of age, wears a drab-coloured coat, and, according to the old fashion, his breeches button between the legs. Some of the gang assert that Sir Archy is a woman dressed in men's apparel: and whenever Mr Matthews has endeavoured, by inquiry, to ascertain this fact, Sir Archy has answered in a manner so quaint and indelicate that I cannot venture to communicate his reply. He is considered as the common liar of the gang; a low-minded blackguard, always cracking obscene jokes and throwing out gibes and sarcasms. In his speech there is an affectation of a provincial accent, so that when Mr M. asserts the truth of any fact, Sir Archy replies yho (you) are mistea-ken (mistaken). He constantly stays in the apartment, and says he does not work the machine, but only uses a magnet. His mode of communicating with Mr M. is principally by "brain-sayings," which term will be afterwards explained.

    "The last of the males is termed the Middle Man, who is about 57 years of age, of the middle stature, with a broad chest; has a twang of the hawk countenance, not pockfretten, and much resembling the late Mr Smeaton the engineer. He is dressed in a blue coat, with a plain waistcoat. It is said that he is a manufacturer of air-looms, and possesses the first rate skill in working this instrument. Although he is unrelenting in his persecution of Mr M. he appears to consider it as sport, and sits grinning, apparently delighted that he cannot be taken unawares. After his attacks, he generally observes that Mr M. is the talisman; then Sir Archy replies with a sneer, "Yes, he is the talisman."

    "Among the females who compose this establishment, Augusta may first be described. She is about 36 years of age, of the middle stature, and her countenance is distinguished by the sharpness of its features. In person she is not fleshy, nor can she be said to be a thin woman; she is not full breasted. Ordinarily dressed, as a country tradesman's wife, in black, without powder. Augusta seldom works the machine, but frequently goes abroad to correspond with other gangs at the west end of the town. Of agreeable deportment, and at first seems very friendly and cajoling; but when she finds that she cannot influence and convince, becomes exceedingly spiteful and malignant. Her object is to influence women by her brain-sayings; and she states herself to be the chief of this department. Within the last seven years. the virulence of her temper has been consider ably exasperated.

    "Charlotte, the next in review, is about the same age as Augusta, and also of the middle stature, but more fleshy; has the appearance of a French woman, being a kind of ruddy brunette. She constantly stays at home with Sir Archy, and complains that she is forcibly confined to this situation. They keep her nearly naked, and poorly fed. Mr Matthews is led to suppose that she is chained; for she has sometimes stated herself to be equally a prisoner with himself. Charlotte always speaks French, but her language and brain-sayings are conveyed in an English idiom. Her character is that of a steady, persevering sort of person, who is convinced of the impropriety of her conduct, but cannot help herself. For several years she has not worked the machine, but is a fixed and established reporter.

    "A very extraordinary lady completes this malicious group. She does not appear to have any Christian name, but by the gang is termed the Glove Woman, as she constantly wears cotton mittens. Sir Archy drily insinuates that she keeps her arms thus covered because she has got the itch. She is about 48 years of age, is above the middle height, and has a sharp face. On her chin and upper lip there is a considerable quantity of sine downy hair, and she is somewhat pockfretten. Always dressed in a common fawn-coloured Norwich gown, with a plain cream-coloured camblet shawl, and wears a chip hat covered with black silk. The glove woman is remarkable for her skill in managing the machine. She frequently goes abroad. The rest of the gang, but particularly Sir Archy, are constantly bantering and plucking at her, like a number of rooks at a strange jack-daw: she has never been known to speak."