Author: Mike Jay
APA Style Citation
Kay, M. (2014). A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.
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“They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”
-Nathaniel Lee, admitted to Bedlam in 1684
James Tilly Matthews is often cited as the most widely early reported case of schizophrenia. Authorities stated that Matthews was delusional and paranoid, believing that the British government was out to get him. Matthews also believed that there was an “influencing machine,” which he described as an “air loom,” which was a kind of primitive machine that could control people`s thoughts and actions. The machine was operated by a team of men, and Matthews produced many detailed drawings and thousands of words of descriptions regarding the workings of the “machine.” The impetus for Matthew`s diagnosis and eventual confinement occurred after he attended a session of the House of Commons and then loudly accused the Prime Minister of treason. He was removed and taken immediately to Bethlem asylum. Once admitted to Bethlem, Matthews refused to associate with the other patients, claiming they were not lunatics, but rather spies placed there by the government to keep an eye on him. He also refused to drink the water believing that it could be poisoned.
Dr. James Haslam served as the resident apothecary (an early term for a psychiatrist) at Bethlem and was responsible for the care of Matthews during his stay. Careers in “mad doctoring” were not highly sought out at the time, and Dr. Haslam received little recognition despite his hard work. Dr. Haslam was one of the first to advocate that “madness” was not a spiritual problem, but rather an organic brain disorder. He acknowledged that one could suffer from a mental illness and still retain a high level of intelligence. Dr. Haslam completed post-mortem analysis of patient`s brains to determine if he could find the source of the problem. He did find increased ventricles in some patients which today has been confirmed in the brains of some individuals with schizophrenia.
If that were the full case of James Tilly Matthew`s insanity, we would not likely know of him today. It is possible that Matthews was not insane at all but rather the patsy in a government cover-up. Matthews had worked as a spy for the British government. He acted as an intermediary between French and British forces just after the French Revolution. He and a colleague worked through intermediaries on behalf of William Pitt (a prominent statesman) to find a way to keep peace between England and France. He accompanied David Williams to Paris to work with the committee drafting the new constitution. They had received the invitation via a French agent in London and were traveling undercover on enemy soil. Matthews had been well-funded and supported by the British government, however, once talks fell apart Pitt refused to meet with Matthews and eventually he found himself a prisoner in France. After his imprisonment, the British government seemed to want to distance themselves from their previous involvement in his covert actions. Matthews went from an esteemed agent for the state to a pauper.
Matthews had a brilliant mind, when Bethlem needed to be reconstructed because the old building was sinking and falling apart, Matthews provided a set of ingenious plans with a visionary plan with modernized heating, ventilation, and beautifully designed architecture. Matthew`s family and a number of his associates remained steadfast in their claims that he was perfectly sane. Initially, Matthew`s stay at Bethlem was paid for by his local parish as was customary at the time. For reasons unknown, however, and without the Parish of Camberwell (the parish providing payment) ever being informed, Matthew`s was designated as a state prisoner, this seems suspicious and supports the idea that the state may have been behind the internment from the start.
Matthew`s family claimed they would take full responsibility for him upon his release which would lighten the burden on the state significantly and Matthews did not seem to pose a physical threat to anyone which was the typical concern upon release in cases such as these. While the head of Bethlem, Thomas Munro, states that he has “never felt the smallest doubt with respect to his insanity and believes him to be a most insane and dangerous lunatic and wholly unfit to be at large.” Munro provides no specific details to support this and spent very little time at Bethlem. Matthews had never acted overtly violent to anyone during his stay at Bethlem. In addition, the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia is generally categorized by delusions so bizarre that they are difficult to follow, Matthew`s supposed delusions were characterized by events that can be demonstrated as fact and they remained consistent over the length of his internment.
The James Tilly Matthews case is not the only one in which the ambiguity of psychological labeling has been addressed. In the 1970s, psychologist David Rosenhan and eight other mentally healthy people checked themselves into mental health care facilities claiming to hear voices saying, “thud,” “empty,” “dull.” All participants were immediately admitted to the facilities but then acted normally. Their normal behaviors were often interpreted as symptoms of their “illness.” It seems as if their label of schizophrenia (bipolar psychosis for one participant) had reframed all of their behaviors. Even simple questions or not talking was identified as “disordered.” These mentally healthy individuals were held at the mental health care facilities between 17 and 51 days and were released as having schizophrenia in remission.
Did the label that was attached to James Tilly Matthews also cause his everyday activities to be labeled as “disordered?” Did the British government simply concoct a story to make Matthews seem insane so if he revealed any of his covert actions, they would be written off as the work of a madman? Even if he did have schizophrenia at some point, was he held in Bethlem because he was a pseudo-celebrity, because his therapist had written a book about Matthew`s insanity or because the facility wanted to capitalize off of his clear brilliance? Dr. Haslam would not release Matthews because even though he acknowledged his sanity after a number of years of treatment, there was also the requirement that Matthews admit that at one time he was not sane, which Matthews refused to do, therefore he remained at Bethlem.
Eventually, the governors of Bethlem admitted that Matthews` mental state was not the reason for his confinement, rather it was an issue of state security. He was eventually transferred to a country house with more freedom, where the doctors who visited him found him conscious and clear. They reported that he appeared “collected, tranquil and intelligent”. Shortly after moving to the country house, Matthews died as a result of living for years in the damp and cold environment of Bethlem. After Matthew`s death, Dr. Haslam, Matthew`s long-time doctor never even attempted to object to Matthews sanity when confronted with the evidence.
We will likely never know the full truth about the James Tilly Matthews case, but this historical case is still relevant today as we continue to struggle with the line between strange behaviors and diagnoseable illnesses.
Other Related Resources
Illustrations from James Tilly Matthews
The Air Loom: Mind Control
Video Describing the Air Loom
Why the Rosenhan Experiment Still Matters
The Washington Post: This Secret Experiment Tricked Psychiatrists into Diagnosing Sane People as having Schizophrenia.
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Franz Anton Mesmer
Delusions of reference
Stream of consciousness