The madness of James Tilly Matthews


A psychoanalyst once proposed that ‘madness is when you can’t find anyone who can stand you’. This is not such a flippant definition as it might first appear. In practice, the mad are created when those around them can no longer cope with them, and turn them over to specialists and professionals. They are people who have broken the ties that bind the rest of us in our social contract, who have reached a point where they can no longer connect.

But by this definition James Tilly Matthews, paranoid schizophrenic or not, was not mad. It is striking that throughout his story, even at the prodigious heights of his delusions, there are always those around who trust him, and he consistently inspires sympathy, affection and love.

From Mike Jay’s The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness (ISBN 0593049977, p58).

Matthews had previously been involved in peace negotions between France and England and returned believing himself controlled by a mysterious ‘air loom’. Also believing the government to be under its influence he shouted “treason!” in the House of Commons.

After his arrest and confinement at ‘Bedlam’ Hospital, he became the subject of the first ever book-length psychiatric case study in 1810. John Haslam, the hospital apothecary, wrote-up his case as part of an effort to embarass the medical establishment who he believed, contrary to their claims, did not understand either madness or Matthews’ case.

Link to article on James Tilly Matthews and the ‘air loom’ by Mike Jay.
Link to John Haslam’s 1810 ‘Illustrations of Madness’.

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