James Tilly Matthews: The Story of an Eighteenth Century Schizophrenic

March 7, 2017 in General

James Tilly Matthews was a London-based tea supplier, who originally came from Wales. In 1797, he was committed to Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital. His experiences and hallucinations made this case the first documented case of paranoid schizophrenia, although the diagnostic category had yet to coalesce at the time.

During the early 1790s, Matthews became concerned about increasing hostility between Britain and revolutionary France. Matthews then travelled to France with the English radical David Williams, who had contacted Girondist radicals Jacques Pierre Brissot and Le Brun. The Girondists were a political group operating in France between 1791 and 1795, who were a part of the Jacobin Movement. Even though his statements were increasingly surrealistic, Matthews obtained the confidence of the current French government for a short time. However, given its political instability, the Girondists were overthrown by the Jacobins on June 2, 1793. As a consequence, Matthews fell under suspicion for his Girondist affiliation, and also because he was suspected of being a double agent for the United Kingdom. He was arrested and later imprisoned until 1796. At that point, the French authorities belatedly concluded that he was a “lunatic” and released him.

Finally able to return to London, Matthews wrote two letters to Lord Liverpool. These epistles accused the Parliamentary Home Secretary of treason and discussed alleged “conspiracies” directed against Matthews’ own life. After Matthews interrupted a debate in the House of Commons when he shouted “Treason” at Lord Liverpool from the parliamentary Public Gallery, he was arrested and held at Tothill Fields Bridewell, a prison. On January 28, 1797, he was committed to Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital.

After Matthews was examined, he claimed that he had taken part in secret affairs of the state, referring to his alleged ‘intermediary peacemaking’ role in France, but said that he had been largely betrayed and abandoned by William Pitt’s administration. After twelve years of incarceration in Bethlem, in 1809, Matthews’ family and friends petitioned for his release, claiming that his mental illness had gone. However, their petitions were rejected by the Bethlem authorities. The relatives then took out a suit of habeas corpus. At that point, two doctors, George Birkbeck and Henry Clutterbuck examined Matthews, and concluded that he was “sane.” John Haslam, the resident apothecary at Bethlem dissented from this diagnosis and still concluded that Matthews’ delusions about political matters meant that any departure from the facility would endanger public figures and the general public.

In 1810, John Haslam produced a book on the Matthews case entitled Illustrations of Madness. Ironically, the original title would lead to questions about the apothecary’s own sanity. It was meant to be entitled 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.

Within his book, Haslam had described Matthews’ current mental health status. The book contained verbatim statements of Matthew’s beliefs and hallucinatory experiences. In the absence of any surviving predated material, it is considered to be the first description of what would later be described as the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Haslam’s book was the first recorded full study of a single psychiatric patient in medical history and it has become a classic in the world of medical literature. Over two centuries later, it is still in print.

Matthews believed a gang of criminals and spies who were skilled in “pneumatic chemistry” had taken over a section of London Wall in Moorfields, and they were tormenting him by through utilising ‘radiation’ emitted by an elaborate apparatus that he called an “Air Loom.” According to Matthews transcribed accounts, his numerous torments from the ‘radiation’ included “Lobster-cracking” during which the circulation of the blood was prevented by a magnetic field. He also claimed that the Air Loom produced “Stomach-skinning” and “Apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater” which was perceived as introducing “extraneous” fluids into his skull. An hallucinatory conspiratorial ensemble of associated malicious individuals included “the Middleman” (who operated the Air Loom), “the Glove Woman” and “Sir Archy” (who repeated the sensations experienced to maintain Matthews’ torment, and recorded the machine’s activities. Finally, there was their leader,Bill, or the King.

Matthews’ delusions had political overtones. The “Air Loom Gang” was alleged to undertake espionage and that there were many other such gangs, all armed with Air Looms that encircled London. The conspiratorial cabal were said to use the “Air Looms” as “pneumatic practitioners” to “premagnetize” identifiable “victims” with “volatile magnetic fluid”. Matthews claimed that their chief targets (aside from himself) were the current Cabinet. Through the mechanism of “Air Loom” “radiation,” the hallucinatory conspiratorial cabal could influence ministers’ thoughts and uncover vital strategic details on the conduct of the conflict. Matthews claimed that William Pitt was particularly susceptible to these attacks. He concluded that such Air Loom gangs were responsible for several late eighteenth century British military disasters at Buenos Aires in 1807, a failed offensive at Walcheren in 1809 and also for the Nore Mutiny of 1797.

In 1814, James Matthews was moved to “Fox’s London House”. This was a private therapeutic establishment in the London suburb of Hackney, where he became a popular and trusted patient. The asylum’s proprietor, Dr. Fox, regarded him as sane. Matthews assisted with accountancy details within the organisation and horticulture until he passed away on January 10, 1815.


Mike Jay: A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine: Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books: 2014.

John Haslam and Roy Porter: Illustrations of Madness: Hove: Routledge: 2014.

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