THE AIR LOOM GANG: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness

Mike Jay, Author . Four Walls Eight Windows $24 (306p) ISBN 978-1-56858-297-9

Jay (Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century ) weaves a miscarriage-of-justice drama around the shadowy case of James Tilly Matthews, a smalltime political operative in the tumultuous aftermath of the French Revolution, who was detained for more than 14 years in Bedlam, the notorious London madhouse. Jay takes as his starting point Matthews's 1796 arrest for publicly accusing Lord Liverpool, the home secretary, of treason. Examining what were taken to be Matthews's delusional accounts of high-level political intrigue, Jay finds evidence that his claims were founded in reality. He unfurls a stranger-than-fiction tale of a bizarrely autonomous double agent, and then elegantly segues into a philosophical discussion of agency in its psychiatric context. Jay allows that Matthews showed unmistakable schizophrenic tendencies in his vision of a mind-control machine—the so-called Air Loom and its "gang" of spooky operators. But he argues that Matthews's long confinement in Bedlam owed more to the careerism of Bedlam's apothecary John Haslam and to government overreaction than to any risk Matthews posed to society. Through subtle discussion of Matthews's obsessions with persecution and conspiracy, Jay points to a visionary element in madness as the touchstone of the era's preoccupations. To these thoughts he adds fascinating accounts of the rise of the chemistry of gases and mesmerism. Mindful of the interrelation of prison, mental hospital and politics, Jay constructs a pertinent historical essay on justice and the mentally ill during times of terror and paranoia that resonates today at many levels. (Apr. 18)

Reviewed on: 03/01/2004
Release date: 04/01/2004
Paperback - 346 pages - 978-0-553-81485-9
Show other formats
The Best Books, Emailed Every Week
Tip Sheet!