Genius Of Bedlam

Remember when lunatics designed the insane asylums?

Note to Terry Gilliam: Call your producers.

The story behind The Air Loom Gang is the stuff of Fisher Kings and windmill-tilters: Regency-era steam contraptions, mind control, government intrigue, and a creative genius driven mad by paranoid hallucinations.

A young London tea merchant and bit player in diplomacy during the French Revolution, James Tilly Matthews was rotting in a French dungeon when he heard (or thought he heard) this fateful question from a fellow prisoner: "Mr. Matthews, are you acquainted with the art of talking with your brains?" Soon a disheveled Matthews, back in England, was getting wrestled down from the Parliament visitor's gallery, screaming "TREASON!" at bewildered MPs.

Joseph Priestley (left), devil, Thomas Paine
illustration: Isaac Cruickshank/Wellcome Library, London
Joseph Priestley (left), devil, Thomas Paine

Tossed into Bedlam asylum, he unveiled a vast international conspiracy to staff apothecary John Haslam. A cabal was operating a steam-powered mesmeric mind-control machine under Parliament, Matthews confided—an "air loom," fueled by a brew of dog piss, horse droppings, and human semen—and turning the MPs above into drones. The prime minister was a "pneumatic puppet," and anyone defying the cabal risked "lobster-cracking," wherein a magnetic field pressed upon their bodies until they shattered. Haslam's 1810 account of these visions, Illustrations of Madness (wonderfully illuminated by Matthews's own diagrams) comprises the first recognizable case history of paranoid schizophrenia. Haslam even made the almost unprecedented assertion that his inmate's delusions were organic in origin, occurring from physical disruptions in brain tissue.

Matthews certainly was mad. But was he bad? Doctors argued for decades whether his case warranted continued confinement; government officials maneuvered to shush a man whom some considered a spy gone bonkers. Meanwhile, Matthews became legendary among London's intelligentsia: He founded a brilliant architecture magazine, and even submitted a startlingly progressive plan to an architectural competition to replace Bedlam. As author Mike Jay notes, "These are, probably for the first time ever, designs by a lunatic for a lunatic asylum."

Jay deftly places Matthews into the context of a tumultuous era. His madness was a cracked mirror, reflecting crazed shards of mesmerism, galvanism, steam engines, and revolutionary intrigue. But his dilemma remains timeless. As a Bedlamite muttered in 1684: "They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me."

 
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