Cover image for The Air Loom gang : the strange and true story of James Tilly Matthews and his visionary madness
The Air Loom gang : the strange and true story of James Tilly Matthews and his visionary madness
Jay, Mike, 1959 December 14-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Four Walls Eight Windows, 2004.

Physical Description:
306 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RC464.M379 J39 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



London, the 1790s. Europe is in turmoil, and mysterious forces seem to be edging England into a disastrous war with France. Not quite at the center of the political maelstrom is James Tilly Matthews, a Welsh tea merchant and antiwar advocate who holds covert meetings with the leaders of both countries. But Matthews also believes his mind is being controlled by a gang of revolutionary "terrorists" and their diabolical secret machine called the Air Loom. The only man aware of the Air Loom's existence, Matthews is promptly declared mad and exiled to Bedlam, where he is held against his will for the rest of his life -- by order of England's home secretary, Lord Liverpool. At Bedlam his "delusions" are celebrated as the most complex and bizarre ever recorded, but the truth of his case is even stranger than his doctors realize: many of the incredible political episodes in which he claims to have been involved are entirely real.

Author Notes

Mike Jay is the author of Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century and Blue Tide: The Search for Soma. He lives in London

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Strange only begins to describe this bizarre story of a man who may be the first documented paranoid schizophrenic in psychiatric history. In 1796, James Tilly Matthews was a south London pauper with a wife and young family when he attended a session of the House of Commons and from the gallery shouted Treason! at the home secretary, Lord Liverpool. For Matthews, this was an imperative act of defiance against a diabolical plot employing an insidious thought control machine he called the Air Loom. He alleged he was a confidante of the highest heads of state and privy to several state secrets. His claims notwithstanding, he was quickly wrestled and scuttled off to London's infamous Bethlam, or Bedlam--a name synonymous with hell on earth for those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders--for the remainder of his life, without hope of reprieve, despite the unceasing entreaties of his family. More interesting is that it became plain, after numerous hearings, that it didn't matter whether Matthews was insane or not: he had been committed and imprisoned on the official orders of Lord Liverpool himself. But was Matthews mad? Read this fascinating account and be the judge. --Donna Chavez Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Acknowledgementsp. ix
List of Illustrationsp. xi
1 The Air Loomp. 1
2 Bedlamp. 20
3 Habeas Corpusp. 53
4 Revolutionp. 85
5 A Most Diabolical Traitorp. 123
6 Illustrations of Madnessp. 164
7 Useful Architecturep. 211
8 The Fall of England's Bastillep. 234
9 The Influencing Machinep. 271
Bibliographyp. 295
Indexp. 301