A Spy at Bedlam (Part Two)

 Continued from Part One

As far as John Haslam was concerned, James Tilly Matthews was a lunatic and he didn't hesitate to say so.  Within a year of Matthews' admission to Bethlem, Haslam and his immediate superior John Munro had him moved to the "incurable" ward.  In writing about Matthews' condition, Haslam described him as "sometimes, an automaton moved by the agency of persons, hereafter to be introduced to the notice of the reader ; at others, the Emperor of the whole world, issuing proclamations to his disobedient subjects, and hurling from their thrones the usurpers of his dominions."

Despite Haslam's conclusions, James Matthews' family had other ideas.   In 1809, they formally applied to Matthews' parish to have him released (it was the parish that given permission to detain him in the first place) and arranged for a sanity hearing. To bolster their case, they also arranged for two prominent physicians, Henry Clutterbuck and George Birkbeck, to assess Matthews and make their own conclusions about his mental state.  In depositions submitted to the King's Bench, both doctors declared that they had interviewed Matthews on multiple occasions and couldn't find any evidence of the insanity that Haslam and Munro insisted he had.  

What followed was a battle of competing experts with Haslam and Munro putting together their own panel of authorities to verify that their original assessment was correct.    Haslam even argued that Clutterbuck and Birkbeck had been completely fooled by Matthews who had obviously been faking sanity for their benefit.  Though the court ruled against the Matthews family, 

Haslam wasn't satisfied and, in 1810, wrote a book about the case titled, 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 (or, just Illustrations of Madness for short).   Still considered a psychiatric classic today, the book represents one of the first clinical descriptions of paranoid schizophrenia though Haslam was, ahem, less than impartial in his opinion of how the opposing experts could have ever considered James Matthews to be sane. Considering all the publicity over James Matthews' case, Haslam had no qualms about his referring to his patient by name in the book,  probably as a way at getting back at the Matthews family as well.

In the book, Haslam wrote extensively about James Matthews and his bizarre persecution complex.   According to Haslam, Matthews believed that he was being harassed by a gang living nearby but which terrorized all of London.   The four men and three women who were part of this gang were basically spies and saboteurs dedicated to undermining the British Empire and "work events of the most atrocious nature."   The leader of this gang was named Bill, or "the King" who was about 65 and who "exerts the most unrelenting and murderous villainy; and he has never been observed to smile."   Other members of the gang boasted such sinister names as Jack the Schoolmaster, Sir Archy, the Middle Man, August, Charlotte, and the Glove Woman.   

Along with being involved in virtually every plot or conspiracy Matthews could think of, he also accused the gang of regularly harassing him with a device  referred to as an Air Loom.  Though he was a bit vague on the inner workings of this machine, he referred to it as being a creation of the brilliant pneumatic chemistry skills of the gang members.   Using different substances, including seminal fluid (male and female), vitriol and aqua fortis, poisons such as nightshade and hellebore, stinking human breath, gas from the anus of a horse, and various other compounds, the device could have differing effects on the human body depending on what the gang intended.  

Among the afflictions that the Air Loom gang (for want of a better name) could produce were:

  • Fluid locking by which the fibres at the root of the tongue could be blocked (meaning that the victims were literally tongue-tied).
  • Cutting soul from sense to keep the heart from communicating with the brain
  • Stone-making, i.e., forming stones in the gall bladder, kidney, etc.   Matthews identified various medical cases involving members of the government to prove the gang's effectiveness.
  • Sudden death-squeezing which produced instant death in anyone the gang wanted.  According to Matthews, the gang's nickname for this was lobster-cracking.   This name apparently came from the victim's sensation of feeling as if his head was caught between two lobster-crackers (or nutcrackers) and experiencing "the whole stress, torture, driving, oppressing, and crush all together."
  • Lengthening the brain, which literally stretched the brain causing ideas to become distorted and seemingly irrational to others.
  • Bomb-bursting in which the body's gases become inflammable and, while the victim is in agony, setting off a powerful electric charge which produces a "terrible explosion, and lacerates the whole system."   If it isn't instantly fatal, the victim is left in shock at recovering.
  • Laugh-making in which the magnetic fluid is forced onto the vitals causing the muscles of the victim's face to twist into a laugh or grin.
  • and a whole host of other techniques, all designed to mimic just about any physical ailment imaginable.

To explain how he was able to learn so much about the gang's activities, Matthews described the different ways with which he and the gang members communicated.  First, there were brain sayings, basically a form of telepathic communication caused by the sender and receiver being impregnated with magnetic fluid and constantly charged by the Air Loom.    According to Matthews, he first learned about this form of communicating in France where Mesmerism was still popular.   These brain sayings appear indistinguishable from ordinary thoughts and only someone "strong in intellect" coudl become aware of what was really happening. 

The next form of silent communication Matthews described was voice-sayings.  Using their device, the gang  could project sounds directly to the auditory nerve of their target.   This allowed them to relay their words in a way that no bystander could overhear.  Even when he was sleeping, the gang continued to trouble him using what he called dream-workings.  According to Matthews, the gang had a collection of grotesque puppets and, just by staring at them, could project their images directly into the sleeping brain and produce bizarre nightmares.  While Matthews reportedly saw through these illusions and caught a glimpse of the gang members themselves, they "stepped back' by using a metal instrument attached to the Air Loom.  This weakened the link and allowed them to hide once more.

Though his lengthy sessions with Matthews, John Haslam drew out numerous details about the Air Loom gang, how the Air Loom worked (complete with diagrams supplied by his patient), and revelations about all the other Air Loom gangs operating around London.  Since the Air Loom only had an effective range of about a thousand feet, the gang relied on "pneumatic practitioners to "premagnetize" people to make them more vulnerable.  Along with Matthews himself (the gang had an Air Loom stationed near Bethlem just for him), the gang also concentrated on leading members of the government to control their behaviour and leak their secrets to France.   As proof, Matthews drew on news of recent calamities to show what the gang was doing while he was locked away in Bethlem and unable to stop them.

For John Haslam, the bizarre ramblings supplied by his patient represented absolute proof that he was a dangerous lunatic who needed to be kept locked up in Bethlem.   Despite the lack of evidence that Matthews posed any risk of violence, his obsession with the government, not to mention recent incidents involving lunatics threatening to assassinate King George III, was enough to ensure that Matthews would remain a psychiatric patient for the rest of life.  

Whatever sense of vindication Haslam felt would be short-lived however.    Ultimately, it was James Tilly Matthews who had the last laugh.

To be continued.






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