An Influential Delusion

by Arthur B

Being a capsule review of Mike Jay's The Influencing Machine.
Mike Jay’s recently-reissued The Influencing Machine (previously known as The Air Loom Gang, known in the US as A Visionary Madness) is difficult to categorise. For the most part, it is centred on the incredible figure of James Tilly Matthews, perhaps the most famous of the many inmates of the Royal Bethlehem Hospital from back in the bad old “Bedlam” days. Matthews is notable mostly because he was the subject of Illustrations of Madness, an account by Bedlam’s resident apothecary John Haslam of Matthews’ case. Illustrations vividly describes Matthews’ delusions concerning the Air Loom, a mind control device operating on magnetic and pneumatic principles operated by a sinister gang populated by such colourful characters as The Middleman, Bill the King, and the Glove Woman.

The account remains regularly cited in psychological and psychiatric literature for two reasons: firstly, it is one of the first academic accounts of a case which could, if you squint at it in the right light, be something along the lines of what we call paranoid schizophrenia in the modern day. Secondly, it is the earliest known instance of a delusional patient claiming that their behaviour is being controlled by what is these days referred to as an “influencing machine” - rather than being possessed or controlled by demons or angels or other supernatural agents, Matthews seems to have been one of the first people in modern history to believe that they were under the control of a scientific device. Mind control implants and rays operated by intelligence agencies, the military, secret societies, or aliens are now widely cited; you can find plenty of people claiming to be victims of such things, many of whom aren’t confined to mental hospitals.

Even without his regular production of outrageous claims (as well as being tormented by the Air Loom, Matthews would occasionally claim to be Emperor of the World), Matthews would be an intriguing figure. Unlike many patients with delusions of grandeur, Matthews does seem to have previously had some significant role in politics, having been part of an urgent mission to try and negotiate peace between Britain and the Girondist faction of revolutionary France. His initial incarceration took place when he loudly accused Lord Liverpool of treason during a Parliamentary discussion relating to secret diplomacy between the two governments; moreover, in the raging legal battles that followed over whether or not he was sane and whether or not he could be released to the care of his family (he never was), evidence emerged which suggested that his confinement in Bedlam was being underwritten not by the local Parish, which would have been the usual state of affairs, but was to some extent being enforced by the government itself. In his later life he became interested in architecture and submitted plans for a redesign of Bedlam, when the old buildings ended up in such disrepair it became clear that the entire hospital would have to be rebuilt on a new site, and whilst his plans were not directly adopted, they do seem to have had some influence on the later design of the building.

However, The Influencing Machine is not a mere biography of Matthews so much as a history of the era as filtered through Matthews’ own life. The ups and downs of Matthews’ doomed mission to France are recounted in parallel with the various twists and turns that the revolutionary government itself was undergoing, not least because Matthews’ treatment at the hands of the French authorities can only be understood in the light of the wider air of intrigue and paranoia that was gripping the country at the time. Moreover, in Matthews’ writings at the time Jay finds the first clear signs of Matthews’ grip on himself beginning to fray, and Jay is able to make a tempting hypothesis that the Air Loom was at least in part a delusion which was born out of the Enlightenment - or to be more specific, Matthews witnessing the radical Enlightenment ideals he’d previously held dear degenerating into state-declared reigns of terror, mass execution, and utter chaos as the revolution circled the drain.

Beyond this, though, the book is also in part a biography of John Haslam and the unreconstructed Bedlam, and specifically an account of how the arrival of Matthews would ultimately doom them. Jay clearly explains how Illustrations of Madness was not the mere product of idle curiosity, but a direct by-product of the various court hearings as to whether Matthews should be allowed home. Numerous doctors with better qualifications than Haslam had interviewed Matthews and argued that he was sane - perhaps possessed of some unusual ideas, but ultimately not a danger to himself or others. Haslam’s entire therapeutic philosophy, however, hinged on the patient disowning any delusions they had previously expressed; in court he argued the point that someone who behaves perfectly calmly and safely still doesn’t qualify as being sane if inside they believe all sorts of demonstrably incorrect nonsense. Haslam wasn’t the only voice on the “he’s cracked” side of the debate - the amazingly-titled Commissioners in Lunacy gave a terse note in support of Matthews’ confinement, for instance - but with the habeas corpus hearings collapsing in the wake of the discovery that the government wanted Matthews confined and was willing to overrule everyone else to ensure that remained the case, Haslam evidently felt his testimony needed to be vindicated for the sake of his professional reputation. Illustrations of Madness to a large part consisted of Haslam saying “Here, take a look at the bats in this belfry, can you believe that actual doctors thought a man who believed all this was sane?”

However, Haslam’s own interest in Matthews’ case, as well as the Bedlam administration’s disinterest, would ultimately combine to destroy Matthews’ jailors. Although Matthews would die mere months after being released from Bedlam to the care of a comfortable private retreat, the facts of his case would come to the attention of a subsequent Parliamentary inquiry into the management of Bedlam; Jay describes how Haslam, the Bedlam administrators, and the janitorial staff and guards viciously turned on each other in their witness statements, as nobody seems to have wanted to take responsibility either for Matthews’ confinement or the abuses he endured during that confinement. It was alleged that Haslam had Matthews chained up for months on end not for any consideration of therapeutic necessity or to ensure the safety of Matthews or others, but simply for the sake of demonstrating his authority over Matthews; Haslam’s denials to the contrary sounded all the more hollow in the light of numerous witness statements over the course of his case to the effect that Matthews simply wasn’t a violent case.

As Jay relates, in subsequent years Matthews has become something of a legendary figure, not least because of the outcome of the 1815 inquiry giving him some form of postmortem vindication against his tormentors. I suspect The Influencing Machine won’t necessarily turn that around; reading Jay’s account it’s difficult not to side with Matthews against Haslam and the hospital authorities, not least because of Haslam’s absolutist stance flying in the face of the way we hope the psychiatric profession presently operates - only confining people if they present a danger to themselves or others, rather than insisting on locking away everyone whose appreciation of reality is at odds with our own regardless of how the patient behaves as a result of these beliefs. Still, The Influencing Machine is at least a well-sourced read to acquaint yourself with the actual facts of the case, as well as an interesting meditation on the crossover between radicalism, politics, institutionalised people and social attitudes towards mental health.

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