Regency Science and Invention: Illustrations of Madness

John Haslam, Bethlem’s resident apothecary, undertook the enormous task of cataloguing an unknown condition paranoid schizophrenia.  Determined not to allow the release of James Tilly Matthews, a London tea broker who suffered delusions of the political variety, in 1810 Haslam detailed verbatim accounts of Matthew’s hallucinations and beliefs and became the first to conduct a full length study of one patient within the literature.

Matthews had landed in Bethlem after a letter writing campaign, and finally by standing up in the House of Commons and directing comments to Lord Liverpool (Home Secretary) accusing him and the royal family of treason and treachery.  Matthews had been a self appointed peacemaker between the UK and France, traveling back and forth between the capital cities until the French imprisoned him for three years on suspect of being a double agent.

Despite Haslam’s groundbreaking work Matthews was viewed by others as sane and himself kept notes on Haslam which eventually led to reform of patient treatment at Bethlem and ultimately Haslam’s dismissal in 1815.

Although Haslam was relieved from duty his work persevered within the body of medical literature.  This was just one of the many breakthroughs in distinguishing mental illness and disability as the Regency gave way to the more medically obsessed Victorian era.  As industrialization rapidly was changing the socio-economic landscape of countries like Great Britain, it is notable that Matthew’s Air Loom “machine” was one of the first documented mind controlling devices now familiar to students of paranoid schizophrenia (surveillance through fillings, implants, UFOS, etc).  Matthews asserted that the Air Loom gang had implanted a magnet in his head by which to control him through smells and other sensations.  This machine was underscored with relatively new innovations in chemistry ala the influence of popular interest in mesmerism.

Here is a passage from Haslam’s book available online

“The third person is Sir Archy, who is about 55 years of age, wears a drab coloured coat, and, according to the old fashion, his breeches buttoned between the legs.  Some of the gang assert that Sir Archy is a women dressed in men’s apparel; and whenever Mr. Matthews has endeavoured, by enquiry, to ascertain this act, Sir Archy has answered in a manner so quaint and indelicate that I cannot venture to communicate his reply.  He is considered as the common liar of the gang; a low minded blackguard, always cracking obscene jokes and throwing out gibes and sarcasms….His mode of communicating with Mr. M  is principally by “brain sayings”.”

According to Matthews the Air Loom gang was intent on forcing Britain to war with Revolutionary France.  Most likely having a foundation in his past ambassadorial missions and subsequent imprisonment, Matthews believed that Air Loom gangs had invaded London and were establishing vast networks of mind control.

While his delusions had a grain of truth, it was the shifting moods and lapses from lucid to raving that made Haslam ultimately diagnose Matthews as mad.

After his dismissal from Bethlem, Haslam retrained as a physician and became a full MD at the ripe age of sixty.  When testifying as a forensic witness some years later, he was asked his opinion on the sanity of the defendant.  “I never saw any human being who was of sound mind,” he answered, “I presume the Deity is of sound mind, and He alone”.


Above is the “Air Loom” or the pneumatic device Matthews believed the “gang” to operate to the detriment of many senses, not the least of the olfactory sense


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