Mike Jay recounts the tragic story of James Tilly Matthews, a former peace activist of the Napoleonic Wars who was
confined to London’s notorious Bedlam asylum in 1797 for believing that his mind was under the control of the “Air Loom”—a
terrifying machine whose mesmeric rays and mysterious gases were brainwashing politicians and plunging Europe into
revolution, terror, and war.
…Over the ten years they had spent together in Bedlam, Matthews revealed his secret world to Haslam in exhaustive
detail. Around the corner from Bedlam, in a dank basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and
tormenting him with a machine called an “Air Loom”. Matthews had even drawn a technical diagram of the device, which Haslam
included in his book with a sarcastic commentary that invited the reader to laugh at its absurdity: a literal “illustration
of madness”. But Matthews’ drawing has a more unnerving effect than Haslam allows. Levers, barrels, batteries, brass
retorts and cylinders are rendered with the cool conviction of an engineer’s blueprint. It is the first ever published work
of art by an asylum inmate, but it would hardly have looked out of place in the scientific journals or enyclopaedias of its
The Air Loom worked, as its name suggests, by weaving “airs”, or gases, into a “warp of magnetic fluid” which was then
directed at its victim. Matthews’ explanation of its powers combined the cutting-edge technologies of pneumatic chemistry
and the electric battery with the controversial science of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. The finer detail becomes
increasingly strange. It was fuelled by combinations of “fetid effluvia”, including “spermatic-animal-seminal rays”,
“putrid human breath”, and “gaz from the anus of the horse”, and its magnetic warp assailed Matthews’ brain in a catalogue
of forms known as “event-workings”. These included “brain-saying” and “dream-working”, by which thoughts were forced into
his brain against his will, and a terrifying array of physical tortures from “knee nailing”, “vital tearing” and “fibre
ripping” to “apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater” and the dreaded “lobster-cracking”, where the air around his chest
was constricted until he was unable to breathe. To facilitate their control over him, the gang had implanted a magnet into
his brain. He was tormented constantly by hallucinations, physical agonies, fits of laughter or being forced to parrot
whatever words they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad.
The machine’s operators were a gang of undercover Jacobin terrorists, who Matthews described with haunting precision.
Their leader, Bill the King, was a coarse-faced and ruthless puppetmaster who “has never been known to smile”; his
second-in-command, Jack the Schoolmaster, took careful notes on the Air Loom’s operations, pushing his wig back with his
forefinger as he wrote. The operator was a sinister, pockmarked lady known only as the “Glove Woman”. The public face of
the gang was a sharp-featured woman named Augusta, superficially charming but “exceedingly spiteful and malignant” when
crossed, who roamed London’s west end as an undercover agent.
The operation directed at Matthews was only part of a larger story. There were more Air Looms and their gangs concealed
across London, and their unseen influence extended all the way up to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, whose mind was
firmly under their control. Their agents lurked in streets, theatres and coffee-houses, where they tricked the unsuspecting
into inhaling magnetic fluids. If the gang were recognised in public, they would grasp magnetised batons that clouded the
perception of anyone in the vicinity. The object of their intrigues was to poison the minds of politicians on both sides of
the Channel, and thereby keep Britain and revolutionary France locked into their ruinous war.