An Influential Delusion

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

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.

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