Outside & subterranean poems, a mini-anthology in progress (62): James Tilly Matthews, with John Haslam, 'The Air-Loom Machine'

James Tilly Matthews, Engraving of the Air Loom, from John Haslam’s “Illustratio
James Tilly Matthews, Engraving of the Air Loom, from John Haslam’s “Illustrations of Madness”, 1810. Ink on paper, 15 3/5″ x 10 1/3″

[As John Bloomberg-Rissman and I draw to the end of our new assemblage of outside & subterranean poetry, I plan to post in advance a number of additional excerpts from the work in progress.  Scheduled publication is later this year from Black Widow Press under the working title, Barbaric Vast & Wild, a gathering that will serve as well as the fifth volume of Poems for the Millennium. Earlier selections going back several years can be found elsewhere on Poems and Poetics.  (J.R.)]


Consigned to Bethlem in 1776, James Tilly Matthews believed he was systematically being tortured by a gang of French spies operating a Mesmeric machine which controlled his mind and body in the following ways (and many others besides).

Fluid Locking – A locking or constriction of the fibres of the root of the tongue, laterally, by which the readiness of speech is impeded.


Cutting soul from sense – A spreading of the magnetic warp, chilled in its expansion, from the root of the nose, diffused under the basis of the brain, as if a veil were interposed; so that the sentiments of the heart can have no communication with the operations of the intellect.


Stone-making – The gang pretend they can at pleasure produce a precipitation in the bladder of any person impregnated, and form a calculus.  They boast of having effected this in a very complete manner for the Duke of Portland.


Thigh-talking – To effect this, they contrive so to direct their voice-sayings on the external part of the thigh, that the person assailed is conscious that his organ of hearing, with all its sensibility, is lodged in that situation.  The sensation is distinctly felt in the thigh, and the subject understood in the brain.


Kiteing – This is a very singular and distressing mode of assailment, and much practiced by the gang.  As boys raise a kite in the air, so these wretches, by means of the air-loom and magnetic impregnations, contrive to lift into the brain some particular idea, which floats and undulates in the intellect for hours together; and how much soever the person assailed may wish to direct his mind to other objects, and banish the idea forced upon him, he finds himself unable; as the idea which they have kited keeps waving in his mind, and fixes his attention to the exclusion of other thoughts.  He is, during the whole time, conscious that the kited idea is extraneous, and does not belong to the train of his own cogitations.


Sudden death-squeezing by them termed Lobster-cracking – This is an external pressure of the magnetic atmosphere surrounding the person assailed, so as to stagnate his circulation, impede his vital motions, and produce instant death.



SOURCE: John Haslam,  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, 1810.


(1) In the madness of one like Matthews (1770-1815) there emerges an unprecedented poesis of the machine – imagination or fancy at the service of an obsession & a fear.  Comparable in its appearance & workings to Jean Tinguely’s twentieth-century “kinetic machines” or Marcel Duchamp’s “big glass” (machine célibataire), the latter with its equally remarkable verbal component, Matthews’ “air-loom machine,” as it comes down to us, is a curious act of collaboration between Matthews himself and John Haslam, resident apothecary at Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, who wrote down Matthews’ words verbatim (or nearly so).  The sense of fear & trembling underlying Matthews’s account is reminiscent too of the elaborate torture & execution device in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner into his skin before letting him die.  That it coincides with contemporary fears (well-founded) of machine-based mind control & governmental surveillance is also worth noting.

            A fuller description of Matthews’ underlying delusions & their intimations both of his mental state & of the world around him, follows.


 (2)  “James Tilly Matthews was convinced that outside the grounds of Bedlam, in a basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting his mind with magnetic fluids and rays. The machine they had developed for this purpose, the Air Loom, combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, brass retorts and magnetic fluid, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged airs and gases, rather as the stops of an organ modulate its tones. It ran on a mixture of foul substances including ‘spermatic-animal-seminal rays’, ‘effluvia of dogs’ and ‘putrid human breath’, and the discharges of fluid extracted from these substances were focused to deliver thoughts, feelings and sensations directly into Matthews’ brain. There were many of these modulations, or ‘event-workings’, all vividly christened: ‘fluid locking’, ‘stone making’, ‘thigh talking’, ‘lobster-cracking’, ‘bomb-bursting’, and the dreaded ‘brain-saying’, whereby thoughts were forced into his brain against his will. To facilitate this process, the gang had implanted a magnet inside Matthews’ head. As a result of the Air Loom, he was tormented constantly by delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head. His confinement in Bedlam represented the success of their strategy in making him appear mad. …                                                                                                                                       

            “The machine itself was operated by the sinister, pockmarked and nameless ‘Glove Woman’.”  (Mike Jay, “James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom”, as seen at http://mikejay.net/articles/james-tilly-matthews-and-the-air-loom/ Mike Jay.net)


(3) “A paranoid is just a man who knows the facts.” (William Burroughs)