“Man is born free, but he is in chains everywhere,” said Rousseau. No life would illustrate this better than that of James Tilly Matthews who spent most of his adult life in a lunatic asylum accused of insanity.
Matthews died in 1815 in the private asylum of Dr Fox (in London) where he was lucky to spend only one year of his life. Most of his adult life was wasted in Bethlem (Bethlehem) asylum (from which originated the English word bedlam). He was a tea-broker when tea was a ‘hot’ commercial item. The late 18th century was boom-time in the tea trade. After the French Revolution he started travelling between England and France as a self-appointed peacemaker. He wished to avert the impending war between the two nations. In the process he came to know many political secrets. He had met many times with the British Prime Minister William Pitt as well as Lord Liverpool and other leading political figures in England. However, the moderate leaders with whom Matthews was negotiating lost power to the hard-line Jacobins. Eventually Matthews was arrested in France as a British double agent. When he was released three years later he returned to England, walked into the British cabinet meeting and accused Lord Liverpool (Home Secretary) of treason. He soon found himself in the Bethlem lunatic asylum.
In all probability Matthews was suffering from delusion.
Mike Jay, who has written a book about Matthews [The Air Loom Gang, Bantam Books, 2003], says there are four types of delusion typically regarded as primary. The first is ‘delusions of persecution’. The fact, however, is that Matthews was really persecuted. He was not suffering from delusions of persecution.
The second, ‘delusions of reference’, refers to the subject’s belief that everything, including major world events, revolves around him personally. Jay says that for Matthews the world events did revolve around him at least for a short while.
The third, ‘delusions of control’, refers to the subject’s belief that he is being controlled by forces beyond his control like tapping of his telephone, spying, manipulations, etc. Matthews believed that there was a machine which he called the Air Loom that controlled his entire life including his thinking.
The fourth, ‘delusions of grandiosity’, refers to the inflation of the subject’s life and events into an epic, world-defining drama. Matthews did assign a certain degree of grandeur to his own life.
In short, Matthews did suffer from delusion. But he was harmless. Harmless to the people around him. Harmless to anyone, except perhaps to a few individuals in power like Lord Liverpool.
Those in power create the history. According to their history, Matthews was insane. He was sent to the loony bin.
Unfortunately the man in charge of Bethlem asylum was a person with an inflated ego. People with inflated egos also have their own unique theories about almost everything, especially subjects/topics close to their jobs. Haslam, the man who ran Bethlem, was not a qualified doctor. He had not completed his MD. This added to his ego problems. He had contempt for the doctors who possessed the degree of MD.
Haslam made it hell for Matthews. When Matthews challenged Haslam’s authority, Haslam put him in chains just to prove his authority! When two doctors examined Matthews under insistence from his family and declared him normal, Haslam went out of his way to ‘prove’ his insanity. Haslam held the trump card any way: he argued that Matthews’ release would be dangerous to some important people like Lord Liverpool. And ‘important’ people hold all the cards!
These ‘important’ people held Matthews captive in Bethlem almost till the end of his life. Matthews wrote regularly while he was in the asylum. Haslam encouraged this habit with a selfish motive: Matthews’ writing could be used against him to prove his insanity. However, some of Matthews’ ideas, especially about the much needed reformation in Bethlem, were taken note of by some prominent people. He was paid £30 (a good sum in early 19th century) by the governors for his architectural ideas for a new Bethlem building. Soon after that, in 1814 he was moved to a more congenial asylum, Dr Fox’s London House, where he was a much loved and trusted inmate. Dr Fox considered Matthews sane and entrusted him with many tasks which he fulfilled with sincerity and sense of responsibility.
But Matthews’ freedom was short-lived. He died in 1815.
Haslam became discredited soon. He was questioned about the treatment meted out to Matthews. Haslam tried his best to overcome his ignominy even by acquiring the degree of MD after selling all that he had. Nothing could bring back the honour that he lost. Towards the end of his life, when questioned about the sanity of the witness in a court, Haslam said: “”I never saw any human being who was of sound mind”. When pressed on this opinion, he simply added: “I presume the Deity is of sound mind, and He alone”.