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Illustrations of Madness

Perhaps the Most Diminutive Illustrations of Madness


Is it possible that the mentally ill are the victims of unlikely but very real circumstances?

In 1810 Illustrations of Madness was published, the first detailed account of a clinical case of paranoid schizophrenia – the first patient of all those who have believed that someone or something, internal or external, natural or supernatural, earthling or alien, is capable of controlling their body, mind and will. The author, John Haslam, was a London physician who ended his days giving his opinions on the mental health of inmates to the court after the case of James Tilly Matthews, his most famous patient, would ruin his career.

In truth, everybody was a little crazy toward the end of the 18th century. The Napoleonic wars, the French Revolution, the war against England and an era of unprecedented state terror cast a shadow over Europe. While the US prepared for the independence war, the ‘old continent’ confronted its old medical and civil traditions with new ideas and new words to describe them. “Psychiatry” was still not part of the imagination but “melancholy” was on everybody’s lips. Until then, the mad and the undesirable did not enjoy a hierarchy or even a clear classification (as Foucault would demonstrate in his classic History of Madness), and in London’s infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital, known by its patients simply as ‘Bedlam,’ clinical cases and political prisoners were cellmates.

As with the fate of professor Fleschig and Daniel Paul Screber, or Sigmund Freud and the ‘wolf man,’ in the history of clinical psychiatry the names of John Haslam and James Tilly Matthews are inseparable, and have been since 1797, when the latter was tried as a traitor and a madman and sent to ‘Bedlam.’

For his writings, Haslam is not much different from a late 18th century scientist; he wagers everything on his first intuitions and never considers the possibility that the world could be different from the mental make-up that has been built on prejudice. For Haslam, Matthews’ intelligent and detail-focused personality must be in itself a sign of madness.

However, Matthews was not just a political prisoner: he believed that a gang of anarchists controlled his thoughts via a futuristic machine called the air loom. Illustrations of Madness contains many drawings of Matthews which show in great detail and accuracy not only the workings of the loom, but also its physical location in London, its dimensions and the sinister characters that operate it (some of which would serve as a model for the anarchists of J.K. Chesterton).

“Mesmerism” or the belief that animal magnetism could be controlled by mechanical means was used in Matthews’ narrative as the connecting thread that lent form to his paranoia. The evil gang approached people of political and military influence and, without those people realizing it, gave them “mesmerized” solutions to smell, magnetized with impious intentions. According to Matthews, then British Prime Minister William Pitt was wholly under the control of the air loom.

During the more than 10 years that Matthews was interned in ‘Bedlam,’ Haslam was able to witness the development of his exhaustive interior world. Haslam published his account with the (fruitless) hope of gaining fame in the world of psychiatry. But Matthews was analyzed by other doctors, who always considered him to be not only sane, but also very intelligent. One of his diagnoses suggests that Matthews’ paranoia was caused by the authorities’ refusal to let him go. And that his detention in ‘Bedlam’ was not as paranoid as had been believed.

Matthews was a political activist in favor of peace during the French Revolution, trying to bring an end to the war with different methods (undercover but documentable) between Paris and London. After the execution of Louis XVI, Matthews remained in prison in Paris under suspicion of being a British spy. His fear of the guillotine (one of the principal causes of death back then) could have been the reason behind his fear for and fascination with machines.

While in prison he wrote to Lord Liverpool to ask for help, but in vain. After being freed in 1796 he returned to London to confront Pitt’s corrupt government and the House of Commons. He was arrested, tried and sent to ‘Bedlam’ until 1814.

Matthews’ case became known as a result of Illustrations of Madness and he was allowed to teach illustration and drawing. His family managed to get him transferred to a private psychiatric hospital after mental health inspectors criticized ‘Bedlam’s’ standard practices, such as keeping internees chained up and the difficulty of differentiating between the “mad” patients and the drunken jailors. Matthews’ last physician, doctor Samuel Fox, did not find anything strange about his famous patient and Matthews helped him keep his accounting books and until his death carried out small gardening tasks in the Fox Hospital’s London house.

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