This past Saturday in London, Val Stevenson of nth position.com had me over for dinner and introduced me to Mike Jay, a fascinating and very erudite man, who has written a fascinating and very erudite book, The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness.
In the best-selling tradition of A Beautiful Mind and The Professor and the Madman, here is a book of popular history that captures the atmosphere of a time and a place while telling a riveting true story of intrigue, obsession, and madness.
In the 1790s, London is the world’s most populated city, the center of European culture, and perhaps the most dangerous place on earth. As Parisian society races out of control across the channel, the tension between England and France escalates like never before. The scent of war is in the air.
Enter James Tilly Matthews. A respected Welsh tea merchant, Matthews has declared his intent to preserve the fragile peace, going so far as to meet with top leaders from both sides, and even serving time as a political prisoner in Paris. But when Matthews stands up in the House of Commons and declares Lord Liverpool to be a traitor, he is arrested and sent to a mental hospital. Trapped within the walls of Bedlam, Matthews becomes convinced that his mind is being controlled by a secret machine called an “Air Loom” that is hidden in a London basement and run by a devious gang of revolutionaries.
Imprisoned without a trial, dismissed as a lunatic, and denied political rights, Matthews’ story feels eerily contemporary. Was Matthews entirely crazy, or were British authorities simply trying to silence his accusations of treason? A page-turning piece of historical detective work, The Air Loom Gang sets out to separate fact from lunacy.
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