Using Madstones to Cure Rabies

This article, from the University Missourian on December 28, 1914, is one of a number that I’ve stumbled upon describing the folk medicine practice of using a “madstone” to treat the bite of an animal infected with hydrophobia, or rabies.

Two Come to Columbia From Howard County For Treatment.
Sponge-Like Substance Out of Deer’s Stomach, Said to Extract Poison.
     While playing with a little pet collie last Wednesday C.J. Payton and May Mitchell, who live eight miles north of Rocheport in Howard County, were bitten. Later when the collie began to bite stock and other dogs on the place, Mr. Payton was led to believe that the dog had contracted hydrophobia. Yesterday he and May Mitchell came to Columbia to have a madstone applied.
     The owner of the madstone, H.H. Moore, of 811 Range Line Street, pronounced both as suffering from the bite of a rabid animal. Mr. Payton was bitten on the neck and May Mitchell on the eyebrow.
     Mr. Payton is a well-to-do farmer of Howard County. May Mitchell is the 16-year-old son of Edward Mitchell, also a farmer of that section.
     Six Cases Since September.
     The two cases make a total of six that Mr. Moore and his sister, Mrs. Lillian Norman, have treated since September. The madstones that they use have long and interesting histories. One has been in the possession of the Moore family for more than one hundred years. This stone weighs about four ounces and is about the size of a dollar. The color is brown. Seen through a microscope, it resembles a smooth sponge with many small pores.
     This stone, says Mrs. Norman, was found in the stomach of a white deer by one of her forefathers. During the century that it has been applied the wounds made by mad dogs it has never failed to cure, she asserts.
     The other stone Mr. Moore discovered. In 1880 he went to California to mine gold. He crossed Nevada at the time that the Modoc Indians were in rebellion. It was due to the advice of a friendly Indian, who told him to go straight west for two days without stopping, that he came upon a dying deer. This deer had been severely wounded in a fight with some other animal and was almost dead when Mr. Moore came along. The two days were about up and he was extremely hungry, so he stopped to feast on the deer.
     This, too, happened to be a white deer, a stag with ten points on his horns. After feasting, Mr. Moore examined the stomach and there found a stone about three inches long and an inch wide. This oval stone is also brown in color, weighs about six ounces and apparently is of the same material as the other.
Stone Clings to Wound.
     In treating a patient the stone is applied to the wound, to which the stone clings if the bite was made by a dog having rabies. The patients say they feel a stinging, drawing sensation. The stone is permitted to stay on the wound until it loosens itself. Then the stone is placed in a pail of warm milk for the same length of time that it clung to the wound. Presently a yellow-greenish fluid creeps out of the stone and the milk becomes a yellow-grayish color. The milk curdles in proportion to the amount of poison extracted from the wound.
     The madstone is applied several times a day until it refuses to cling to the wound. In the instance of Mr. Payton and May Mitchell, the stone clung to the wounds for one hour at the first application and twenty minutes the second.”

Madstones, also called bezoar stones, were actually  hairballs or a collection of undigested fibers from plants eaten by the deer. Other calcified madstones used in folk remedies were found in the brain or intestines of a deer or goat.1 Even after madstones were determined not to be an effective method to treat rabies people continued to use them for some time, a testament to the power of tradition and belief in medicine’s history.

1 Burnett, Abby. “Rabies” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. 2011.