Right up till the early years of the 20th century, a bite from a rabid animal could strike terror in the hearts of Appalachian residents. Rabies slowly destroys the nervous system. It finally attacks the spinal cord and its victim may froth at the mouth, scream and fight. Before Louis Pasteur developed a successful vaccination in 1885, death from rabies was a forgone conclusion, unless a madstone could be obtained. This trusted folk medicine gets its name from the delirious behavior caused by hydrophobia, a condition produced by the rabies virus.
“The mad-stone? People believe it will cure snakebites and hydrophobia,” hunter Ben Lester told the authors of ‘The Heart of the Alleghanies’ in 1883. “Here’s one. It was found in the paunch of a white deer I shot this fall was a year ago; and, mind you, the deer with a mad-stone in him is twice as hard to kill as one of ordinary kind. Five bullets were put in the buck that carried this one.”
Ben Lester’s madstone, “smooth and red, as large as a man’s thumb, and with one flat, white side,” was technically a calculus, a stone-like object sometimes found in the stomach of animals who chew their cud.
According to beliefs surrounding this folk medicine, a madstone from a brown deer will work in a bind if another cannot be found. A better grade of madstone comes from a white or spotted deer. The very best madstone comes from an albino or witch deer.
To treat someone bitten by a rabid animal you’d boil the madstone in sweet milk and then, while it was still hot, apply the stone to the wound, states Douglas Mahnkey in ‘Hill and Holler Stories.’
“If the dog was actually mad, the stone stuck to the wound and would draw the ‘pizen’ out,” he continues. “Once the stone was filled with the poison it would drop off, and it was again boiled in sweet milk and applied to the wound. The milk would turn green. This process was repeated until the stone no longer adhered to the wound.”
Madstones have always been greatly prized by anyone fortunate enough to come into possession of one, and would be handed down in the same family for generations. Before Pasteur’s immunization came to North Carolina in 1915, some owners charged up to $100 for lending a madstone, or required a $1,000 bond to guarantee its return.
And in North Georgia “Faith Cochran advertised his madstone every week in the county paper. People came from as far away as Alabama to be treated,” according to Floyd C. Watkins and Charles Hubert Watkins in ‘Yesterday in the Hills,’ a portrait of farm life in Cherokee County at the turn of the twentieth century.
The Mad Stones of Vacherie [LA] featured in “Dixie Roto Magazine” June 19, 1949. The NC Museum of History has a madstone in its collection (no photo available, sorry!) whose catalog description reads: “Light brown trapezoidal stone; ‘R.L. Steel/1829′ scratched into 1 end of stone; ‘809’ scratched into other end; small black leather pouch.”
“It looked like a worn creek rock about the size of a partridge egg with a chip broken off one end. Faith dipped the stone in milk and stuck it to the wound. After it had sucked out the poison, it dropped off the wound.”
Worn creek rock? What happened to white deer calculi? Dr. Thomas M. Owen, Director of the Department of Archives and History of the State of Alabama, in a letter dated September 22, 1917, wrote:
“Some of these stones are reputed to have been taken from the stomach of a deer, but they were in fact nothing more than native rock, worn smooth, and which, because of their porosity, were capable when heated of drawing out or absorbing liquids.”
We know today that rabies is caused by a virus that is usually spread through contact with an infected animal’s saliva. Whether madstones were made from deer stomach calculi or rock, was their ability to absorb quickly and efficiently the real issue, was it a chemical reaction (the tight bonding of the madstone to the wound and the milk), or some combination of both?
“Yesterday in the Hills,” by Floyd C. Watkins, Charles Hubert Watkins, Quadrangle Books, 1963
“The Heart of the Alleghanies, or Western North Carolina,” by Floyd C. Watkins, Calvin S. Brown, A. Williams & Co., 1883
“Hill and Holler Stories,” by Douglas Mahnkey, S of D Press, School of the Ozarks, 1975