Prior to the late 19th century, a bite from a rabid animal struck terror in the heart of the victim. People infected with the rabies virus experience a variety of horrible symptoms, including hallucinations, terror fits, frothing at the mouth and an inability to drink. Victims also develop a fear of water, hence a common name for the disease, hydrophobia. Loss of muscle function eventually leads to complete paralysis.
Before Louis Pasteur developed a successful vaccination for rabies in 1885, a long, slow death from the disease was a forgone conclusion unless, many people believed, a madstone could be obtained, preferably one removed from the stomach of an albino deer.
Madstones, also known as bezoar stones or enteroliths, resemble rocks but are actually concretions of mineral salts combined with hair and fibers. Most are smooth and rounded, ranging from marble-sized to as big as an orange. Some have unusual twisted shapes. They are occasionally found in the stomachs of cattle, horses, goats, llamas, camels and even elephants. But those who believed in the curative powers of madstones thought the most powerful stones came from the stomachs of deer, especially white deer. No stone out of a cow could have the virtue of one out of a deer. The deer containing a madstone was not always white, but whiteness in a carrier was believed to give the stone more drawing power.
Madstones form from calcium deposits, very similar to the way an oyster forms a pearl. Calcium clings to some foreign material such as hair, then more calcium is added in layers. Cut through a madstone’s middle, and you’ll find concentric rings like rings in a tree. Animals in eastern states are more likely to contain madstones as a result of higher calcium content in the soil, but madstones have occasionally been reported from animals in Arkansas and other states as well.
Nowadays, few hunters examine the stomach contents of deer they kill, but old-timers almost always did, hoping to find madstones. Folklorists have said madstones were more valuable than rubies because of the madstones’ supposed healing powers.
“The mad-stone? People believe it will cure snakebites and hydrophobia,” hunter Ben Lester told the authors of The Heart of the Alleghenies 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 was “smooth and red, as large as a man’s thumb, and with one flat, white side.”
In Madstones and Twisters, a 1958 publication of the Texas Folklore Society, we learn how treatment was effected by use of a madstone.
“The stone was moistened in warm milk — water could not be trusted — and applied to a wound. If it did not adhere, the person being treated was presumed not to have the virus. To do any good, it had to stick to the flesh for a long while, drawing the poison out of the wound and absorbing it into its own porous substance. After it had soaked up a certain amount of poison, it would no longer adhere. Then it would be put into a vessel of warm or hot milk, and the milk would turn green from the poison being released by the madstone. Some operators let the milk boil and considered the thumping of the madstone on the bottom of the vessel a good sign. Its pores having been cleansed, the madstone would be
applied again to the wound until it no longer adhered.”
It was said that madstones were as effective at drawing out snake and spider venom as they were “pizen” from a rabid animal. But victims of snake and spider bites were seldom within reach of a madstone when bitten, could not wait to get to one and had to resort to whiskey or some other remedy. Because the rabies incubation period is typically one to three months, even in the horse age, there was time for a victim to ride hundreds of miles to a madstone.
A madstone’s ability to cure rabies is only superstition, of course. Not every person bitten by a rabid animal succumbs to rabies. In fact, scientists say 80 to 85 percent of bite victims escape infection from the virus. In the pre-Pasteur days, madstones got credit for that.
It is interesting, nevertheless, to learn that these unusual stones from the stomachs of deer played such an important role in the history of frontier medicine. Even today, madstones are considered valuable collector’s items.