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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: A curious cure for a feared affliction

by Tom Dillard | April 4, 2021 at 8:52 a.m.

Last fall I broke my covid-19 seclusion to drive to Benton County to meet Tom Buchanan. I was responding to an email from Mr. Buchanan inviting me to see "a madstone from my great-great grandfather Cyrus Elliott, a deer hunter, who was 82 in 1862."

In the years before a medical vaccine became readily available, madstones were a folk remedy used to treat victims of bites by rabid dogs and other animals.

Rabies was a particularly dreaded disease because it was always fatal, but more so for the horrid nature of those deaths. Abby Burnett, author of the entry on rabies in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, believes that "rabies was the most feared of all the incurable diseases, for it guaranteed an agonizing death."

Rabies is caused by a virus which attacks the central nervous system of mammals, including humans. Victims suffer from convulsions, hallucinations, and strangely, an inability to swallow liquids, which explains its earlier name hydrophobia--or "fear of water."

Arkansas newspapers reported regularly on confrontations with rabid animals. In October 1879, the Arkansas Gazette reported that a mad dog had bitten seven people near Little Rock. In February 1874, a rabid sow attacked two children in Lawrence County. Within a single week in 1873, the Gazette reported on two deaths caused by rabies: a woman in Little Rock and a man in Woodruff County.

In 1890, Mrs. M.A. Ussery of Pine Bluff began showing signs of the disease seven weeks following a dog bite, with convulsions and an inability to swallow liquids. She died mercifully quickly. A Bentonville boy died "in the greatest agony" from rabies in 1888: "In the hour of death he imagined he was in a creek and was making terrible struggles to get out."

Sometimes it was necessary to restrain patients who seemed to be suddenly endowed with great strength when in the throes of convulsions. A Helena man "begged piteously to be killed; and when the paroxysms were on him it required several strong men to hold him to his bed."

Willis Etris, a Bentonville child who was bitten by a rabid puppy in 1894, became "perfectly wild, it being necessary on one occasion to tie him in bed." Etris' mother died the following year due to "pining over the sad fate of her dear boy."

Family members often went to great lengths to cure their rabies-exposed loved ones. Medical science offered no cures, but folk medicine held out hope: the madstone. Though described as a stone, a madstone is a hard deposit of calcium and other minerals found inside the stomachs of deer. Madstones from albino deer were said to be especially effective.

Madstones are often described as similar in size and appearance to a large black walnut. The stone owned by Tom Buchanan, the only one I have seen, looks very much like a small shiny brown chicken egg.

Madstones were sometimes cut in halves, which facilitated their use. Abby Burnett described the use of a madstone: "First, the stone would be soaked in warm milk, then applied to the bite. If it stuck, it was believed to be drawing out the poison, and when it fell off naturally the process was repeated until it no longer stuck to the wound." If the stone turned the milk to a green tint, it was believed to be working properly.

Madstones were rare, and were highly valued. Patients were brought to the owner of the stone since madstones were never loaned. President Abraham Lincoln had his son treated with a madstone.

As was the case with Buchanan's--known as the Eliot Madstone--the stones were passed down from one generation to the next. Carroll County immigrant William Floyd Gibson, for example, brought his madstone from Virginia to Arkansas in 1868.

Some madstones became famous. Dr. James McAdams of White County paid $1,000 for his stone, which he claimed had successfully healed 41 victims by 1891.

F.K. Marks of Sheridan advertised in 1906: "If you should be bitten by a mad dog, see me at once. I have a genuine madstone, weight 20 ounces, which has been in my family for 100 years and has never lost a case."

I have found no indication of fees charged for the use of a madstone, while Noel E. Jackson of Kansas City--who owned a madstone brought from Scotland by immigrants and which was said to never fail--insisted that he never charged for its use.

Since most bites from supposedly rabid animals did not result in rabies, madstones were often given undeserved credit. They had no scientific impact on the development of rabies in humans, a fact which was recognized by many at the time. In 1904, the Green Forest Tribune in Carroll County accused those who used madstones of "deliberate murder." In 1906 the Arkansas Medical Society condemned the use of madstones.

It was the French who came up with a medical treatment for rabies. In 1885, Dr. Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine using infected rabbit tissue, and suddenly the ancient scourge could be controlled. It took a while for the treatment to reach Arkansas.

The first Arkansan to receive the Pasteur treatment was Elmer Hinkle, a 10-year-old from Batesville. In 1891 his father first took him to Searcy for a madstone treatment, but then they went to New York City for Pasteur's injections. The boy survived.

The Pasteur treatment was not available in Arkansas until 1912 when Dr. Lloyd O. Thompson established a Pasteur Institute in Little Rock. The Little Rock facility closed after two years, but it was not long before injections were available through mail order and administered by local physicians.

Ultimately, it was the systematic vaccination of dogs and cats which freed Arkansans from the fear of rabies. However, rabies still remains a threat due to its prevalence among wild animals. In 1979, Arkansas led the nation in the number of rabies cases found in the wild, with 332 animals infected. The great bulk of the infected animals were skunks.

In 2020, only 33 cases of rabid animals were confirmed in Arkansas. Fifteen of those cases involved skunks, with bats coming in a close second with 14.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column was published May 28, 2017.

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