It’s hard for most Americans under fifty to imagine the terrors which sickness held for our ancestors. The discovery and widening availability of antiseptics, antibiotics and antiviral agents have largely delivered most of us in western industrial economies not only from infectious disease itself, but from the lurking dread of disfigurement, pain and death which tinged any happiness in all the past (and most of the present) generations. Southerners of the last century lived in fear of many afflictions, none of which was more fearsome than rabies.
Rabies, commonly known as hydrophobia, is a viral disease of mammals which is usually transmitted by mucus and salvia via bite wounds; it is carried by both wild and domestic animals (though practically unknown in rodents). Infected humans can be free of symptoms for as long as a year or as little as two weeks, the average incubation period being between one and two months. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing intense physical sensitivity and extreme emotional excitability. The nerves of the throat are particularly affected so that breathing and swallowing become excruciation, resulting in severe, uncontrollable convulsions. Even near-lethal dosages of narcotics are incapable of controlling the symptoms in the late stages of rabies. In the last century sufferers were usually chained to their beds and allowed to die a horrible protracted death.
Louis Pasteur first used his famous fourteen-injection rabies treatment on a human in 1885. Unfortunately, the vaccine was neither widely nor cheaply available for several decades. Until well into this century most Americans, particularly southerners, had to put their trust for a rabies cure in their ancient remedy, the madstone.
Madstones are deposits of calcium phosphate which very rarely form in the stomachs of male deer. They are smooth and porous and can be as large as a hen egg. These stones were known and prized in India, the Middle East and Europe form ancient times as remedies against all sorts of poison. In medieval Europe they were known as bezoars and were often set into rings and worn by monarchs, nobles and lords of the church for whom poisoning was an occupational hazard. The stone, dipped in a cup of wine, was thought to drink up any unwholesome substance introduced by disgruntled kitchen help or ambitious nephews. In the new world poison was largely supplanted by the pistol as the preferred means of adjusting personal grievances; the madstone became chiefly a treatment for the bites of poisonous snakes and rabid animals.
Whenever anyone was bitten by an animal suspected of being rabid their wound was kept open and bleeding until a madstone could be found, or, more commonly, until the victim could be carried to the owner of a stone. The stone was placed on the wound and if it didn’t stick the wound was assumed to be harmless. If the stone adhered it was thought to be drawing the “poison” from the wound.
The stones were believed to absorb their own weight in blood and “poison,” and then drop off. At this point the stone would be boiled in milk to restore its absorptive powers before being reapplied. It was generally though that the stone would leave a greenish residue of neutralized toxin in the milk. The stone was applied again and again until it dropped off when not saturated with blood. At this point a cure was declared.
Madstones developed in the stomachs of only a very few deer and deer had practically disappeared from most of the south following the exterminations of the colonial deerskin trade and the deforestation that accompanied the cotton economy. The stones were thus extremely rare, passed on within families, jealously guarded, and usually commanding high reels for their use. Owners of the stones were very reluctant to let them out of their sight and victims often had to travel for days to receive treatment. Fifty dollars seems to have been the usual fee for the use of a madstone in Georgia around the turn of the century. The sum was enormous, three or four months wages for a laborer, a sizable percentage of the average farmer’s expected annual profit. The high cost may reflect the fact that treatment sometimes took as long as two weeks, the stone being applied, removed, boiled and reapplied continuously at one or two hour intervals.
There was a famous madstone in Athens owned by Major W.B. Pruitt of States Rights Street (now Henderson Avenue). Major Pruitt’s father had been state senator from Banks county just before the Civil War and had received the stone as a gift from one of his colleagues in the General Assembly. Once word got out about his stone, Major Pruitt was kept busy throughout the 1880s and ‘90s by a steady stream of sufferers who came as far as the South Carolina treatment.
Two of Georgia’s best-known madstones were those of Dr. P. M. Tidwell of Fairburn, and of the Gibson family of Grovetown, about fifteen miles west of Augusta. Dr. Tidwell got his stone about 1884 and within two years had treated twelve patients, none of whom developed rabies. The doctor offered a double-money-back guarantee to the family of disappointed patients. The Gibson stone was said to have been the gift of an appreciative old sailor who fell ill by the roadside and was nursed to health by the family. By the turn of the century several generations of Gibsons had supposedly treated hundreds of rabies and snakebite cases without a single failure. Other Georgia madstones included those of W.O. Fluker of Union Point, Greene county; of A.P. Crisp of Heardmont, southeast of Elberton; and of Dr. B.G.A. Cull of Camilla, Mitchell county. Dr. Cull bought his two stones from a pioneer settler of the county who told him that the stones had been used for over eighty years, almost exclusively to treat rattlesnake bites.
It would be interesting to know the going price of a madstone a century ago. The nearest clue I’ve found is the $1,000 damages which a Kansas jury awarded a man who loaned his madstone to a doctor who refused to return it. The doctor claimed that the stone’s owner was a thief since he, while Federal soldier in the Civil War, had found the stone in a little, velvet-lined box in the wreckage of an ambulance at the battle of Winchester, and he had failed to try to locate the rightful owner.
The apparent effectiveness of madstones is easily accounted for. Many people assumed that they had been bitten by rabid animals, but hadn’t. Often people bitten by rabid animals were not infected — the virus is not easily transmitted. Finally, the constant reopening of the wound before and during treatment often allowed the virus-beating fluid to flow out before infection could set in. Owners of madstones often publicized “cures” effected by their stones after convulsions had begun. Then as now many people bitten by animals suspected of being rabid undergo hysterical seizures which often mimic the real or imagined symptoms of the disease until treatment begins.
In 1889 a proud citizen of Terre Haute, Indiana wrote to Louis Pasteur about the glorious record of a madstone in that city and asked for the famous scientist’s comments. Pasteur replied in his best Parisian English: “There is no country in the world which has not one or more pretended remedies against the madness… One had taken for authentic proofs simply fortunate coincidences. I do not have time to establish these assertions.”
One scientist who did have the time and inclination to establish the facts about madstones was Dr. Henry Clay White, professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia from the 1880s till the 1920s. In 1903 Professor White delivered and published in England a paper describing the chemical analysis and therapeutic qualities of several madstones in his possessions. He found the adhesive qualities of the stones to be directly related to the physical character of the wound and the method of application. The maximum absorption of any stone was 2.3% of its own weight, a far cry from the 100% absorptive capacity claimed for most stones. He also found no difference in the color of residue left by “toxic” and “nontoxic” stones after boiling in milk. Most to the point, no animal infected with rabies was cured by application of the stones.
Dr. White’s findings were apparently never published in Georgia, and if they had been they were unlikely to have been read by the people who sought out the miraculous stones as a cure. As the Pasteur injections became more widely available, use of the stones fell off rapidly – no mention is made of them in newspapers after about 1915. They are likely still around in trunks and safes across the state, as forgotten as the chilling, old summertime cry of “Mad dog!”
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