The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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The Madstone

By Mel Tharp © 1985

Issue: May, 1985

The use of stone or stone-like objects in healing disease or illness is a practice believed to have originated in the Orient sometime before the Middle Ages. This practice, known in scientific circles as lithotherapy spread to Europe, England and America as new trading routes opened and colonial opportunities presented themselves. This study examines briefly the various forms of this folk medical belief and its history in rural America.

Curative stones have varied origins. Some like tabasheer, are found in bamboo joints in Southeast Asia. Others, such as diamond, topaz and amethyst, are mined from the earth. Coral and pearl come from the sea while some of the stones are produced in the bodies of animals, particularly ruminants.

The uses to which these stones were put varied greatly. Some were carried in pouches around the neck. Some were carried in other parts of the body to ward off disease. Others were ground into a powder, or blown into the eyes to strengthen sight. Still others were applied directly to the wound to draw out the poison or other afflicting substances. According to tradition, the best stone for extracting poison from a wound was a bezoar. It was famous for defending royalty against poison. The name derives from a Persian word "padzahr", which means "expelling poison." This stone appears to be the forerunner of the more recent madstone.

A bezoar is found in the stomach, intestines or gall bladder of animals. One such stone was allegedly found in the head of a snake. The stone is formed by concretions which are built up around hair, fiber balls or other foreign substances. The high calcium content of these solidifications helps explain their porosity and "drawing" ability. The most highly prized stones come from the stomach of an albino deer.

The term madstone is probably American in origin. By the time the stone became an accepted part of folk medicine, it had lost the more magical qualities of its precursor, the bezoar. In the United States, the madstone's primary use was to extract poison transmitted by poisonous snakes or by rabid animals. As rabies, or hydrophobia, became more widespread, so did the fear of its horrible death. The result was dependence by the rural population on the madstone.

It is no wonder the folk population sought solace in the madstone whose reputation included the ability to draw out the ill effects from the bites of rabid animals. The use of madstones as a preventive for rabies was predominately a rural phenomenon.

Some stories became famous and people traveled for miles within a region to receive treatment. Often stones gained wider reputations for dependability and were sought by others outside a region. The fees charged by the madstone owners ranged from nothing to one hundred dollars, but the usual charge was in the form of a donation from the victim. Although madstones were generally handed down within a family, it was common for people to claim a more mystical origin for their stones. Some, for instance, claimed they received their stones from travelers through the Orient or Europe, from old Negro women in the South, or from Indians.

Madstones vary greatly in appearance. Some look like a permeable covering of calcium inclosing a compact mass of material such as hair or moss fibers while others resemble volcanic ash or limestone and have a honeycomb structure. They may be a quarter to three inches long, one or two inches wide and half an inch deep. They may weigh from a few ounces to a half pound. They may vary in shape from rectangular to square, from flat on top and bottom, to flat only on one side; from oval or round, to sloping from one end to the other. They range in color from mottled green and white, to pink, gray, light mahogany to brown.

The method used in treating poisonous bites or the bites of rabid animals with a madstone varies only slightly. The most common practice was to moisten the stone by soaking it in warm water or hot milk and applying it to the wound. The stone generally adhered to the wound until filled with poison, whereupon it dropped off. The stone was again placed in the water or milk and the poison allowed to seep out of it. After more moisturizing, the stone was replaced on the wound and the process repeated until the stone no longer adhered. This was a sign that the poison was all gone from the wound and that the patient would recover. Often the process would take a number of hours and in one Texas case, the stone is said to have worked for 31 hours during which time it dropped off and was relieved of its poison four times.

The madstone was a more popular cure for rabies bites than for insect or snake bites because most members of a community knew which insects or snakes were poisonous by experience. However, it was not so easy to distinguish a mad animal from any other animal. There were recognizable signs of madness such as foaming at the mouth, widening of the eyes and unexpected behavior, but one could never be sure. The same holds true today. When, a person is bitten by an animal, scientific tests are run before determining whether the animal is rabid. Before Pasteur's findings in 1885 and their subsequent spread to the rural areas in the United States during the next 30 years, the safest action the victim of an animal bite could take was to secure the services of a madstone. Because most of the animals that bit were not mad, the madstone was credited with innumerable cures.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the madstone was yet another medical folk belief that had been cast aside by a community increasingly coming under the influence and pseudoscientific learnings concerning medicine and healing. The practice of using madstones in the treatment of bites and stings has disappeared. All that remain are the stones themselves and the stories surrounding the part they played in the folk medical history of nineteenth century America.