Once Upon a Time

In a time before vaccinations, mad stones treated rabies

The caption on this undated illustration reads: “Applying the madstone to arm of a girl who was bitten by a rabid dog.” | Illustration courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Oct. 8, 2017 12:01 am

On one day in August 1888, The Quincy Daily Whig reported a number of happenings in the city column. Some were mundane: marriage licenses, Haverly's minstrels performing at the Quincy Opera House, and a successful picnic for the Evangelical Protestant Widows' and Orphans' Aid Society.

Some were sad: the death of an infant, a worker overcome by heatstroke, a funeral notice; and two were rather terrifying.

The first was a report of a little boy who had been bitten by a dog a month before while playing at his home at 413 Kentucky. Though the wound healed, the child now showed signs of hydrophobia, with little hope he would recover.

Another story concerned a farmer living near Bowling Green, Mo., who also was bitten by a rabid dog. This man hurried to Hannibal for an application of a mad stone by Dr. Vernette.

Mad stones were said to pull out poison from a wound inflicted by a rabid animal. The stones were applied to the open wound where they would stick if poison was present. Mad stones stuck to the wound for various lengths of time, lasting up to hours, before they fell off and were then rinsed, often turning the rinse water a lurid green from the poison they had removed.

Science has now invented a vaccination for hydrophobia (rabies), and there are rules that all pets must be protected and controlled. Before that, infected animals were a continual problem and spread this deadly virus through bites to other animals and to humans. Carriers of the fatal disease were bats, raccoons, skunks, wolves, foxes, coyotes, cats, and even horses and cows. Dogs, allowed to run free in cities and towns, were hunted down after they bit someone.

There were two mad stones in the Quincy area, one possessed by Mr. Blivens of Burton Township and another by the Rev. W.T. Beadles, elder of the Methodist Church of Quincy. The mad stones were a diagnostic tool as well as a cure. If the stone failed to stick to the wound, it was taken as proof that the animal was not infected.

In 1890, Isaac Samuels was bitten and sought treatment from the Burton stone, at the same time an autopsy was performed on the animal, which had been summarily dispatched. Tests for the presence of a virus were unknown then, so the veterinarian looked for inflammation of the animal's throat, and gravel, small stones and chips in its stomach.

This dog showed no such signs, and the mad stone did not stick to the wound, so the man was deemed to be safe. The victim reportedly was not reassured and sought treatment from another mad stone in Carthage.

In 1903, Beadles gave an account of his stone. He reported that a relative of his mother arrived with the early colonists at Jamestown, Va., and kept a tavern. One visitor to her establishment became ill but was nursed back to health. In return he offered the woman one of the stones he had gathered along the Mediterranean Sea coast. The owner of the stones reported that they were found near a species of laurel tree and sometimes in the stomach of a certain species of deer that fed on the laurel. The original stone came into the possession of Beadle's grandfather, who eventually split it into a number of pieces to share with his family. The original was small, and the piece treasured by Beadles' mother since 1855 was "slightly smaller than a grain of corn; a chip broke off this and he has both portions. The madstone (sic) is black in color, rather smooth but irregular of surface and its specific gravity is considerable less than what one would expect to feel in a stone."

He explained the "method of application is to bring the stone in contact with the circulation, where it is allowed to remain until it drops off. It is then placed in cold water for about an hour and again applied until it drops. This process is repeated until it will not adhere any longer."

Bite wounds often healed quickly and seemingly completely, but the rabies virus could show up after 10 days or lurk for up to a year before it manifested in symptoms. Once the symptoms appeared, then and even today, chances of survival were slim.

The first rabies cure was in 1885, when Louis Pasteur in France gambled on an untried vaccine. By 1911, rabies kits were available to doctors in the United States. Kits consisted of 25 different shots, of ever stronger serum designed to stimulate the body's immune system. Today the treatment is four shots, given over three weeks.

By 1924, local papers were warning against the use of mad stones. The state health department reported three people had been bitten, of which two received the Pasteur treatment and lived, while the third was treated by a mad stone and died.

Periodically the city of Quincy would round up stray dogs. In 1916, after Nellie Crocker, daughter of Julius Crocker of 1710 State and Kenneth Peters, son of August Peters of 1100 Kentucky, were bitten by a dog, the city took action. "We are going to start at once destroying all female dogs and getting rid of stray dogs that have no owners," announced Chief of Police Koch.

The dog was eventually hunted down by Deputy Ahern and sent for testing. The St. Louis lab reported via telegram that hydrophobia was present. Before it was killed, the dog escaped from captivity and roamed the city from the river levee east to 30th Street and from State Street north to Locust, biting a number of other animals.

The mystique and hope offered by the mad stones lived on for years. In 1888, Mrs. Cowley of Pike County, Mo., turned down an offer of $1,000 for hers. Accounting for inflation, that offer today would be about $25,000.


Beth Lane is the author of "Lies Told Under Oath," the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, and the former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.



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