The madstone as a healing tool came into the Ozarks by way of the Appalachian Mountain people, and before that it likely traces its origin to European uses of the “bezoar” stones in healing practices. The object is also a common tool in Powwow, or Braucherei, of the Pennsylvania Germans, and likely has a similar source to the Ozark madstone.
This healing tool was particularly useful during the “dog days” of summer, ruled by the dog star Sirius, which we are in right now. Tensions rise as the heat index and humidity climb ever higher. Dogs are supposedly more susceptible to rabies at this time of the year, so knowing somebody with a madstone was vital.
From the “Encyclopedia of North Carolina”, here’s a brief blurb about the madstones from Jean B. Anderson citing Appalachian and old American sources of the stone:
“Madstones have existed from antiquity in the realms of magic and have appeared at various times in North Carolina folklore. Akin to precious and semiprecious stones, to which fortune or healing were always attributed, madstones supposedly cured hydrophobia, or rabies, but also bites of poisonous creatures such as snakes and spiders. Madstones traditionally have been animal, vegetable, or mineral in origin and are usually described as porous. In Wales and England, they were white and pink alabaster. In the Orient, tabasheer, which function as madstones, are the opals of a siliceous white or translucent substance occasionally found in bamboo joints. In the Orient, Europe, and America, bezoars (gall stones or stomach growths of hair, fiber, or calculi) found in ruminant animals such as deer, buffalo, and cattle were used for medicinal purposes.
“People used madstones in two different ways. By far the most common usage in North Carolina was the application of the stone to a wound, where it adhered, exerting some suction, until it absorbed all the poison in the wound or all the poison it could hold. Then it fell off and was cleansed in milk or warm water, and, if necessary, reapplied. A less common method, used among Native Americans, was to scrape off portions of the stone and give it to the patient in milk.
“The source of these stones in North Carolina was usually traveling strangers who gave them to local families. Joseph Blount Cheshire Jr., a bishop of the Episcopal Church in North Carolina, collected much information about the madstone used by the Pointer family. His close friend Benjamin F. Thorp used the Pointer stone before he inherited his own madstone and witnessed many cures by their use. Cheshire was hard put to understand the phenomenon, for though dubious of the folklore, he had complete confidence in his friend’s integrity.”
And of course we can’t go without mentioning Vance Randolph, who has a long section of his “Ozark Magic and Folklore” devoted to the madstones:
“The madstone treatment for rabies was once popular in many parts of the United States and is still well known in the Ozarks. The madstones I have seen are porous and resemble some sort of volcanic ash, but the natives all claim that they were taken from the entrails of deer. These stones are rare now, and they are handed down from father to son, never sold. No charge is made for using the stone, although the patient may make the owner a present if he likes. I have never seen the madstone in actual use, but they tell me that if the dog was really mad the stone sticks fast to the wound and draws the “pizen” out. After awhile the stone falls off, and is placed in a vessel of warm milk, which immediately turns green. The stone is then applied to the wound again, and so on until it no longer imparts a green color to the fresh milk. Virtually every old-time hillman believes that if the madstone is applied soon enough and sticks properly, the patient will never suffer from rabies, even if the dog was mad.
“J. J. Hibler, veteran real-estate dealer in Springfield, Missouri, kept a madstone in his office for many years ; it was famous in the nineties, and people came from all over southwest Missouri to use it.
“Homer Davis, of Monett, Missouri, used to have a madstone, shaped like a half-moon. The old-timers say that it was always dipped in hot milk before applying it to a wound. It was a porous stone, said to have been taken from the stomach of an albino deer more than seventy-five years ago.
“Many old people allege that the madstone in a deer is always found in the stomach, while others place it in the intestines or the bladder, or in the udder of a doe, or even “betwixt the windpipe and the lights.” Uncle Lum Booth, of Taney county, Missouri, who had given the matter considerable thought, said that so long as the deer was white it made no difference in what part of the body the stone appeared.
“Even in Kansas City, Missouri, madstones were still in use as late as 1931, according to the Kansas City Journal-Post, Aug. 4, 1935. A stone belonging to Mr. Noel E. Jackson, aged pioneer, is said to have been brought from Scotland in the early days by a man named Bates. It looks like whitish limestone, about an inch and a half long, with a sort of honeycomb structure; it has the appearance of a fossil, though Mr. Jackson thinks it came from the stomach of a deer. He says he has seen this stone used hundreds of times and has never known it to fail. He has never charged a cent for the use of it. In 1931 Mr. S. T. Dailey of Strasburg, Missouri, was bitten by a rabid mule. The stone adhered to Dailey’s wound for nine hours. Jackson says the stone is often applied to the same patient several times. In the case of a little girl from Independence, Missouri, it stuck for fifty-five minutes and then fell off. Jackson cleaned the thing in sweet milk, dried it carefully, and two days later he applied it again. This second time the stone adhered for thirty-five minutes. Several days later it was tried again, but failed to stick at all, which the neighbors regarded as evidence that the child was safe from rabies.
“Miss Naomi Clarke, of Winslow, Arkansas, writes me that madstones are applied to the bites of poisonous snakes as well as dog bites in her neighborhood. I have seen nothing of this myself and have so far been unable to learn anything definite about it.”
Even today “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” mentions the madstone, showing that the folk tradition is at least still being talked about if not actually used by some groups of people:
“Have you ever heard of a mad stone? This home remedy was used for centuries to heal though it’s not a common practice today.
“A mad stone (sometimes called a ‘bezoar stone’) is used to draw poison out of bites and wounds. It works by absorbing the poison bit by bit, curing the bites by detoxifying them completely.
“Mad stones can be found in the stomach or intestines of cud-chewing animals.
“Depending on the animal, the stone may be more potent and valuable; for example, the stone of a brown deer is said to be inferior to that of a white deer.
“Mad stones are not to be bought or sold; such interaction may negate their healing powers.
“Naturally, the effectiveness of mad stones has long been in dispute. Can cosmic healing powers really reside in the intestine of a cow? There is only one way to know for sure…”