Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983
TRUTH OR MYTH
by Dena Myers
Holding the oval stone in the palm of her hand, Mary Kay Oberlin said, "I don't know anything more about the history of my madstone except that it was passed down from my great-grandmother. My mother remembered as a child knowing a man who rode a steer instead of a horse to the local country store. A rabid dog bit the steer, and the man decided his steer was rabid because the place on his arm where the steer got the saliva on him swelled up. My grandmother boiled her madstone in milk and applied it to the man's wound. My mother didn't remember if the man recovered, but some people thought the madstone was a cure for rabies."
According to some stories Doug Mahnkey has heard, people have recovered after using a madstone. Sam Massey, a Taney County resident, told him one such story from first hand experience.
One summer day many years ago in Oklahoma, his brother Monroe came in from plowing the fields to eat lunch. He fed the team and then went to eat his own lunch. After he finished, Monroe started back to the barn to get the horses ready. They were gentle, but as he started to catch one of the horses, it seized his arm and shook him violently, making a terrible wound. It was discovered the horse had rabies. The father took him to Stonewall in Pontotoc County to a man who had three madstones. The man applied the stones to the boy's wound, and one of the stones stuck to the boy for seventy-two hours. Monroe fully recovered.
In the isolated Ozark hills far from doctors and hospitals, death from a rabid animal bite used to be fatal. Doug remembered, "When we were children, the talk of a mad dog in the country really put the fear in all of us. We didn't know what to do if someone was bitten by a mad dog. Our parents warned us to be careful about any strange dog, or even if our own dog was acting strange, as there was no cure for rabies."
Even people who had no faith in the effectiveness of the stone had no other recourse but to try the stone if there was one available.
Webster's Third New International dictionary defines a madstone as "a stony concretion (as a hair ball taken from the stomach of a deer) supposed to counteract poisonous effects of the bite of an animal (affected by rabies)." Doug Mahnkey found an older dictionary stating that the most famous madstone in the united States was owned by the descendents of the Fred family in Virginia. Their stone was brought over from Scotland in 1776 and is said to be spoken of by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, The Talisman. It is said that of one hundred and thirty cases in which the stone has been used, none ever suffered from hydrophobia.
The common belief is that the stone comes from the stomach of a white deer. Doug Mahnkey has his own theory of how the madstone develops. "The deer in the wild lick the rock glade and there's a little salt in it. Then they lick their bodies, and that hair causes the stone to form in the deer's stomach. Now that's just a superstition on my part."
Although each madstone probably has a different appearance, Mary Oberlin's stone fits easily in the palm of her hand being about three inches by two inches. It is smooth and rounded but porous, causing it to feel light in relation to its size. It is brown with lighter flecks.
People using the madstone for treatment boil the stone in sweet milk, or sometimes alcohol. While still hot, they apply the madstone to the wound. If the victim has rabies, the stone will stick to the wound and draw out the poison. Once the stone adheres to the wound, it cannot be pulled off. After the stone is filled with the poison, it drops off by itself. It is then boiled again in the milk which turns green the second time. The process of boiling and applying is repeated until the stone no longer sticks to the wound.
Some Ozarkians say they would rather use the madstone than take the shots. Old timers relate the belief that even if one took the injected shots given today for rabies and was cured, when the last illness came to the person, regardless of how long it had been since cured from rabies, the person would die with the fits of hydrophobia. According to another tradition about the madstone, the owner must never sell it or ever make charges for its use.
Doug Mahnkey has found other people who have witnessed cures or have been treated by a madstone. One of these stones is the York stone. The history of this stone begins with Robert York who took a homestead north of Kissee Mills, Missouri, in the year 1900. While out hunting in York Hollow on his land, he killed a white deer, and in dressing the deer, he found a strange stone in its stomach. This stone has been handed down in his family. A little while before he died, York sawed the stone in half,giving a portion to each of his sons, one of whom was a stepson, Charlie Barnett. Charlie Barnett's portion of the madstone is now in the home of his daughter. This stone was known as the Charlie Barnett stone or the York stone.
Alga Reese of Taneyville, Missouri, was treated with this stone. About 1920, Mr. Reese was helping a neighbor with a sick cow which was foaming at the mouth. In the struggle with the animal, Alga received a severe laceration on his leg. The cow was later found to have hydrophobia and died. Because Alga's wound began to fester, he went for treatment to Charlie Barnett. Alga said the madstone was boiled in sweet milk and applied to the wound. On the first application the stone stuck for sixteen hours and the second time for four hours. The swelling began to go down, and Alga completely recovered with no further trouble.
It is said that Mr. Barnett was offered several hundred dollars for this stone, but he followed tradition and never sold the madstone.
Another story that offers proof of the madstone is the J.M. "Mitch" Thomas family of Kissee Mills. When Mitch was a young man of about sixteen, he was bitten severely on the wrist by the family dog. The dog had been acting strangely and his parents were fearful that the dog had rabies. They sent Mitch on horseback to the home of Lonnie Ellison who had a madstone. Mr. Ellison seemed in no hurry to get around to treating the boy. He boiled the stone in sweet milk and applied it to the wound, but the stone did not stick.
Mr. Ellison decided to test the stone. He went outside and brought a live bee from his bee hives into his house. He then placed the bee on the opposite wrist and allowed the bee to sting Mitch. After waiting until the sting became red and swollen, he boiled the madstone in sweet milk and applied it to the bee sting. It stuck to the spot and drew out the poison. Mr. Eltison said, "Now, young fellow, the dog that bit you weren't mad. You just go home and don't worry."
Mitch's parents weren't quite satisfied by this. When they heard of Granny Nave on White River, who was said to have miraculous powers with her madstone, they sent Mitch to the Nave home. Granny Nave boiled the stone in alcohol and placed it on the wound, but it did not stick. When she tried the method again and the stone still did not stick, she, like Mr. Ellison, told Mitch to go home for the dog that bit him wasn't mad. These old-timers were correct. Except for a scar on his wrist, Mitch was not harmed by the bite.
"I checked on this Nave madstone," said Doug. "Dora Nave said the madstone was handed down to her husband, and later it was given to Claude Nave who moved to New Mexico."
Dora recalled that one of the Nave boys, Small Nave, was bitten by a snake. When they applied the madstone to the snake bite, it stuck to the wound and removed the venom of the snake.
Like most of us in our age of scientific proof, neither Mary Kay Oberlin or Doug Mahnkey put much faith in the powers of the madstone in spite of the tales concerning it.
Mary Kay Oberlin rubbed her fingers ever the madstene handed down to her in her family. "If someone would get bit by a rabid dog, I would be happy to try out my madstone on them to see if it really worked,"' she laughed.
But along with the doubters, there are still believers. "I talked to a lady the ether day," Doug said, "and I said that I didn't accept the madstone as a solid cure for rabies. This woman replied 'Doug, I accept it as one of God's miracles.' So I say, is the madstone a myth? Is it magic? Is it a miracle? I guess it's net for us to say. A scripture in the Holy Bible reads, 'Behold, I shew you a mystery.'"
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues
Local History Home