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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Madstone Magic

by Clay Coppedge

There was a time on the frontier and in the days of extreme rural isolation when you would do anything you had to do to lay hands on a madstone. That time usually came right after a rabid animal bit you because a good madstone was believed to be the only cure for the fatal misfortune of rabies.

Madstones were (and are, for that matter) basically gut rocks stones consisting mostly of magnesium, calcium, chromium, nickel, copper, and lead. They form in the innards of ruminant animals such as cows, horses, buffalo, and deer that ingest dirt, hair balls, rocks, or foreign matter like metal while grazing on grass. Much as a grain of sand embedded in an oyster turns into a pearl, the gut rocks calcify into madstones.

The current market for madstones is way down, nonexistent actually, but a madstone was highly valued at a time when bites from animals that carry rabies—skunks, raccoons, dogs and coyotes—were more common because the animals were more common and people spent more time outdoors.

The premium madstones were said to come from the belly of a deer. If the host animal was a white deer, you were dealing with pure magic. Or so the belief went. And the madstones were effective. Most people treated with madstones did not come down with rabies, but that might be because most of the bites came from non-rabid animals.

Still, at a time when rabid animals outnumbered doctors, people didn't take any chances. If they were bitten by a member of any animal species known to carry rabies, the first order of business was to secure a madstone or have one or two in reserve.

The stones were usually boiled in water or milk and applied to the wound. The best madstones were porous and would stick to the wound, sometimes for several hours.. When the madstone fell off, the poison was believed to be gone, though some people applied the stone a second time as a booster.

Most of the madstones on the frontier came from buffalo and were usually secured during the field-dressing process. Particularly good madstones were passed down from one generation to the next. Neighbors also called on each other to borrow a madstone to cure a black widow spider bite because madstones were believed to work on any poisonous bite, even from venomous snakes.


In Texas, Doctor Benjamin Tomas Crumley was among the best-known doctors who used madstones. He was half-Cherokee and spent several years studying medicinal herbs with elders of that tribe and might have attended medical school in Paris. He was much in demand and highly regarded all over Central Texas during the last two decades of the 19th century. Dr. Crumley's medical kit always included a good madstone.

Warren Angus Ferris, a pioneer surveyor who plotted a little settlement named Warwick that was later renamed Dallas, detailed use of the madstone in his diaries. Ferris was bitten on the leg by a rabid raccoon that broke into his home one night and tangled with two of his dogs, which later had to be destroyed when they came down with "the slobbering fits."

Ferris went straight to a neighbor on the Trinity River who had a madstone. Ferris wrote that during the time the stone was attached to the bite "the evaporating water could be seen as it was boiling at every tube, and I could feel a distinct burning sensation in the wound such as I would presume would be induced by a minute blister of flies."

Ferris believed that the porous nature of the stone produced a vacuum in its openings that was caused by the hot water evaporating and that the bacteria had a strong chemical affinity for something in the madstone. Regardless of whether it worked that way or not, Ferris never came down with rabies.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" November 21, 2023 column

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