Plains Folk

Mad Dogs and Madstones


There were terrors of pioneer life that we scarcely know today, but once were commonplace. They were things too horrible to talk about—but people did talk about them, endlessly and gruesomely. For instance, rabies, or hydrophobia.

This viral disease spread by animal bites struck fear into frontier hearts because it was treacherous as well as horrific. A family dog afflicted with rabies might froth at the mouth and act aggressive, or it might not. A rabid dog might be perfectly affectionate, perhaps a little sickly, and then suddenly bite the baby who was petting it.

Once the disease set in for a human victim, people knew what to do. A case in 1881 occurred near Dallas, Texas, but was reported in newspapers as far as Bismarck, North Dakota. A man named George Arnold was bitten by a mad dog. He had the wound cauterized, and he also applied a madstone to it, but still contracted rabies.

Methodically, Arnold went to a store and bought a lock and chain. He wrote a letter of farewell to his wife and children, went into some nearby woods, and chained himself to a tree. Evidently people knew what was going on and left him alone, until two days later going out to retrieve his body.  Newspaper reports of the state of the body are too graphic for me to reproduce here.

John Ise, in his pioneer memoir from western Kansas, recounts the case of a man who was tied to his bed when he developed hydrophobic symptoms. The narrative is a little vague about what happened next, unless you are familiar with pioneer custom. The men of the community came in and mercifully smothered the man with the bed tick.

In 1885 Louis Pasteur made the first successful treatment of a patient with rabies vaccine made from rabbit tissue. It was twenty years or more, however, before physicians and patients in the middle of North America put any faith in the Pasteur method. In the meantime they relied on traditional remedies.

One was cauterization. A physician might burn the wound with nitric acid. Lacking that, people would do the job with a hot iron.

Not surprisingly, people preferred to resort to the other common method of treatment, which was a madstone. A madstone was a smooth concretion recovered from the belly of a deer. Porous, it was first scalded in milk, then applied to the wound, where it would adhere. The process was repeated until the stone no longer stuck.

Rabies was everywhere on the frontier, and so I know it had to have been present in pioneer North Dakota, but here the evidence is thin. North Dakota newspapers report cases around the country. They detail procedures for the folk remedies, and as we get into the twentieth century, they publish medical evidence in favor of the Pasteur treatment. Still, I have yet to collect graphic accounts of rabies treatments in North Dakota, nor have I located a single madstone in possession of citizens of the state.

In western parts of the state, settlement may have been late enough that settlers would have had faith in, and access to, the Pasteur treatment. It is possible, too, that severe winters limited the spread of the disease, in contrast to southern regions, where rabies scares were more frequent.

If you happen to have a madstone passed down in your family, I would love to have the opportunity to see it.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Plains Folk. « Go Back

Award-winning radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.

Donate Now

Breaking News

Follow Us On Social Media