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Wednesday, 01 February 2006 00:00

Mystery of the coveted mad stone

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Last week’s Back Then column described a deer hunt conducted by Quill Rose and his relatives and neighbors in the Great Smokies during the very early 1880s. My source for that event was the long-neglected and exceedingly rare book by Wilbur Zeigler and Ben Grosscup titled The Heart of the Alleghanies, or Western North Carolina (1883). At one point during the hunt, the authors asked if any of the participants had ever heard “of a stone being found in a deer.”

 

An affirmative answer was immediate from Ben Lester, one of the hunters: “Yes, the mad-stone. People believe it will cure snakebites and hydrophobia. Here’s one. It was found in the paunch of a white deer I shot this fall was a year ago; and, mind you, the deer with a mad-stone in him is twice as hard to kill as one of ordinary kind .... Five bullets were put in the buck that carried this one.” The stone Ben Lester exhibited was described as being “smooth and red, as large as a man’s thumb, and with one flat, white side.”

Through the years, I’ve run across brief mentions of mad-stones in various printed sources, but I’ve never actually seen one, except in photos. I decided to look into the matter a bit further for this week’s column. Mad-stone lore dates back into antiquity on a worldwide scale. Native Americans possessed them when encountered by the earliest settlers in North America. Most reports of extant mad-stones in this country seem to come from Arkansas, Texas, and various mid-western states.

My limited research never turned up a satisfactory description of the exact make-up of mad-stones. A note titled “The Mad-stone” that had appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association way back in 1900 was recently reproduced at JAMA’s online site Therein, Dr. Charles W. Dulles, a Philadelphia physician, conjectured that, “Mad-stones seem to be of two sorts: (1) some porous form of calcareous rock, or, (2) a concretion found in the intestinal canal of herbivorous animals.” Other sources associate mad-stones with hairballs, accretions that accumulate in the intestines of animals (especially cats, apparently) as a result of the animal’s licking its coat.

Bob Plott, a friend of mine, resides in Statesville, but spent a lot of his early years in the Smokies region with relatives. A descendent of the family that bred the famous Plott hounds, Bob is an avid outdoorsman. Suspecting that he might know something about mad-stones, I queried him in an e-mail. His response was immediate:

“Hi George, I hope this helps. The stone I once had was about 3 inches long, and about an inch and a half thick. It was somewhat oblong, almost egg shaped. It was smooth in places, but mostly was covered with what for a better term looked like chill bumps or goose pimples. Very small rough indentions in the areas where it was not smooth.

“The color of the stone was tan and a sort of dingy gray, similar to that of a mushroom. My father had many friends, most of them avid outdoorsmen or hunters, and one of them, an older man, gave me the stone when I was a small boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old. I cannot recall his last name, and my Dad died in 1976 so I cannot ask him. It seems like he was either a Medford or a Frady and was originally from either Haywood or Jackson counties, but that may not be right. My Dad was very liked and had many friends in that area, as well as in Iredell, Swain, Catawba and other counties. As a result we were always running into friends of his at stores, gas stations or different places we visited. So some of their names are forgotten and I was very young.

“At any rate, he kept the stone in a small pouch and gave it to me, telling me that it could be used to pull the poison from snake bites or that of any rabid animal. He said that it came from the stomach of a male deer, and that was the only place you could find them, that he had never heard of one, or seen one in a female deer, nor had any of his friends.

“He said that the stone was magic, and that to sell it would kill its powers, that it could only be given away for it to work. He also cautioned me that it would only work a limited amount of times and that when it stopped you would know it, because it would no longer stick to the wound the first time.

“According to him, you placed it on the wound and it would adhere to it until all the poison was drawn from it, at which time it would fall off. You could use it again at a later time, and repeatedly until it stopped sticking to the wound. Once that happened, the magic was gone and you needed to find another. But he added that the one he gave me was fairly new and had plenty of ‘magic’ left in it. For that reason, he and a lot of old-time hunters always searched the stomachs of their deer kills to make sure they always had one. Evidently while they were not in every male deer, a good hunter could expect to find several over his lifetime, and this fellow certainly had.

“I recall all of this I guess due to the magical aspect of it. I carried the stone for several years, or kept it stored safely in a cigar box, up until I was a teenager and then either misplaced or thrown out by mistake, since it did not look like much, but either way, it was unfortunately gone.

“I never tried to use it, but I took it out and studied it quite often, and was pleased that I owned something magical, and always carried in it the woods with me. I sure hate that I lost it.

“Later when I was older I read in some books ... where the stone was supposedly boiled to get the poison out after each application. If the old fellow told me that then, I certainly don’t recall it being that way, and I took his instructions very seriously as I believed them to be 100 percent true. But then again, I was a kid and may have forgotten it.

“I recall that my Dad was very respectful about it and echoed my thanks to his friend, but also remember that he did not seem to take it very seriously when talking with him about it afterwards, though he did encourage me to take care of it, as he did with a lot of his WWII relics that I also foolishly lost .... I hope this may be of some help to you.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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