Early Cabarrus Medical Practices: Treating Rabies

2 May 2014

This 1885 image depicts one of Louis Pasteur’s early rabies treatments. Harper’s Weekly, v.29 (Dec) 1885. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Many medical treatments which are commonplace now have been discovered since 1900 and deadly diseases of the 19th century are controllable or curable in this century. One fatal illness which is now preventable (although still incurable) is rabies, a virus which attacks the nervous system of warm-blooded animals and is caused by the bite of an infected animal. Even today, prevention through vaccination is the only sure treatment of this disease. Once rabies is contracted, survival is extremely rare. However, take a look at these two 19th century Cabarrus County cures and consider the chances of surviving either the illness ore the treatment!

The 1855 recipe book of Stanly County druggist Charles T. Ridenhouer (who also served many eastern Cabarrus residents) suggests this cure:

Wash the wound immediately with warm vinegar and tepid water, dry it and then apply a few drops of muriatic acid, which will destroy the poison of the saliva or neutralize it.

Overzealous use of muriatic acid could be hazardous. How much of the patient or the person treating the patient could be destroyed along with the virus!

How about the use of madstone, a small porous stone which was supposed to absorb the infection from the bite, preventing or curing rabies? According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, madstones are found in the stomach or intestines of cud-chewing animals, such as a cow or deer. Applied to the wound, a madstone would adhere to the skin until all the poison was absorbed and the wound began to heal. Madstones were not to be bought or sold as such interaction may negate their healing powers. Naturally, the effectiveness of madstones has long been in dispute.

The May 10, 1889 Concord Times reports two potential rabies cases. In south Rowan County, Levi Deal’s son and one of his pigs were both bitten by a rabid dog on the same day. When the pig went mad and died 29 days later, Deal immediately took his son to a Mr. Butler in Charlotte to try Butler’s madstone. The Times says, “The stone adhered for about an hour to the spot where the boy was bitten. So if there is any virtue in the mad stone [sic], he will not have hydrophobia [rabies].” Also reported that day, J. M. Alexander’s son Johnny was bitten by a strange dog near the Alexander’s Concord home. Alexander was unable to locate a madstone to treat the wound but felt his son was not infected since there had been no reports of rabid animals in town. Available cemetery records for Rowan and Cabarrus do not list any Deal or Alexander deaths in 1889, although the incubation period of the disease varies from a few days to years. Hopefully, both boys escaped the disease.

Neither of these treatments are recommended these days. It is easier to inoculate pets and avoid strange or wild animals which could carry the disease. Microfilm copies of the Times and Ridenhour’s Family and Druggists Recipe Book are in the Lore Room at the Concord Library.

Courtesy of the Cabarrus County Public Library, Lore Local History Room