The porous stone is said to be from the rumen of a deer belly or possibly a cow, bison, camel or bear. It is basically a bovine hairball. It starts out as a tiny mineral inside the animal’s stomach and particles, calcium, hair and whatnot start to adhere to it and pack tight as it grows larger. Few are ever discovered because not many are willing to dissect the contents of an animal’s stomach. This particular mad stone is about two inches long, about one inch wide and approximately ½ inch thick. It was at one time broken in half so now a silver band wraps around the outer edge of the stone to hold it together. It’s a smooth, almost shiny stone in variegated shades of browns and is said to have magical healing powers. Such stones are also known as Bezoar stones, Chinese snake stones or sucking stones.
It has a deep 200+ year history in Essex County and is rumored to not have been used on a patient without success. The stone is applied to a person with a wound, bite or sting from a bee, scorpion, snake, spider, or rabid ‘mad’ animal. As legend has it, the mad stone would adhere itself to the wound and not fall off until the poison was absorbed. This could be as short as a few minutes or as long as a day or more. Once the stone released it self from the wound, the patient was healed and all was well. (If the bite was non-poisonous, the stone would not stick.) The mad stone then needed to be cleansed, which entailed placing the stone in sweet milk or water, in which the toxins would release from the stone, bubble and turn the liquid green.
It’s unclear exactly how the stone came to this country. One possibility is from Captain John Smith by way of the East Indies. He purchased 20 mad stones there and several ended up in Virginia. As early as 1781, the Essex County mad stone was in Mathews County, in the possession of John Tabb. It is said that he received the stone from an ill traveler in exchange for room, board and medical treatment. A printed piece of paper encapsulated the stone and reportedly declared that “Frances Torres, a Native of France, is in possession of a chymical preparation, called a Chinese snakestone, which will extract the poison of the bite of snakes, spiders and of a mad dog and will cure cancers, which are sold at half a Guinea for the small and a Guinea for the large ones.” The paper was dated Charlestown, South Carolina, 1740.
After the mad stone passed through the ownership of Christopher Gayle in the early 1800s, it landed into the hands of James R. Micou around 1805. He was once Clerk of the Circuit Court in Essex County. He reportedly paid the price of 30 acres of land for the magical stone. That same year, Micou advertised the mad stone for sale in Virginia. His asking price was $2,000. Within a year 200 shares, worth $10 apiece, were sold to residents of Essex, King and Queen, King William, Lancaster, Middlesex, Northumberland, Richmond and Westmoreland Counties. The stone was placed into the protective keeping of Dr. Austin Brokenbrough of Tappahannock, Virginia. Shareholders and their family members received treatment for free while others had to pay $8 for the first treatment and $2 for additional applications. Those that couldn’t afford payment were treated free of charge.
It is unclear exactly who the stockholders were and which doctors had charge of the stone over the years. But between 1874-1905 doctors W. G. Jefferies and William Taliaferro were keepers of the Essex County mad stone. In the early 1900s, Dr. James Roy Micou, Jr., one time deputy clerk of Essex County, regained ownership of his family’s mad stone and took the stone with him to Washington College in Chestertown, MD where he was a professor. (Dr. Micou believes his late grandfather purchased the stone from a man from India.) In
the early 1930s, Micou returned the stone to Essex County to the custody of Allen Douglas Latane, county clerk of Essex County and cousin of Micou. With the mad stone came the directive that upon his death, Latane was to will the stone
to a woman’s group with the provision that the stone be
housed in safekeeping at the courthouse. Upon his death
in 1948, Latane did so and willed the stone to the Essex County Woman’s Club. Since 1948 there have been three more ‘Keepers of the Stone’ - Arnold Motley and Augusta Wilkerson, who between them were custodians for over 50 years and now current Clerk of the Circuit Court of Essex County,
There are dozens of documented letters and stories of
the stone detailing its healing powers and its patients,
dating back as early as 1781. The Essex County mad stone
was known to treat and cure spider bites, snake bites and
rabies from ‘mad’ cats, dogs and other animals. About 20 years ago there were still about a dozen mad stones in Virginia, though is unknown when the last mad stone was actually
used for healing.
All facts were gathered from actual records stored with the mad stone and compiled as accurately as possible. The author wishes to extend many thanks to Clerk of the Circuit Court Gayle Ashworth and her staff of the Essex County Circuit Court for their assistance while researching the mad stone.