By Bill Kemp, Archivist/librarian; McLean County Museum of History 12-5-10
BLOOMINGTON — “Kill your dogs!” declared a panicky Bloomington newspaper in November 1860. “Better every one of them should die than that one human being should suffer.” At issue was an outbreak of hydrophobia (known today as rabies) among the canine and feline populations of the city.
The appearance of rabies often sparked such overreaction in the 19th century. A virus usually transmitted via saliva from the bites of infected animals (including people), rabies attacks the central nervous system, and once symptoms appear it’s almost always fatal. The late stages of the disease beggar all description: hydrophobia (fear of water), hallucinations, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, extreme agitation, uncontrollable violent acts and paralysis.
Until Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux developed a vaccine in the mid-1880s, bite marks from rabid or suspected rabid animals often were treated by cutting away the flesh in and around the infected area and then cauterizing the wound with “lunar caustic” (fused silver nitrate).
In May 1852, The Bloomington Intelligencer, a predecessor to The Pantagraph, reported a dog belonging to Kersey H. Fell (brother of town of Normal founder Jesse Fell) was killed “having previously exhibited the most indubitable indications of hydrophobia.” The Intelligencer called for a city ordinance “against the running at large of the canine race,” hoping further that such action would “lead to the extermination of a few hundred of the curs with which our town is infested.”
That August, the city did pass an ordinance for registering dogs and prohibiting them from running at large. Residents were required to register their animals with the city marshal and pay an annual tax of $1.25 for each male and $3 for each female. Registered dogs wore a metal collar supplied by the city marshal. There was a steep fine for keeping unregistered pets, and during a rabies scare the city marshal and his deputies were given the power to shoot all free-ranging canines, be they registered or not.
Misinformation was a frequent bedfellow of hydrophobia. Perhaps the oddest belief surrounding rabies was that of the supposed curative powers of madstones, which were not stones at all but rather hard, roundish, porous-like concretions found in the stomachs of deer.
Well-accepted folk medicine tradition held that a madstone placed on the suppurating bite wound would soak up blood and “poisons.” When “full,” the stone would drop off, and after being cleaned in water and dried, the process would be repeated until it would no longer “adhere” to the wound.
In late 1900, The Pantagraph detailed the story of a madstone in the possession of Mrs. D.T. Crocker of South Lee Street in Bloomington. According to the article, the madstone had been in the family for more than 200 years, arriving in the U.S. with an ancestor from Wales. In the mid-19th century, the stone was split in two, with Crocker’s mother, Scynthia A. Ewing, getting one of the pieces. Ewing was said to have treated some 120 cases “with great success,” and the daughter continued the family tradition. Crocker, for instance, had seen a girl from LeRoy, and the madstone “adhered to the wound 18 times,” reported The Pantagraph.
Rabid dogs running wild remained a serious concern well into the 20th century. In December 1936, to cite one example, a “stray brindle mongrel” bit at least five city residents before the animal was “dispatched by means of a police bullet.” The state health department delivered five packages of free anti-rabies vaccine to Dr. Benjamin Markowitz, Bloomington’s public health director, and those bitten received the appropriate ministrations.
In January 1943, a rabid dog ran wild in Mt. Hope and Funk’s Grove townships in southwestern McLean County until it was shot dead by farmer Marvin Haughey. It had bitten and infected dairy cows, hogs and other dogs. “Farmers in the vicinity have been advised to kill less valuable animals, and to have the more valuable treated,” noted The Pantagraph.
Farmhand George Boeker, working on the Haughey place, was attacked by a rabid hog. “He managed to beat off the hog with his heavy boots and finally killed it,” read the news account. “The second hog went mad the same day in the lot with a drove of others. It was killed, but it is believed to have done much damage among the other hogs.”
Though rabies is no longer the scourge it once was, it is still with us. Just this summer, the McLean County Health Department reported the highest number of rabies-positive bats in 20 years.