Bezoar Stones also called mad stones, have a considerable history in American folklore. They were thought to have the power to treat or neutralize poisons or venoms in wounds. Those wounds may be from insect stings, poisonous plants, snake bites, and even the bites of rabid animals. Treatment consisted of simply holding the stone up against the wound.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac published a story about mad stones in a 2010 edition. The story referred to a number of instances dating to the 19th and into the 20th century where the stones were used for snake bites and especially bites from rabid dogs.
Also clear from these stories is that the stone only worked if obtained directly from an animal or was received as a gift. Buying and/or selling destroyed the power of the stone, and if stolen would actually cause harm to the thief.
Bezoars are usually golf ball sized concretions of hair and calcium salts taken from the gastrointestinal tract of ruminants. Farm animals such as goats and sheep and wild deer are often a source. Hair is difficult to digest, especially by ruminants. The material can persist in the gut of these animals for months to years. Gradually calcium salts bind to a wad of hair. Peristaltic action, the muscular churning in the GI tract, forces these masses in to the shape of a ball.
The name bezoar is taken from Persian, Padzahr. This word and the concept date to the classical period of Persia, around 500 BCE (Before the Current Era), or over 2000 years ago. The Persian word means “protective against poison” A Persian pharmacopeia of the time listed bezoars as effective in the treatment of not only insect stings and snake bites, they were also considered an antidote to various mineral and vegetable poisons.
By the 16th/17th century their purported efficacy had extended to treating diseases or conditions from epilepsy to smallpox and bubonic plague. Bezoars came to be prized possessions in Europe at the time. For one special use, the stones were encased in ornate gold cage-like containers complete with a several inch long chain attached. These could then be dipped into a goblet of wine for instance, to remove any and all added poisons.
Certain Europeans, Catherine de Medici, and Lucrezia Borgia to name just two were thought to be heartless poisoners who gained and held power by poisoning their political enemies. Poisoning at the time was somewhat of an art. Arsenic was often the poison of choice, and the better poisoners knew how to disguise the poison to make it less detectable.
Interestingly there is a good reason to think that in this particular case of poisoning by Arsenic, the bezoars may have worked to prevent poisoning. Nerd alert – chemistry digression. The physical composition of a bezoar includes hair, and hair is loaded with a class of chemical compounds known as sulfides. The presence of sulfides makes for the foul odor when hair is burned. More importantly however, the sulfides are known to chemically bind to many heavy metals including Arsenic.
For a goblet of wine with Arsenic, adding the bezoar stone could adsorb the poison. Remove the stone and remove the poison.