Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/December 1874/Some Superstitions of Hydrophobia


THE reign of Sirius is over, and the dread of hydrophobia has ceased to agitate the public mind. At this auspicious season of the year we may approach the subject with cool premeditation, and deal with it in our own way. No longer do we regard our canine associates with a sort of indefinable apprehension. Our Spitz "Prince" pursues with savage intent the obnoxious house-fly, without exciting any suspicion of "snapping at imaginary objects in the air." His appetite is capricious, and we merely sympathize with him as a fellow-sufferer from dyspepsia. He bites a part where crawls the occult flea, without having to undergo a critical examination for a "point of injury." He retires in dim seclusion under the sofa, and indulges in reverie—disagreeable reminiscences of the past, grim contemplations of the present, and perhaps gloomy anticipations of the future—without having his moroseness misinterpreted. He becomes uneasy and fidgety, even peevish and ugly at times—what then?—like master like dog, he serves to illustrate our human moods. Occasionally he displays toward us an exaggerated degree of affection almost unaccountable in any Prince of mature age; but this is in the early morning, and the odor of his favorite liver ascends from the kitchen; even his blandishments, alas! are sometimes selfish. He is now permitted to run through the street without a muzzle, and to consort with the οὶ πολλοι—"the great unwashed"—of his tribe; which affiliation he thoroughly enjoys, albeit a dog of most aristocratic pedigree—remembering, possibly, that both his descent and theirs are by many naturalists derived from a common and somewhat disreputable ancestor named Wolf. In fact, the dog-days being past, his follies, his faults, all his vagaries, seem natural as ever. How is it, we now ask ourselves, that this faithful servant and friend should have been under such a cloud during all the bright summer? Why, as Mr. Mayo has remarked, should he be regarded at that particular season as being subject to "a sort of dog-lunacy, having the same relation to Sirius that insanity has to the moon—which, indeed, in another sense, is probably true?" The answer may be found in that peculiarity of human nature which clings fast to traditions and superstitions, and will most probably always do so until man ceases to be human. It is the province of science, however, to battle with these familiar foes, and to at least surround with invincible lines the almost impregnable positions in which Time has intrenched them among the credulous and ignorant.

The mysterious influence of the "dog-days" upon the canine race is an opinion of the greatest antiquity, dating back apparently to Annubis, the dog-form of the Egyptian Apollo, whose appearance in the heavens was a premonition of impending danger. It probably also had some connection with the Κῦνοφόντις έορτή, a festival of the Argives marked by the destruction of many dogs. In the "Iliad," Homer mentions Orion's dog as affecting human health disastrously. Pausanias, in his "Travels in Greece," alluding to the story of Actæon's destruction by his own hounds, was inclined to attribute the myth to the circumstance that the season had caused the pack of the famous hunter to run mad. Pliny remarks, in his "Historia Naturalis," that "canine madness is fatal to man during the heat of Sirius, and proves so in consequence of those who are bitten having a deadly horror of water. For such reason, during the thirty days that this star exerts its influence, we try to prevent the disease by mixing dung from the poultry-yard with the dog's food, or else, if he is already attacked with the disease, by giving him hellebore." From the time of Pliny until quite recently the development of rabies by summer heat has been accepted as a fact among scientific men, and the idea has become too deeply rooted in the popular mind to be easily eradicated. Only within the present century has it been proved conclusively by critical inquiry that no season of the year is specially concerned in the production of this formidable affection. Hence the absurdity of legislative enactments designed as precautionary measures against hydrophobia, and operative only during the summer months.

Our old and esteemed friend Pliny is responsible for several other very remarkable statements with regard to the dog. He asserts gravely that dogs will run from any one having, a dog's heart about him, and will never bark at a person who carries a dog's tongue in his shoe under the great toe, or the tail of a weasel which has been liberated after being deprived of that appendage. Among various absurd preventive means which he recommends, as efficacious in the case of a person bitten by a mad dog, is, to insert into the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the animal which inflicted the injury. Hence the half-sick reveler, as he imbibes his morning potation, assures himself of its curative effect in the remark that he is taking "a hair of the dog that bit him."

The same author informs us of a belief common among the Romans, that a dog which laps the milk of a woman who has had a male child will never become rabid.

Another singular tradition, handed down from remote antiquity, but popularized by Pliny, is the idea that beneath the dog's tongue is situated a worm whose existence encourages the development of hydrophobia, and whose extirpation in puppyhood is an infallible preventive of the disease. He thus alludes to it: "There is in the dog's tongue a small worm known as 'lytta' among the Greeks. If this be removed from the animal while a pup, it will never become rabid or lose its appetite. This worm, after being carried thrice around a fire, is given to persons who have been bitten by a rabid dog, to prevent their going mad." There is a curious correspondence between this recommendation of Pliny's and the following recipe for the "tear of a mad hound," found in an old Anglo-Saxon leech-book, written about the commencement of the eleventh century, entitled "Medicina de Quadrupedibus:" "Take the worms (thymas) which be under a mad hound's tongue (under thede hundes cunzan), snip them away, lead them round about a tig-tree, give them to him who hath been rent; he will soon be whole."

Allusion is made to this worm in a work called the "Kynosophian," supposed by some to have been written by Phæmon, while others attribute it to Demetrius Pepagomenos, a Greek writer residing at Constantinople in the twelfth century. In this book it is asserted that underneath the dog's tongue is a little body like a white worm, which must be quickly destroyed ere it increase and invade the whole throat. In the sixteenth century, Fracastorius, in a poem styled "Alcou, sive de cura Canum Venaticorum," refers to it in the following words: "Vulnificus vermis suffunditque ora veneno."

In more modern times, the Germans generally believed in it, terming it the Tollwurm, or worm of madness. So popular was the superstition, that, in the middle of the last century, there existed in Prussia an ordinance requiring all owners of dogs to submit them to this mutilation. The ordinance was rendered more specific by a royal decree of February 20, 1767, establishing a regular corps of operators, whose duty consisted in visiting semi-annually all houses containing dogs, "worming" every animal, and furnishing the master thereof with a certificate to that effect. The edict prescribed, likewise, that every dog should be so treated before it had become six months old, and persons violating the law were condemned to pay a fine of fifty Prussian crowns, or, in default thereof, to suffer an imprisonment of one month. In 1786 a similar law prevailed in Hanover. This so-called worm was explained by some to be a vein, whose absence in a dog menaced by hydrophobia leads to engorgement of the throat and immediate asphyxia. It was regarded by Morgagni and Heydecker, after careful examination, as a spiral tendinous arrangement peculiar to the canine race, having some connection with the genio-hyo-glossus muscle, and serving to facilitate the act of lapping. Other authorities, however, deemed it to be the duct of the submaxillary gland, and others still maintained that it was merely the frenum linguæ. The English author, Fothergill, in his celebrated treatise on Hydrophobia, remarked that nothing was definitely settled relative to the utility of the operation, but that the whitish vermiform substance thus removed was nothing else, it might be presumed, than the canal forming a portion of the salivary apparatus, whose destruction might possibly exercise some influence upon the secretion, in diminishing, to a certain, extent, the liquid which transmits the virus.

The whole theory, however, was substantially demolished in 1786, in the very country where it was most in vogue. A rabid dog, near the village of Trieglitz, Prussia, bit a shepherd's dog, which was shortly afterward seized with rabies, and in turn communicated it to several cows. Both of these dogs were proved, by authentic certificates, to have undergone, when pups, the prescribed operation. The sanitary physicians of the district assembled to investigate the subject, and numerous instances were brought to their notice of hydrophobia having been imparted to both animals and men by dogs whose Tollwurms had been extirpated in the most approved manner. These facts led to the suppression of the corps of operators. Subsequently the authorities of the province of Detmold convoked a similar commission of investigation, the result of whose inquiries fully confirmed the conclusions previously reached.

This idea never obtained much credence among the English. Dr. Samuel Johnson spoke of the reputed worm in his expressive manner as "a substance—nobody knows what, extracted—nobody knows why."

According to a report of Dr. Armand to the Paris Academy of Sciences, the same practice still exists in Thrace, and it is described by Auzias Turenne, in the "Receuil de Médecine" for 1869, as then prevailing in Turkey and Moldo-Wallachia. Fleming states that it is quite common in Roumania, and Ramon de Sagra alludes to it as being popular in Spain. It prevails to some extent in our own country, especially in the South.

Columella, a contemporary of Pliny, in a work entitled "De Re Rustica," informs us that in his time it was believed among shepherds that, if, on the fortieth day after a pup's birth, the last bone of the tail be bitten off, the sinew will follow with it; after which the tail will cease growing, and the animal will remain secure from madness. This brutal mutilation is still sometimes practised by dog-fanciers, particularly in England, where the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have obtained several convictions against those resorting to it.

The ancients ascribed peculiar virtues to a variety of stone called ammonis cornu, which was supposed to possess the property of extracting the virus from wounds inflicted by mad dogs or venomous reptiles. Pliny alludes to it under the above name, and it has since received the appellation ammonite, both terms referring to its resemblance in shape to the horns which surrounded the head of Jupiter Ammon. It has also, in more modern times, been popularly known as the mad-stone and the snake-stone. Scientifically speaking, it is the fossil petrifaction of an extinct mollusk closely resembling the nautilus, having a spiral, symmetrical, and chambered shell, varying in size from that of a small bean to that of a large cart-wheel. In the East Indies and China it has for ages enjoyed the reputation mentioned.

In the fourth volume of the Medical Repository, an old journal published in this city in the beginning of the present century, may be found a communication from a Virginia gentleman, entitled "The Chinese Snake-stone, and its Operation as an Antidote to Poison." This remarkable stone, it appears, was brought from Bombay in 1740, and a portion of it subsequently came into the hands of Rev. Mr. Lewis Chaustien, of Frederick County, who employed it in cases of snake and dog bites. The writer describes how, his little daughter having been bitten by a mad dog, he was induced to carry her to Mr. Chaustien in order to obtain for her the benefit of his remedy. Having been informed that the stone, which was in three pieces, would adhere to no wound except one inflicted by a serpent or a mad dog, he tried the experiment of placing a piece upon two scratches on his child's body occasioned by a recent fall, but it immediately dropped off. On being applied, however, to the dog-bite, it at once took hold like a leech, and continued to stick for eight hours; and the other two pieces adhered successively an equal length of time before they fell off. They were then immersed in hot water, when, in a short time, a number of small bubbles began to rise, and a scum, like oil of a greenish-yellow color, soon covered the surface. The pieces were afterward dried in warm ashes. Mr. Chaustien exhibited a certificate which had accompanied the stone from Bombay, and which attested its efficacy in extracting venom from the bites of all poisonous animals. Another piece was in the possession of a Mr. Joseph Fredd, of Loudon County, Va. These wonderful stones doubtless still exist with virtues unimpaired—a profitable inheritance for those whose privilege it is to bestow their inestimable boon upon credulous humanity.

One of the most ancient measures employed in the case of a dog suspected of hydrophobia was, a prolonged sousing in cold water, which treatment, however, was not confined to animals, but was extended to persons whom they had bitten. Euripides, the Greek tragic poet, was said to have been thus preserved from hydrophobia. Even the celebrated and sagacious physician Celsus appears to have had confidence in the process, as he thus describes it: "The only remedy is to cast the patient unexpectedly into a pond, and, if he has no knowledge of swimming, to allow him to sink, in order that he may drink, and to raise and again depress him, so that, although unwillingly, he may be satiated with water."

In more modern days, Van Helmont gives the following quaint description of the same formidable method, as employed in his time: "There is a castle situated by the sea-side, four leagues from Ghent, which they call Cataracta. I saw a ship passing by it, and therein an old man, naked, bound with cords, having a weight on his feet; under his armpits he was encompassed with a girdle, wherewith he was bound to the sail-yard. I asked what they meant by that spectacle. One of the mariners said that the old man was an hydrophoid, or had the disease causing the fear of water, and had lately-been bitten by a mad dog. I asked toward what part of the sea they wished to carry him. Did they intend his death? 'Nay, rather,' said the mariner,' he shall presently return whole; and such is the blessing of the sea, that such a kind of madness it will presently cure.' I offered them some money to take me along with them as a companion and witness. When we had sailed about an Italian mile, the mariners did open a hole in the bottom, whereby the whole ship was almost sunk, even to the brim; indeed, they used the brine to recoct Spanish salt. And when, as that hole was now again exactly shut, two men, withdrawing the end of the sail-yard, lifted up the top thereof, and bore the old man on high; but thence they let him down headlong into the sea; and he was under the water about the space of a miserere whom afterward they twice more plunged, about the space of an angelical salutation. But they then placed him on a smooth vessel, with his back upward, covered with a short cloak. I did think that he was dead; but the mariners derided my fear, for, his bonds being loosened, he began to cast up all the brine which he had breathed in, and presently he revived. He was a cooper, of Ghent, and, being thenceforth freed from his madness, lived safe and sound. Also the mariners did relate that the Dutch, by a raw herring salted, applied to the bite of a mad dog for three days' space and renewed, do take away all fear of madness. When this has been neglected, at least by the beheld manner of plunging they are all cured."

Fleming states that in Syria, at the present day, when a person is affected with hydrophobia, he is confined in a dark room, great care being taken to keep him tranquil, and prevent his seeing any red-colored object; and, if he thus survives for a certain period, he is cast from an eminence into the sea. This treatment would appear almost as effectual as another plan once pursued with hydrophobic patients, viz., smothering them between feather-beds.

A mere enumeration of all the absurd devices and medicaments employed from time immemorial to prevent or cure hydrophobia, would fill many pages. Charms, incantations, amulets, and mysterious religious rites, have had a large share in such preservative measures. One of the more modern and most remarkable superstitions connected with this subject is the reputed cure of hydrophobia by a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Hubert, in the Ardennes—a custom prevailing even now in Belgium, and dating back to the ninth century. According to the legend, the stole of St. Hubert by which the miracle is accomplished, was brought from heaven by an angel, who presented it to the saint while he was praying at the tomb of St. Peter, in Rome. At the same time he received also a golden key from St. Peter, by which he became endowed with a special power over evil spirits. Van Helmont thus alludes to the miraculous powers of this vestment: "Our good Catholics, despairing of relief from the faculty, repair to St. Hubert, at whose shrine, by virtue of certain ceremonies, they are cured; but it is worthy of remark that, if these ceremonies are not strictly observed, the latent rabies immediately breaks out, and they become irrevocably hydrophobic. There is a vestment of St. Hubert's which is preserved in a chest secured by six locks, the keys of which are kept by the six different vergers. For these fourscore years past they have been continually cutting off pieces from this holy vestment; nevertheless, it remains to this day perfectly entire! Now, it is impossible that there should be any imposture in the case; for they have never been able to discover whether this miraculous robe be of linen, woolen, or of silk; consequently it cannot be annually renewed. They cut off a piece of the robe and incarnate a thread between the skin of the patient's forehead. Hence another miracle—for a person thus cured becomes possessed of a power to postpone the hydrophobia during forty days in any of his acquaintance who, after being bitten, may not have leisure immediately to visit St. Hubert; on the condition, however, that, if they exceed the forty days ever so little, without applying for a prorogation of the term, they go mad irrevocably."

A rubric of the regulations to be observed by the patients, in order that the miracle might succeed, was printed in 1671. It contained a long catalogue of ridiculous observances and ceremonies, all of which, however, were in the same year condemned by the Sorbonne as "superstitious." That this practice continues, notwithstanding the oracular declaration of that famous theological establishment, may be inferred from the following circumstance, related by M. Stanislaus Prioux, in his "Vie de Saint Hubert:" "At the time when rabies had spread the utmost terror over the greater portion of the northern countries (about two years ago, in 1851), I knew an old man at Brussels, who, in his youth, had undergone the ordeal prescribed by St. Hubert, and who yet carried on his forehead the precious cicatrix. He assured me he had saved the lives of several people by granting them delays, while others bitten at the same time by the mad animals died."

According to Fleming, who quotes from Dudley Costello's "Tour through the Valley of the Meuse," what are called "the keys of St. Hubert" consist of an iron heated red-hot, and applied to animals bitten by mad dogs. It appears never to have borne the form of a key; for, in the town of St. Hubert itself the amulet was an iron ring inserted in the wall of one of the houses in the principal street. It no longer exists, though the belief in the potency of St. Hubert is, among the peasantry, as strong as ever. In other places, where this saint is especially venerated, the form of the exorcising instrument in no way resembles the key given by St. Peter. At Liège, it is also an iron ring, and at Utrecht an iron cross.

Among people more or less uncivilized, there prevail some curious notions with regard to hydrophobia. In the mountainous districts of Roumania, where the disease is common among wolves and dogs, the peasantry believe that birds of prey, as eagles, hawks, vultures, etc., fall dead from an aërial elevation never reached by other creatures, and are devoured by wolves; these latter thus contract rabies, transmit it to the shepherd-dogs, and they in turn communicate it to cattle and human beings simply by infecting the atmosphere with emanations from their diseased bodies. According to Burton (in his "Pilgrimage to Medinah and Mecca"), the tribes of El-Hejaz—a district of Arabia on the Red Sea—imagine that a bit of meat falls from the sky and renders mad any person eating it. They also recognize the fact of the communicability of hydrophobia from dogs. Burton says: "I was assured by respectable persons that, when a man is bitten, they shut him up, with food, in a solitary chamber for four days, and, if, at the end of that time, he still howls like a dog, they expel the ghul (devil) from him by pouring over him boiling water mixed with ashes—a certain cure, I can readily believe."

Sir Samuel Baker, while exploring the Nile tributaries of Abyssinia in 1862, found rabies quite prevalent in those regions. He relates how he was one night disturbed by a tremendous tumult, and light filling the air, and yelping of dogs. He went out and ran toward a blazing hut. "As I approached, first one, and then another dog ran screaming from the flames, until a regular pack of about twenty scorched animals appeared in quick succession, all half mad with fright and fire. I was informed that hydrophobia was very prevalent in the country, and that the certain preventive from that frightful malady was to make all the dogs of the village pass through the fire. Accordingly, an old hut had been filled with straw and fired, after which each dog was brought by its owner and thrown into the flames."

Fleming, while quartered with the British Army of Occupation at Tien-tsin, near Peking, China, in 1861, was assured on the best authority that, in some portions of the Flowery Land, it is the universal belief that a man affected with hydrophobia is enceinte, and that he is so distressed, and ultimately perishes, because he cannot be delivered!

Closely connected with outbreaks of lupine rabies, of which we have authentic accounts as early as the thirteenth century, was the remarkable superstition of the middle ages termed lycanthropia—a belief that human beings were temporarily transformed into wolves (or "were-wolves" as they were called), in order to satisfy an unnatural craving for human blood. It is well known that the wolf, when rabid, exhibits a peculiar change of habit and character. It quits its customary haunts in the forest recesses, and displays no fear or hesitancy in entering towns and villages, where it boldly encounters dogs, men, and other creatures, attacking them furiously, biting and tearing them, and then continuing its dreadful course of destruction. Brera relates that at Crema, Italy, in 1804, a mad wolf descended from the mountains and bit not only a vast number of animals, but thirteen persons besides, of whom nine perished of hydrophobia. This peculiar audacity of the rabid wolf, and the fact that a human being suffering from the disease often imagines himself personally identified in some manner with the animal that bit him, were doubtless largely concerned in the maintenance of this superstition at a period when, as Lecky observes, the air was surcharged with the supernatural. But, in fact, this fable may be traced back to mythological ages, and the existence of the "were-wolf" has been attested by Herodotus, Pliny, Strabo, Virgil, Ovid, and other ancient authors. Most of us remember the story recounted in Ovid's "Metamorphoses," of Lycaon, King of Arcadia, who entertained Jupiter with human flesh, in order to prove his omniscience, and was punished by having all of his sons, save one, and himself, transformed into wolves:

"In vain he attempted to speak; from that very instant
His jaws were bespattered with foam, and he only thirsted
For blood as he ranged among flocks and panted for slaughter."

There are probably few countries in the world where some form of this superstition has not existed, but it has raged especially in places infested with wolves—in the Jura, in Russia, in Ireland (where, according to Camden, the inhabitants of Ossory were said to become wolves every seven years), in the wooded districts of Germany, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey—regions where lupine madness has been particularly prevalent. Olaus Magnus, a writer of the middle ages, relates that in Prussia, Livonia, and Lithuania, although the inhabitants suffered much from the ravages of wolves among their cattle, they regarded such inroads as of little consequence compared with the ferocious attacks of were-wolves. He says, "On the feast of the Nativity of Christ, at night, such a multitude of wolves transformed from men gathered together in a certain spot, arranged among themselves, and then spread to. range with wondrous ferocity against human beings and those animals which are not wild." Fincelius informs us that, in 1542, there were such a great number of Were-wolves about Constantinople that a special expedition was organized against them, and the sultan, accompanied by his guard, left the city and slew one hundred and fifty. A French judge, named Boguet, about the end of the sixteenth century, devoted himself especially to lycanthropes, of whom he burnt a multitude, and afterward wrote a treatise on the subject.

Among the stupid popular ideas prevailing at the present time with regard to a mad dog is the belief that persons, who may have been bitten by the animal a long time previously and when it was healthy, are in danger of developing hydrophobia upon its subsequent appearance in the dog. This notion would seem almost too ridiculous to mention, were it not so common, that a dog who bites a person maliciously is almost invariably killed, with the sole intention of rendering the human being secure from hydrophobia. A little reflection should convince those who entertain this foolish superstition, that, by killing the animal, they are depriving themselves of the only means of certainty as to its actual condition; for, if in the first vague stages of rabies, it must exhibit pronounced symptoms within a very few days, whereas, if it remain healthy, by no possibility can the person bitten suffer other consequences than those ensuing from an ordinary wound.