Hidden Histories

Hydrophobia and Mad Dog Bites in Philadelphia

Friday, 8/27/10
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Advertisement of Daniel Goodman
Philadelphia newspapers, particularly for the 18th and 19th centuries, are filled with accounts of individuals unfortunate enough to be bitten by rabid dogs. The dog bites led to the dreaded disease known as hydrophobia, an often fatal malady.

On May 5, 1811, Roberts Vaux wrote to Robert L. Pitfield concerning the “Mad Dog Scare in Philadelphia.” Dogs in the city were required to wear collars in order “to prevent their biting the citizens.” In the previous century, Dr. Benjamin Rush had spent a considerable amount of time corresponding with other physicians, asking for their suggested remedies to cure victims of mad dog bites. Treatments at the time included multiple bleedings and “pouring cold water on the bitten part & heads of victims.”

A curious advertisement appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s famed Pennsylvania Gazette on April 7, 1779, in which Daniel Goodman (by profession a baker) claimed that he had been able to cure the “BITE of a MAD DOG” for years, as many in Philadelphia could attest, and added that:
“My ancestors, for upwards of 150 years, did successfully practice the same cure in Old England, when the ablest of physicians there…have failed therein.”
City Directory

Beginning in 1818, the Philadelphia City Directories list a Mary Goodman (widow of Samuel Goodman) who “cures the bites of mad animals.” Goodman resided at 12 Kunckel Street or Kunkle, now Dillwyn, located in the Northern Liberties section of the city. She continued to pursue this occupation for a number of years until she was simply listed as a “gentlew,” short for “Gentlewoman,” implying a certain amount of wealth or property.

Mary Goodman died on Monday evening, October 25, 1830. Her obituary, which appeared in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, simply states that she was “age 75 years,” and that her funeral would be held at her Kunckle Street residence “to which her friends are invited.”

What exactly was the “Goodman cure” for hydrophobia?  It is never actually described; however, one can assume it might have been what is referred to as a mad stone. This stone was a curious substance that was heated, applied to the wound, and thought to absorb poison from the victim.

Letter of Dr. Samuel Davies to Dr. Benjamin Rush, for 1801
The correspondence of Dr. Benjamin Rush includes a letter from Dr. Samuel Davies of Petersburg, Virginia, who in 1801 relates to Rush an account of one such stone used in Matthews County. Davies stated that:  “…the stone was put in warm water, wiped-applied to the lower wound, which it was secured by a tight bandage for 12 hours, then taken off…on its being put into the warm water after the first application, there issued from one corner of the stone a stream of bubbles which the owner told me was the poison…” 

Such tantalizing information reveals the medical practices and beliefs of an earlier generation.