To his surprise, she knew more than he ever dreamed. As it turned out, her ancestors on the Ellis side of the family brought a madstone from England to America in the 1600s, she told him.
The Ellis family madstone - a piece of fossilized coral once thought to possess healing powers - had been passed down in her family for centuries. It eventually made its way to her dad, the Rev. Stewart Hines, who donated it to the Owensboro Museum of Science and History in 1983 for safekeeping.
Whittaker, of Ohio County, is the 13th generation with ties to the Ellis family madstone.
“I about cried the first time I held it,” she said. “To think how old it is and how my ancestors believed in it.”
According to Gibson’s research, the fossil traveled by ship from England to America with David Ellis, who is listed in the 1624 muster rolls on the ship Mary Margaret. Then, family history shows the madstone later made its way to Kentucky.
“You wonder how many times it has been used,” said Gibson, also of Ohio County. “And how many lives were saved.”
In colonial times, madstones were a home remedy used to treat bites from snakes and mad dogs. Madstones were soaked in warm cow’s milk and placed on a bite or other wounds to draw out poison. When the madstone fell off, it was believed to have done its job.
They were so valuable they were passed down in families - usually father to first son - like jewelry, land and other highly prized assets.
During Gibson’s research, he learned of the Ellis family madstone in the Rev. Joseph P. Ellis’ will from the 1800s.
The will reads: “My Grandfather Stephen Ellis gave to my father, William Ellis, about the year 1820 a madstone which has been in the family almost a century. I desire this to be kept as a family relic and memorial.”
The will asked that proceeds from the stone be divided among the pastor’s heirs. Some people charged $5 per hour for the stone’s use, Gibson said.
“One man was offered $1,000, a cow and calf for his stone but refused the sale,” he wrote in a research paper about the Ellis family madstone.
To today’s eye, the fossil doesn’t look magical or mystical.
The now gray-and-white agatized coral is an inch or two in length.
Gibson’s research indicates it is a piece of Devonian tabulate coral fossil, named after a county in southwestern England. Those fossils are an extinct form of coral known for their tubular chambers.
Gibson, who has been involved in genealogy research since the 1980s, learned about the Ellis family madstone while he was conducting research a couple of months ago for the Whitesville Historical Society’s historic church tour. The Rev. Joseph P. Ellis founded Whitesville Baptist Church.
The madstone is on loan to the Whitesville Historical Society from the Owensboro Museum of Science and History’s collection.
“We have plans to display it in our Founders’ Room,” said Judith Ralph, director of the Whitesville Historical Society.
Because Ellis preached in Whitesville and founded a church there, it seems appropriate to display the madstone in that town, Ralph said.
The public may view the relic between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec. 9-13. The madstone also will be on display during public events on Dec. 7 and Dec. 14.
During nights and weekends, the museum is open by appointment. For more information or to make an appointment, call 270-233-8035.
Information from: Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, http://www.messenger-inquirer.com
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