Hidden History: Stilled by strychnine, stone girl watches over Overbrook Cemetery

By Wendi Bevitt

Standing silent watch, a young girl fixes her gaze over the Overbrook Cemetery. The girl of stone is Vivian Butel, the daughter of Arthur “A.J.” and Maud (Phillips) Butel. Vivian was born in 1914 near Overbrook. Arthur and Maude had two other children: Gerald, born 1909, and Arden, born 1920. People come and leave their tokens in memoriam to this young girl, some not knowing the tragic story of her death.

Vivian’s father, Arthur, was a dentist. At the time of her birth only around 60 percent of dentists were dental school graduates of the country’s approximately 57 dental schools. Many who chose this profession were apprenticed because of the cost of going away to a trade school. Arthur practiced dentistry in Eudora, Topeka, and Kansas City.

Dentistry at this time was rough to say the least. The first dental drills had been invented in the 1870s, but high speed drills were not available until the 1950s. The first X-ray machine used on a living person within the United States was in 1896, performed by Dr. Edmund Kells. The danger of using X-rays at this early time is seen with Dr. Kells himself; he developed lesions and cancer from exposure to the radiation.

When World War I affected the homefront, many dentists were called on to assist the effort. A.J. Butel joined the Preparedness League of American Dentists, which attended to those enlisted as soldiers prior to the soldiers’ deployment overseas. These dentists filled cavities and extracted diseased teeth so that the limited dentists available on the war front would be able to focus on emergency medicine. This was an important cause since many who could afford dental care were only those among the upper classes.

By 1915, Arthur moved his family back to the Overbrook area, where he continued his dental practice. In November 1918, while Arthur was away in Colorado, 4-year-old Vivian came upon a box of pills and ate some. The pills contained strychnine. Strychnine, while a poison and generally discouraged in the medical community, was at one time prescribed in low doses as a remedy for heart and respiratory ailments or as a stimulant. Within four hours the child had died.

The family memorialized Vivian with a custom-made stone that depicts her standing with one hand on a tree stump and another on a gate made of tree branches. At her feet lies a single rose bud. Tree stumps used in funerary imagery were made to symbolize the individual being broken off from the family. The gate typically represents the gateway to Heaven. The broken bud at her feet shows that her death was a premature one.

Arthur gave up his dental practice and went on to become a dealer in used cars in Kansas City. He met his own untimely death at the age of 34 in 1921. Maude moved to El Dorado with her son Arden, who had a dental practice in Wichita. Gerald, the oldest became a pharmacist in Topeka.

And now, Vivian stands overlooking the town where she last resided on this earth. She has kept her watch over the Overbrook Cemetery for nearly a century and will silently continue for another.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


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