Stephen F. Austin State University

Civil War vet was done in by drug-store soda (March 2017)

Civil War vet was done in by drug-store soda

By Van Craddock

This is the sad saga Charlie Butts who survived four years of Civil War battles, only to be done in by a lethal drug-store soda.

Charles Montgomery Butts, a Georgia native, worked as a night policeman in 1895 for the city of Longview. Butts had "a key and was allowed access to Sparkman's drug store and soda fountain," reported Texas newspapers on Aug. 12.

At 4:30 a.m., Butts "made a soda drink using three teaspoonfuls of tincture of aconite root and two flavors, thinking he was using three teaspoonfuls of syrup.

Butts had an agreement with the owner of the downtown drug store. In return for checking the security of the establishment, the policeman could quench his thirst by mixing sodas while making his nocturnal rounds.

Some physicians once prescribed the aconite plant's extract in liquid form as a sedative and to treat pain and circulation problems. The usual does was only "five to eight drops." That's because aconite, also known as wolfsbane, is a poisonous plant containing toxic elements. (The ancient Greeks used aconite as a poison and the Chinese used it to make poison arrows.)

Unfortunately, the aconite bottle "was found among the soda flavors … The aconite bottle's usual place was about five feet away from the syrup flavors and plainly labeled in white and black."

It didn't take long for the poison to act. Butts exited the drug store, "went to the beef market, and immediately fell in a spasm. Dr. O'Brian reached him 15 minutes later." His wife, Ida, was called. She was by his side when he died at 6 a.m. He was only 48 years old.

Longview Mayor W.T. Whitelock called Charlie Butts "one of the best policemen" the city ever had on its force. Residents were shocked by Butts's accidental death. He was a popular man around town, an active member of First Presbyterian Church. He also was the second city peace officer to stare death in the face in recent months.

In May 1894, City Marshal Matt Muckleroy had been shot down on a Longview street when Bill Dalton's gang robbed the First National Bank. Although severely wounded, Muckleroy recovered from his injuries but had to resign as marshal.

As a young man, Charlie Butts had left Georgia for East Texas, settling in northern Rusk County. In July 1861, with the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Third Texas Cavalry, which had 1,094 men from a dozen East Texas counties.

The Third Cavalry saw plenty of action, participating in battles in Missouri, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee. The Third suffered major losses at Iuka, Miss. An epidemic at Corinth, Miss., killed another 43 men.

By war's end in 1865, the Third Texas Cavalry had only 207 men left.

Butts returned to East Texas and, in October 1882, married Ida, an Alabama native. They had a daughter, Ida Virginia Butts Watson, who died in 1906. Mrs. Butts operated a private school for some four decades at her residence on South High Street. She believed in treating her pupils fairly and firmly. In a 1939 interview in the Longview Daily News, she said, "When we try to protect children we are doing wrong. We must be able to face the storms of life to develop us into what we want to be. The foundation is the most important thing that counts."

She was still teaching Sunday school and was "active in all phases of church work" at First Presbyterian when she died in November 1947 at the age of 80.

In her obituary, the Longview Daily News called Mrs. Butts a "widely known East Texas pioneer" and "one of Gregg County's most cultured women."