The Last Sermon of Ladson Butler

(Cross-posted from Livejournal)

One of the items which I saved from my father’s papers when he passed away was a letter sent to my parents in 1951 by Laurie and Olin Lee Hanlin, residing at the time in Mariposa, California.

Recorded inside, in beautiful hand calligraphy, was a piece entitled “The Last Sermon of Ladson Butler”. Long before I entered the Way of the Compassionate Samurai, this beautiful piece of writing moved me, and I treasured it for decades without knowing who this Ladson Butler was.


Now, through the miracle of the internet, in the same way I was able to track down Grace Noll Crowell’s work (you’ll read about that in a future essay or two), a few fragmentary clues arose. It appears that Butler was employed by the Yawman & Erbe Company, a machine manufacturing concern. The most intriguing tidbit, however, was an obituary published in the February, 1951 issue of “Sphinx”, the predominant magician’s trade magazine from 1902 to 1953.

On January 25th, in New York City, Ladson Butler died. He was born in 1877 in Charleston, South Carolina. Although strictly an amateur he had been very active in magic for over forty years and was a friend of many professionals. For the past several years he has been one of the members of the Board of Directors of The Sphinx.

Ladson Butler lived for many years in the city of Buffalo and during much of that time he regularly wrote a column for The Sphinx giving news of events in magic of upper New York State. He also was the organizer of The Magician’s Club of Buffalo. For the past number of years he had made New York City his home. He was a past president of the S.A.M. Parent Assembly.

Perusing other hits on Google, apparently Butler, although tagged as an “amateur” in his obituary, was quite a prolific contributor to “The Sphinx”, and developed and documented more than one magical routine, including the Whispering Queen and the Han Ping Chien coin move.

This in itself was enough of a hook to pique my interest, as I was at one time an active member of the S.A.M. (Society of American Magicians) in New York City. What moved me more, however, was re-reading his sermon after my life’s experiences of the past two and a half years, beginning with a Klemmer & Associates Champion’s Workshop in May of 2007. Ladson Butler, born in 1877, was a Compassionate Samurai in every sense of the word. I regret he passed away 5 months before I was born, but am pleased to have known him if only through his final words to his friends, here recorded for your appreciation.

The Last Sermon of Ladson Butler

Dearly beloved:

I have always hated the idea of going away without saying goodbye. And since the call of the Grim Reaper is sometimes without warning, a trip for which my bag is always packed, I am writing now, what I think I might write if the old boy with the scythe gave me time. If I do have time to think before checking out, it will be a great comfort to know that you will receive this, my last message. Incidentally, I have already revised it from time to time, and will try to keep it up to date. Some few of you will weep, I know, and bless you for whatever kindly thoughts lie behind your tears, but remember this:

I go with hands and pockets full of the only merchandise I can carry with me, the kind and loving thoughts of friends.
Be sure that I went away rich beyond the dreams of avarice (that old cliché) in all that can matter to me now.
Did we enjoy each other? Let’s think only of that.

But before I go I want to pass on to you some of the things which have so profoundly influenced my life. Take, for example, some of the ‘orphics’ of Elbert Hubbard1:
Do your work as well as you can and be kind.
That has been my religion for years.
I would rather be deceived by people than to distrust them. That gave me an altered view that has lasted for fifty years.
This one from Robert Ingersoll, often quoted by Hubbard:
The dead carry in their clenched hands only that which they have given away.
Doesn’t it give you a better idea of what things are really worthwhile? Looking back, I can’t get much pleasure from whatever I sold, but how I have enjoyed and enjoy now whatever I have been able to give without immediate or financial return.

Would like a source of spiritual strength and faith? Let me give you Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” my standby these many years. How I have been upheld and strengthened by such lines. Certainly I have no knowledge of a hereafter but what faith I have in this world or next is built on these lines.

I know I am deathless. I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by the carpenter’s compass.
I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.
My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite.
And whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand or ten million years, I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

I am not afraid. I see no evidence of a future life although old Walt Whitman’s words tempt me to believe. But if I am wrong and you my orthodox friends are right, I’ll take my chances.

O Thou didst with pitfall and gin
Beset the road I was to travel in
Thou wilt not with predestination ’round about enmesh me
And then impute my fall to sin.

With my attitude and deeds toward my fellow men, I’ll set my case with any Gods there may be. Don’t worry my friends.


Butler passed away ten days after penning this last version of his farewell message – he must surely have known that the curtain between this life and the next was getting thin.

1Elbert Hubbard was an American writer, publisher, artist, and philosopher. Some of his best thoughts are preserved in An American Bible, published in 1911 and edited by his second wife, Alice, which also contains thoughts from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Robert Ingersoll and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

4 responses to “The Last Sermon of Ladson Butler

  1. Pingback: Missing in Action | Playing in the World Game

  2. Thank you for this post. I recently cam across a painting by Ladson Butler and I was wondering who he was and if there were any additional art exhibitions of his work. Thank you for this “Last Sermon of Ladson Butler” it taught me more about the person that he was.

  3. Pingback: Gently, Gently Go. | Playing in the World Game

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