The Devil and Tom Walker


Washington Irving

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Before the story of Tom Walker begins, the narrator sets the scene by telling us about the pirate Captain Kidd, who long ago buried his ill-gotten treasure in a dismal swamp not far from Boston, Massachusetts. Old stories have it that the devil himself, known as Old Scratch, guards the money, as he always does with buried treasure that’s been immorally acquired. Kidd never enjoyed his wealth, however, for he was arrested in Boston soon after burying it and later executed in England for his crimes.

The story proper opens in 1727. Tom Walker is a miserly, outrageously greedy man, who lives near the swamp with his nagging, scolding, just as greedy, and abusive wife. Their house is forlorn, dilapidated, and has about it “an air of starvation,” as does their horrifically skinny horse.

One evening Tom is taking a shortcut home through the swamp when he comes to the ruins of an old Indian fort. There he decides to rest, but as he idly pokes with his staff into the earth he finds an old skull, which he kicks to shake the dirt from it. “‘Let that skull alone,’” says a voice—which belongs to none other than the devil Old Scratch, who has a pure black face—as if covered in soot—and carries around an axe.

Old Scratch explains that this swampland isn’t the property, as Tom supposes, of Deacon Peabody—a respected religious official in Boston—but rather belongs to Old Scratch himself. To prove it, he shows Tom a tree on which the Deacon’s name is carved—the tree appears to be thriving on the outside but is rotten within, just as Peabody is successful in the eyes of the world but morally rotten and doomed to damnation. All the nearby trees are similarly marked with the names of great men from the colony, including the one Tom is sitting on, which bears the name of Crowninshield, a mighty man rich from buccaneering who, the devil tells Tom, is ready to burn.

Tom and Old Scratch walk toward Tom’s house together and converse in earnest about Captain Kidd’s pirate treasure as well as a business deal, presumably that Tom sell his soul to the devil in exchange for Kidd’s treasure. Tom needs time to think about it; when he asks for proof that what the devil says is true, Old Scratch puts his finger to Tom’s forehead and leaves his signature: a black irremovable fingerprint.

At home, Tom’s wife tells her husband that Absalom Crowninshield was just announced dead, which confirms to his mind the truth of what the devil told him. Moreover, burdened by his secret of having met Old Scratch in person, Tom at last tells his wife what happened in the swamp. The prospect of Kidd’s gold excites the greed of Tom’s wife, and she urges her husband to accept the devil’s offer. Merely to spite her, however, Tom decides against it. Consequently, his wife decides to strike up a bargain with Old Scratch herself, and so she fearlessly treks to the old Indian fort one evening—only to return late that night sullen and unsuccessful. She decides that in her second attempt she needs to make the devil an offering, and so she gathers up the household’s silver into her apron without Tom’s knowledge and heads out into the swamp again. This time, she never returns (Tom misses the silver more than his wife). The most probable story as to her fate holds that when Tom went to search for her in the swamp some days later, he found only her apron bundled into which were a heart and liver, as well as evidence that his wife and Old Scratch had physically fought before the devil bested her.

Tom consoles himself for the loss of his silver with the happier fact of the loss of his wife, and even feels grateful to the devil for wrestling her down to death and damnation. He decides that now’s the time to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for Captain’s Kidd treasure, and after several failed attempts to rendezvous with Old Scratch, Tom at last meets him one night on the edge of the swamp. Slowly but surely, the two begin to haggle over the terms of their deal, the devil now adding new conditions, such as that Tom not only sell his soul but also become a slave trader. Although Tom’s conscience cannot permit him to enter this profession, he agrees eagerly to become a usurer (someone who lends out money at interest) instead in accordance with the devil’s terms, and the two strike a bargain.

A few days’ time finds Tom sitting at his desk in a counting house in Boston. He quickly develops a reputation for lending out money, which people more and more require, because the local economy under Governor Belcher’s administration has recently collapsed and many get-rich-quick schemes and wild real estate ventures have come to nothing, leaving money scarce and people desperate. Indeed, Tom’s door is “soon thronged by customers,” whom Tom exploits by charging high interest rates and also by securing debts mercilessly. He soon becomes a rich man, building an ostentatiously vast home he never finishes or even furnishes out of tightfistedness. He also buys a carriage and two horses, all of which he lets fall into poor condition.

As Tom grows older, however, he becomes anxious about having sold his soul into damnation in exchange for merely worldly success. He begins, therefore, to take measures to cheat the devil of his due: he becomes a churchgoer zealous in proportion to his sinfulness, he judges his neighbors severely, and he revives discussion of persecuting the Quakers and Anabaptists as heretics. He also carries Bibles with him at all times—one in his coat pocket, one on his counting house desk—to ward off Old Scratch. More crazily, Tom also has his horse buried fully equipped and upside-down so that on Judgment Day, when the world turns topsy-turvy, he can outrun the devil’s clutches.

One hot afternoon, Tom, wearing a silk morning gown, is in the counting house foreclosing the mortgage of the land jobber, a ruined investor in land, who begs for a few more months more to pay Tom back. The land jobber reminds Tom that he has already made much money out of him, but Tom just impatiently and impiously replies, “‘The devil take me…if I have made a farthing!’” Right on cue, the devil, with a great black horse in his company, knocks at Tom’s door; Tom answers. “‘Tom, you’re come for,’” the devil says, and though Tom attempts to escape his Bible is buried on his desk under the mortgage that he was just foreclosing on. So the devil whisks Tom onto the back of his black horse, which gallops away in the midst of a thunderstorm.

Tom Walker never returned to foreclose the land jobber’s mortgage. One story holds that the horse galloped with him back to the old Indian fortress, where the two disappeared in a bolt of lightning. After Tom’s disappearance, the Bostonians who are given the task of taking care of his abandoned estate find that there’s nothing, in fact, to care for: his bonds and mortgages are reduced to cinders; his gold and silver have turned to wood “chips and filings”; his horses have turned to skeletons; and the very next day even his vast house goes up in flames. Such is the end of Tom Walker and his ill-gotten wealth, though it is said to this day that he continues to haunt on horseback the old Indian fort in the swamp, still wearing his morning gown.