A few miles from Boston, Massachusetts, is a deep inlet that winds for miles inland and terminates in a swamp. This inlet is flanked by a beautiful grove on one side and a ridge on the other from which huge oaks grow, under one of which, as the old stories have it, Captain Kidd the pirate buried a great amount of treasure. It is also said that the devil (later referred to as Old Scratch) himself oversaw the hiding of the money and guards it even now, for the devil guards all buried treasure, especially treasure acquired immorally. But Kidd never recovered his wealth; shortly after burying it, he was seized at Boston, sent to England, and hanged there for piracy.
The narrator uses the description of the inlet and swamp to suggest the themes and establish the tone for the story: the seductions and dangers of the physical world, moral slipperiness and obscurity. The devil guards the treasure not to protect it, but so as to use it in tempting others to lives of sin. Captain Kidd is representative of all the story’s greedy characters, whose efforts to slake their greed result not in earthly pleasure but self-destruction.
The narrative proper opens in the year 1727, when earthquakes are prevalent in New England, humbling many proud sinners to their knees. Near the inlet where Kidd buried his treasure there lives, in a forlorn house with an air of starvation about it and a starving horse in the field nearby, a poor miser named Tom Walker, who is married to a an ill-tempered, fierce, loud, strong wife as miserly as himself. So miserly are the two, in fact, that they even try to cheat each other, the wife hiding valuables like eggs, the husband prying to detect her secret hoard. The two fight often, and locals suspect that Tom’s wife even physically abuses her husband, though no one ventures to interfere between the two.
The earthquakes suggest how shaky a life of worldliness really is, and we might regard the story itself as a metaphorical earthquake that brings proud Tom to his knees. The futility of greed is witnessed by the air of starvation that hangs about Tom and his wife’s estate, as well as by how greed motivates the two to quarrel with and deceive one another. Their miserliness causes misery in both this life and the next.
One day Tom Walker is taking an ill-conceived shortcut home through the nearby swamp; it is gloomy with pines and hemlocks and owls, full of pits and boggy areas which travelers sometimes plunge into, deceived into thinking them solid ground by the weeds and mosses which partly cover them. Tom navigates the treacherous swamp carefully, scared occasionally by the screaming and quacking of birds.
At length, late in the dusk of the evening, Tom arrives at a piece of firm ground in which slump the overgrown ruins of an old fort used by Indians in their war with the American colonists, a former haven for Indian women and children, the Indians’ last foothold. Here Tom decides to rest as no one else would, so troubled would they be by what they would have heard in stories from the Indian wars, about how “the savages” cast spells here and “made sacrifices to the evil spirit” (later called Old Scratch). Tom, however, is not afraid of such things.
Warfare is an even more extreme expression of human greed than usury (money-lending), and it also results, ultimately, in nothing but ruins, as the fort bears witness to. That the Indians worship Old Scratch is perhaps shocking (though also consistent with the racist perception of Native Americans at the time the story was written). At the same time, it’s worth noting that the story portrays American colonists like Deacon Peabody and Tom himself as also worshipping the devil by acting on their greed. When looked at in that way, the colonists are no more moral than the Indians, they are just better at deceiving themselves about their immorality.
Tom lies on the trunk of a fallen hemlock for some time, listening to the cry of the tree toad, delving with his walking staff into a mound of rich black earth. As he turns up the soil, however, he strikes something hard with his staff: it turns out to be a human skull, with a rusty Indian axe buried deep in the bone. Tom gives the skull a kick to shake the dirt from it, when a gruff voice commands him, “‘Let that skull alone!’”
The skull is a “memento mori”, a reminder common in didactic stories of death’s imminence. Though not frightened now, Tom later goes a little mad with the idea of death, sinful as he is. In a metaphorical sense, all that comes out of the swamp, even Kidd’s gold, bears death with it.
Tom lifts his eyes and beholds a great black man (later identified as Old Scratch), seated opposite of him on a stump; Tom is “exceedingly surprised” to find himself in this stranger’s company, and perplexed because the man, though black, appears to be neither African nor Native American. Rather, the man looks as though he’s covered with soot, like someone who works among fire and forge; he has a shock of coarse black hair, glaring red eyes, and on his shoulder he bears an axe.
Old Scratch, the very embodiment of sin, surprises Tom now, even though Tom has lived in sin all his life. He will later surprise Tom again when he knocks on Tom’s counting house door at the end of the story to send Tom to his doom. The devil is imagined here to be a woodsman, who cuts down living sinners like trees to burn them in the forge and fire of hell.
The black man (later identified as Old Scratch) demands to know what Tom is doing on his grounds; Tom retorts that the swamp belongs not to the black man but to Deacon Peabody. The black man says that the Deacon will be damned if he doesn’t look more to his own sins and less to his neighbor’s, and he then instructs Tom to see just how the Deacon is faring, pointing to a great tree which is flourishing on the outside but rotten on the inside. On the tree is carved the Deacon’s name. Tom looks around and sees that on most of the trees about are carved the names of the great men of the colony. Indeed, the fallen Hemlock that Tom is sitting on bears the name of Crowninshield; Tom recollects a man of that name (later identified as Absalom), mighty and vulgarly rich from buccaneering, as rumor has it. “‘He’s just ready for the burning,’” says the black man triumphantly
The story holds that ownership is an illusion: the only entity that has possession of the physical world is the devil, who uses it to tempt human beings to their damnation. The swamp both reveals the moral corruption of human society’s leaders—thriving on the outside but rotten on the inside—and also foreshadows who will soon populate hell. Significantly, the names on the doomed trees refer mostly if not entirely to the great men of the colony, implying that to become rich and powerful one must also morally contaminate oneself. Crowninshield’s introduction here is an important plot point: Tom later knows he can trust Old Scratch because Absalom dies.
Tom asks the black man what right he has to burn Deacon Peabody’s timber. “‘Prior claim,’” the black man responds. He tells Tom that he is known as the Wild Huntsman in some countries, the Black Miner in others, and as the Black Woodsman in this country. It is to him that the Indians made their sacrifices of white men here, and since the whites killed all of the Indians, the Black Woodsman amuses himself now by overseeing the religious persecution in New England of Quakers and Anabaptists; he is the patron of slave dealers and the master of the Salem witches. Tom recognizes the black man as the one commonly called Old Scratch, that is, the devil himself. One would think that Tom would be terrified to meet this personage, but he is so hard-minded and has lived so long with an ill-tempered wife that he does “not even fear the devil.”
Tom is so spiritually blind that he persists in thinking about the swamp in terms of property rights, even after he sees the men’s names carved into trees. It is a racial stereotype to cast the Indians as sacrificing whites to the devil, but the story also reminds us that the whites willingly sacrifice themselves to Old Scratch in selling their souls to him. The devil amuses himself by creating absurd divisions between Christians, and also by promoting slavery, the most evil of professions based on greed. It is darkly humorous that Tom is not afraid of the devil because his wife is so ferocious; but Tom should be afraid, is not only because spiritually blind.
Tom and Old Scratch have a long and serious conversation together as the former makes his way home through the swamp. Old Scratch tells Tom of Kidd’s buried treasure, and offers to place it within Tom’s reach “on certain conditions,” which, though we might easily surmise them, remain unknown. These conditions must have been very demanding, however, for Tom needs time to think about them. At the edge of the swamp, Tom asks how can he know that the devil is telling him the truth. “‘This is my signature,’” the devil says, pressing his finger on Tom’s forehead before turning off among the thickets of the swamp and disappearing into the earth.
The narrator never says explicitly that to get Kidd’s treasure Tom needs to sell his soul; it’s as if the narrator is so horrified by the idea that he can’t bring himself to put it into words. The devil’s mark on Tom’s forehead is perhaps an allusion to the biblical story of Cain and his brother Abel, in which Cain kills Abel, and is punished by God with a permanent mark and exile. Ironically, those worthy of the devil’s mark in Irving’s story are not outcasts from, but leaders of, society, suggesting spiritual backwardness in society at large.
Tom arrives home to find a black, irremovable fingerprint burnt into his forehead. His wife’s first news for him is that the rich buccaneer Absalom Crowninshield has suddenly died: “‘a great man had fallen in Israel,’” as the newspapers announced it. This news reminds Tom of the hemlock he had been sitting on in the swamp earlier that evening with Crowninshield’s name carved into it, and he becomes convinced that all Old Scratch had told him is true.
The black fingerprint and the news of Absalom Crowninshield’s death confirm Old Scratch’s story to Tom; the devil doesn’t need to lie to tempt. Ironically, the actually sinful Absalom is venerated in death as something of a pious man. Over and over the story shows how society often confuses feigned religious zeal with true moral uprightness.
Tom shares with his wife all that transpired in the swamp, and mention of Kidd’s hidden gold awakens the miserly woman’s greed. She urges her husband to accept Old Scratch’s conditions for securing the treasure. As much as Tom is prepared to sell his soul to the devil, though, he refuses his wife “out of the mere spirit of contradiction.” The two subsequently have many bitter quarrels, and Tom becomes more and more resolved not to be damned, the better to spite his wife. For her part, Tom’s wife decides to secure the bargain for her own account and, if successful, to keep all the gain for herself.
It is darkly humorous that Tom is eager to sell his soul to the devil, but perhaps even more humorous that the reason he at first refuses to do so is just to spite his wife. Meanwhile, his wife is perfectly happy to sacrifice her husband’s immortal soul for money. Greed has made these two characters deeply perverse in their motives.
At the close of one’s summer day, then, Tom’s wife fearlessly treks to the ruined Indian fort herself. She is gone many hours, and returns home quiet and sullen. She tells Tom that she met Old Scratch hewing at the root of a tall tree in the swamp, but he would not come to terms with her. She is resolved to make him another offering, however. So, the next evening, her apron loaded with the silver teapot and spoons and the like, Tom’s wife goes back into the swamp. Midnight comes, then morning; two days pass, Tom uneasy now both for his wife’s sake and the sake of their silver. But his wife is never heard of again.
Tom and his wife are often described as being fearless when confronted with the devil—far from being heroic, this is evidence of their spiritual blindness, of how little they value even their own lives. Just as the Indians sacrifice white people to Old Scratch, so does Tom’s wife sacrifice what’s of highest value to her, the household’s silver. As a darkly comic example of Tom’s greed and the way that greed has destroyed his human relationships, Tom misses the silver more than the woman he should care for.
Nobody knows what fate actually befell Tom’s wife, but many theories circulate: some say she got lost in the mazy swamp and fell into a pit; others say that she ran off with the household’s silver to some other province; still others say that the devil, Old Scratch himself, had tricked her into a boggy area on top of which her hat was found lying. Indeed, it is said that late on the evening of the wife’s disappearance, a great black man was seen coming out of the swamp triumphantly carrying a bundle tied in an apron.
The narrator presents many accounts of Tom’s wife’s fate, some of which don’t have a moral lesson associated with them, some of which do. Getting lost is a merely physical fate, separate from the afterlife; running off with the silver is in line with the wife’s character, but suggests no consequences for sin. The final version, getting tricked by the devil, is the most moralistic of the three.
The most current and probable story, however, holds that Tom went out searching for his wife in the swamp, when owls and bats were on the wing. Soon enough his attention was drawn by the clamor of crows hovering around a cypress, in whose branches he found a bundle tied in an apron. He rejoiced to have found his silver, but upon recovering the bundle he found that it contained only a heart and a liver, the remains of Tom’s wife. The narrator says that, though “a female scold” is a match for Old Scratch, the devil himself, here it seems she was bested. Around the cypress, it is said, Tom found cloven footprints and handfuls of coarse black hair. “‘Old Scratch must have had a tough time of it,’” Tom says to himself.
The narrator perhaps prefers this fourth version of the fate of Tom’s wife because it not only didactically suggests that in the divine scheme of things the punishment for greed is damnation, but also because it does so with a bit of dark horror (the organs in the bundle) and humor (the fight between Tom’s shrewish wife and the devil and Tom’s pity for the devil). This suggests that the narrator (and Irving, the author) thinks that literature should both morally instruct and entertain.
Tom consoles himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife, feeling even grateful to Old Scratch. He consequently tries to meet up with the devil again, but without success for a time; the devil knows how to play his cards, after all. At length, however, when Tom is most desperate for Kidd’s treasure, willing to agree to anything, he meets the Black Woodsman again one night, at the edge of the swamp.
Now that Tom no longer needs to fear pleasing his wife by selling his soul, nothing is stopping him from striking a bargain with Old Scratch. However, the cunning devil makes Tom wait so that when it comes time to bargain Tom will be more desperate and therefore more willing to accept bad terms.
At first, Old Scratch pretends to be indifferent to Tom’s offers for the buried treasure, but soon enough the two begin haggling about the conditions on which Tom is to have it. There is one condition, of course, that goes without saying, but the devil also insists that Tom spend the money in the devil’s service, namely, by fitting out a slave ship. But this Tom adamantly refuses.
Tom, who seems to have no conscience and eagerly chases his own damnation, draws the line at trading in slaves, which suggests just how morally outrageous and contemptible that profession is. Even Tom won’t do it! This is the story’s starkest moral accusation, and Tom’s single act of grace.
So instead Old Scratch proposes that Tom Walker become a usurer (someone who lends money and charges interest, especially at a high rate), which the miserly Tom finds just to his taste. He agrees to open a broker’s shop in Boston. When the devil proposes that Tom charges interest at a rate of two percent, Tom counters that he’ll charge at a rate of four percent. He also eagerly promises to drive merchants not only bankrupt but to the devil himself. The two seal the deal.
Why didn’t the devil strike up a deal with Tom’s wife? It seems that he wants to use Kidd’s treasure to tempt and damn as many people as possible, and as a usurer Tom can help him to do that, whereas as a woman Tom’s wife couldn’t hold such a socially influential and pernicious position. Tom’s greed naturally puts him at the devil’s service.
A few days pass. Tom is sitting in his counting shop in Boston, with a reputation for lending money already. This is during a time of scarcity, a time of paper credit: under Governor Belcher, the country had recently been deluged with government bills, people were receiving parcels of land to develop by the Land Bank, investors were betting wildly on this and that, settlers had gone mad with schemes to build cities in the wilderness. Everybody had been dreaming of making fortunes out of thin air. But by now the dreams have collapsed, and everybody is going through hard times.
Tom’s greed is not an isolated phenomenon: it seems that many in New England are trying to get rich quick, no matter the moral cost. The economic depression works in Tom’s favor because it makes people more desperate to borrow money from Tom, even at bad terms, just as Tom became more and more desperate to strike up a deal with the devil when Old Scratch made him wait to do so. In exploiting the vulnerable, Tom is acting all the more immorally.
As such, people are lining up to get a loan from Tom Walker, who acts like “a friend in need” indeed by lending at high interest rates and squeezing his debtors dry. So it is that he becomes rich and powerful, with a vast house, unfinished only because of Tom’s tightfistedness. He vainly sets up a carriage, only to almost starve to death the two horses that draw it.
It is ironic and disturbing that society rewards acts of predation like Tom’s with wealth and social respectability. However, Tom doesn’t have any higher a quality of life than he did as a poorer man: his house, though bigger, is just as forlorn as it was, and he persists in starving his horses.
The older Tom grows, however, the more thoughtful he becomes, especially about the afterlife. He at last regrets selling his soul to Old Scratch, and sets about trying to cheat the devil of his due by becoming a “violent” churchgoer, praying loud on Sundays in proportion to how much he had sinned during the week prior. Tom becomes as religiously as he is fiscally rigid, supervising and judging his neighbors for their trespasses, thinking each of their sins credit in his own bid for heaven. He even talks about renewing the persecution of the Quakers and Anabaptists. Still Tom dreads damnation, and for that reason keeps a Bible in his coat pocket and a Bible on his desk from which he reads when he’s not driving “some usurious bargain.”
It is only in old age, when death is near, that Tom begins to fear the devil, as he should have all along. Instead of becoming genuinely contrite for his sins, however, Tom just makes a hypocritical show of being religious, and in his zeal even furthers his service to the devil by talking about persecuting the Quakers and Anabaptists, which he must have forgotten is one of Old Scratch’s principal amusements. Tom’s hypocrisy is crystallized in his reading the Bible one minute, only to turn around and usuriously exploit his neighbors the next.
Some people think Tom Walker went a little crazy in his old age. After all, he did have his horse newly equipped and buried feet-up when it died, thinking that during the apocalypse the world would turn upside down and he’d need to ride at full speed to escape Old Scratch’s clutches. However, this is probably an old wives’ fable, and burying the horse so would be superfluous anyway if we believe “the authentic old legend” which closes Tom’s story.
If we take seriously the fable about Tom burying his horses, it reveals how crazy with death Tom became, and also how absurdly misguided he was in trying to preserve his immortal soul. What Tom needed to do was repent, do good works, become genuine in his faith in God. As in the past, so now: Tom’s spiritual blindness never clears.
That legend goes like this. One hot afternoon in summer, Tom is sitting up in his counting house, wearing his morning gown; he is foreclosing a mortgage and thereby completing the ruin of an unlucky land speculator, or land jobber, “for whom he had professed the greatest friendship.” The land jobber is present, having just begged Tom to give him a few more months to pay, but Tom refused him even another day. The land jobber says that his family will be ruined, but Tom retorts that charity begins at home, that he must take care of himself during these hard times.
It becomes apparent here that one of Tom’s means of driving people into inescapable debt is by feigning to have their best interests at heart. But Tom is no friend: he is only interested in his material interests, in maximizing his profits, even though doing so doesn’t even improve his quality of life. Of course, the land jobber is complicit in his own difficulties: he also is too focused on getting and spending, the story suggests.
The land jobber then reminds Tom that he has already made a great deal of money in interest off of him. “‘The devil take me…if I have made a farthing!’” Tom cries. Just then there are three knocks at the door: it is a black man, presumably Old Scratch himself, holding a black horse. “‘Tom, you’re come for,’” the black man says gruffly. Tom shrinks back, but he has forgotten his one Bible in his coat pocket, and the other is under the mortgage he was about to foreclose. The black man whisks Tom up like a child astride the black horse, which gallops away with him in the midst of a thunderstorm; the clerks in the counting house stare as away their employer goes. When they turn back around, the black man is gone.
It is a fitting irony that Tom himself invites the devil to come and take him, which of course Old Scratch does promptly on cue. Tom has been asking for damnation all along, after all. For religious hypocrites like Tom, the Bible offers no protection when the ultimate crisis knocks at the door, an idea captured succinctly in the image of the Bible buried under the mortgage upon which Tom is about to foreclose, which reveals where Tom’s priorities really lie.
Tom Walker never returns to foreclose the mortgage. A man who lives on the boarder of the swamp reports that during the thunderstorm he heard the clattering of hoofs and saw from his window Tom’s figure on the back of a black horse, which was galloping madly toward the old Indian fort. Shortly thereafter, the man says, a thunderbolt fell in that direction which seemed to set the whole forest ablaze. After Tom’s disappearance, the people of Boston just shrug their shoulders, accustomed to witches and goblins and devilry even since the first settlement of the colony.
The old Indian fort, where Tom first met Old Scratch, also seems to be the gate which admits him to his damnation, suggesting that sin always comes full circle to its punishment. The story makes a point of adopting this moral by including the man’s report, even though it is just hearsay. In yet another darkly humorous touch, the Bostonians aren’t much moved by Tom’s spectacular plight, showing how even in this Puritan town of Boston there have always been many who made deals with the devil.
Trustees are appointed to administer to Tom’s estate, but all his bonds and mortgages are found reduced to cinders, and all his gold and silver to chips and shavings. In his stable are found not two half-starved horses but skeletons. The very next day, Tom’s house catches fire and burns to the ground.
In life Tom’s greed doesn’t allow him to enjoy his riches, making them worthless. After his death all his property is revealed in all its worthlessness: nothing but chips and shavings. The burning of Tom’s house, which he got from his sinful earnings, mirrors Tom’s own fate of burning in the fires of hell.
Such is the end of Tom Walker and his immorally acquired wealth. All money brokers, the narrator says, should heed this true story. To this day one can see the hole under the oaks which Tom dug in recovering Kidd’s treasure, and even now the swamp and old Indian fort are haunted on stormy nights by a gowned figure on horseback, doubtless “the troubled spirit of the usurer.” In fact, the story is now a proverb, and the origin of a popular saying in New England, of “The Devil and Tom Walker.”
The narrator closes the story by insisting on the value of its moral instruction--a value worth more, he might claim, than all the gold a usurer could desire. However, the story also closes with a humorous image, of Tom haunting the swamp not with tragic dignity or even scary anger, but rather in his morning gown. The detail of the still-existing holes under the trunks gives the story a sense of being historical, of being true. That the story is now a proverb again attests to its moral instructions, though unlike the dour Puritans of New England, the narrator preaches his moral instruction with some humanity and good cheer.