THE DEVIL AND TOM WALKER
A few miles from Boston, in Massachusetts, there is a deep inlet
winding several miles into the interior of the country from Charles
Bay, and terminating in a thickly wooded swamp or morass. On one side
of this inlet is a beautiful dark grove; on the opposite side the land
rises abruptly from the water's edge into a high ridge, on which grow
a few scattered oaks of great age and immense size. Under one of these
gigantic trees, according to old stories, there was a great amount of
treasure buried by Kidd the pirate. The inlet allowed a facility to
bring the money in a boat secretly, and at night, to the very foot of
the hill; the elevation of the place permitted a good lookout to be
kept that no one was at hand; while the remarkable trees formed good
landmarks by which the place might easily be found again. The old
stories add, moreover, that the devil presided at the hiding of the
money, and took it under his guardianship; but this, it is well known,
he always does with buried treasure, particularly when it has been
ill-gotten. Be that as it may, Kidd never returned to recover his
wealth; being shortly after seized at Boston, sent out to England, and
there hanged for a pirate.
About the year 1727, just at the time that earthquakes were prevalent
in New England, and shook many tall sinners down upon their knees,
there lived near this place a meagre, miserly fellow, of the name of
Tom Walker. He had a wife as miserly as himself; they were so miserly
that they even conspired to cheat each other. Whatever the woman could
lay hands on she hid away; a hen could not cackle but she was on the
alert to secure the new-laid egg. Her husband was continually prying
about to detect her secret hoards, and many and fierce were the
conflicts that took place about what ought to have been common
property. They lived in a forlorn-looking house that stood alone and
had an air of starvation. A few straggling savin-trees, emblems of
sterility, grew near it; no smoke ever curled from its chimney; no
traveller stopped at its door. A miserable horse, whose ribs were as
articulate as the bars of a gridiron, stalked about a field, where
a thin carpet of moss, scarcely covering the ragged beds of
pudding-stone, tantalized and balked his hunger; and sometimes he
would lean his head over the fence, look piteously at the passer-by,
and seem to petition deliverance from this land of famine.
The house and its inmates had altogether a bad name. Tom's wife was a
tall termagant, fierce of temper, loud of tongue, and strong of arm.
Her voice was often heard in wordy warfare with her husband; and his
face sometimes showed signs that their conflicts were not confined to
words. No one ventured, however, to interfere between them. The
lonely wayfarer shrank within himself at the horrid clamor and
clapper-clawing; eyed the den of discord askance; and hurried on his
way, rejoicing, if a bachelor, in his celibacy.
One day that Tom Walker had been to a distant part of the
neighborhood, he took what he considered a short-cut homeward, through
the swamp. Like most short-cuts, it was an ill-chosen route. The swamp
was thickly grown with great, gloomy pines and hemlocks, some of them
ninety feet high, which made it dark at noonday and a retreat for
all the owls of the neighborhood. It was full of pits and quagmires,
partly covered with weeds and mosses, where the green surface often
betrayed the traveller into a gulf of black, smothering mud; there
were also dark and stagnant pools, the abodes of the tadpole, the
bull-frog, and the water-snake, where the trunks of pines and hemlocks
lay half-drowned, half-rotting, looking like alligators sleeping in
Tom had long been picking his way cautiously through this treacherous
forest, stepping from tuft to tuft of rushes and roots, which afforded
precarious footholds among deep sloughs, or pacing carefully, like a
cat, along the prostrate trunks of trees, startled now and then by
the sudden screaming of the bittern, or the quacking of a wild duck,
rising on the wing from some solitary pool. At length he arrived at a
firm piece of ground, which ran like a peninsula into the deep bosom
of the swamp. It had been one of the strongholds of the Indians during
their wars with the first colonists. Here they had thrown up a kind of
fort, which they had looked upon as almost impregnable, and had used
as a place of refuge for their squaws and children. Nothing remained
of the old Indian fort but a few embankments, gradually sinking to the
level of the surrounding earth, and already overgrown in part by oaks
and other forest trees, the foliage of which formed a contrast to the
dark pines and hemlocks of the swamps.
It was late in the dusk of evening when Tom Walker reached the old
fort, and he paused there awhile to rest himself. Any one but he would
have felt unwilling to linger in this lonely, melancholy place, for
the common people had a bad opinion of it, from the stories handed
down from the times of the Indian wars, when it was asserted that the
savages held incantations here and made sacrifices to the Evil Spirit.
Tom Walker, however, was not a man to be troubled with any fears of
the kind. He reposed himself for some time on the trunk of a fallen
hemlock, listening to the boding cry of the tree-toad, and delving
with his walking-staff into a mound of black mould at his feet. As he
turned up the soil unconsciously, his staff struck against something
hard. He raked it out of the vegetable mould, and lo! a cloven skull,
with an Indian tomahawk buried deep in it, lay before him. The rust on
the weapon showed the time that had elapsed since this death-blow had
been given. It was a dreary memento of the fierce struggle that had
taken place in this last foothold of the Indian warriors.
"Humph!" said Tom Walker, as he gave it a kick to shake the dirt from
"Let that skull alone!" said a gruff voice. Tom lifted up his eyes and
beheld a great black man seated directly opposite him, on the stump of
a tree. He was exceedingly surprised, having neither heard nor seen
any one approach; and he was still more perplexed on observing, as
well as the gathering gloom would permit, that the stranger was
neither negro nor Indian. It is true he was dressed in a rude Indian
garb, and had a red belt or sash swathed round his body; but his
face was neither black nor copper-color, but swarthy and dingy, and
begrimed with soot, as if he had been accustomed to toil among fires
and forges. He had a shock of coarse black hair, that stood out from
his head in all directions, and bore an axe on his shoulder.
He scowled for a moment at Tom with a pair of great red eyes.
"What are you doing on my grounds?" said the black man, with a hoarse,
"Your grounds!" said Tom, with a sneer; "no more your grounds than
mine; they belong to Deacon Peabody."
"Deacon Peabody be damned," said the stranger, "as I flatter myself he
will be, if he does not look more to his own sins and less to those of
his neighbors. Look yonder, and see how Deacon Peabody is faring."
Tom looked in the direction that the stranger pointed, and beheld one
of the great trees, fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the
core, and saw that it had been nearly hewn through, so that the first
high wind was likely to blow it down. On the bark of the tree was
scored the name of Deacon Peabody, an eminent man who had waxed
wealthy by driving shrewd bargains with the Indians. He now looked
around, and found most of the tall trees marked with the name of some
great man of the colony, and all more or less scored by the axe. The
one on which he had been seated, and which had evidently just been
hewn down, bore the name of Crowninshield; and he recollected a mighty
rich man of that name, who made a vulgar display of wealth, which it
was whispered he had acquired by buccaneering.
"He's just ready for burning!" said the black man, with a growl of
triumph. "You see I am likely to have a good stock of firewood for
"But what right have you," said Tom, "to cut down Deacon Peabody's
"The right of a prior claim," said the other. "This woodland belonged
to me long before one of your white-faced race put foot upon the
"And, pray, who are you, if I may be so bold?" said Tom.
"Oh, I go by various names. I am the wild huntsman in some countries;
the black miner in others. In this neighborhood I am known by the name
of the black woodsman. I am he to whom the red men consecrated this
spot, and in honor of whom they now and then roasted a white man,
by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice. Since the red men have been
exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the
persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists; I am the great patron and
prompter of slave-dealers and the grand-master of the Salem witches."
"The upshot of all which is, that, if I mistake not," said Tom,
sturdily, "you are he commonly called Old Scratch."
"The same, at your service!" replied the black man, with a half-civil
Such was the opening of this interview, according to the old story;
though it has almost too familiar an air to be credited. One would
think that to meet with such a singular personage in this wild, lonely
place would have shaken any man's nerves; but Tom was a hard-minded
fellow, not easily daunted, and he had lived so long with a termagant
wife that he did not even fear the devil.
It is said that after this commencement they had a long and earnest
conversation together, as Tom returned homeward. The black man told
him of great sums of money buried by Kidd the pirate under the
oak-trees on the high ridge, not far from the morass. All these were
under his command, and protected by his power, so that none could find
them but such as propitiated his favor. These he offered to place
within Tom Walker's reach, having conceived an especial kindness for
him; but they were to be had only on certain conditions. What these
conditions were may be easily surmised, though Tom never disclosed
them publicly. They must have been very hard, for he required time to
think of them, and he was not a man to stick at trifles when money was
in view. When they had reached the edge of the swamp, the stranger
paused. "What proof have I that all you have been telling me is true?"
said Tom. "There's my signature," said the black man, pressing his
finger on Tom's forehead. So saying, he turned off among the thickets
of the swamp, and seemed, as Tom said, to go down, down, down, into
the earth, until nothing but his head and shoulders could be seen, and
so on, until he totally disappeared.
When Tom reached home he found the black print of a finger burned, as
it were, into his forehead, which nothing could obliterate.
The first news his wife had to tell him was the sudden death of
Absalom Crowninshield, the rich buccaneer. It was announced in the
papers, with the usual flourish, that "A great man had fallen in
Tom recollected the tree which his black friend had just hewn down,
and which was ready for burning. "Let the freebooter roast," said Tom;
"who cares!" He now felt convinced that all he had heard and seen was
He was not prone to let his wife into his confidence; but as this was
an uneasy secret, he willingly shared it with her. All her avarice was
awakened at the mention of hidden gold, and she urged her husband to
comply with the black man's terms, and secure what would make them
wealthy for life. However Tom might have felt disposed to sell himself
to the devil, he was determined not to do so to oblige his wife; so
he flatly refused, out of the mere spirit of contradiction. Many and
bitter were the quarrels they had on the subject; but the more she
talked, the more resolute was Tom not to be damned to please her.
At length she determined to drive the bargain on her own account, and,
if she succeeded, to keep all the gain to herself. Being of the same
fearless temper as her husband, she set off for the old Indian fort
toward the close of a summer's day. She was many hours absent. When
she came back, she was reserved and sullen in her replies. She spoke
something of a black man, whom she had met about twilight hewing at
the root of a tall tree. He was sulky, however, and would not come to
terms; she was to go again with a propitiatory offering, but what it
was she forbore to say.
The next evening she set off again for the swamp, with her apron
heavily laden. Tom waited and waited for her, but in vain; midnight
came, but she did not make her appearance; morning, noon, night
returned, but still she did not come. Tom now grew uneasy for her
safety, especially as he found she had carried off in her apron the
silver tea-pot and spoons, and every portable article of value.
Another night elapsed, another morning came; but no wife. In a word,
she was never heard of more.
What was her real fate nobody knows, in consequence of so many
pretending to know. It is one of those facts which have become
confounded by a variety of historians. Some asserted that she lost her
way among the tangled mazes of the swamp, and sank into some pit or
slough; others, more uncharitable, hinted that she had eloped with the
household booty, and made off to some other province; while others
surmised that the tempter had decoyed her into a dismal quagmire, on
the top of which her hat was found lying. In confirmation of this, it
was said a great black man, with an axe on his shoulder, was seen late
that very evening coming out of the swamp, carrying a bundle tied in a
check apron, with an air of surly triumph.
The most current and probable story, however, observes that Tom Walker
grew so anxious about the fate of his wife and his property that he
set out at length to seek them both at the Indian fort. During a long
summer's afternoon he searched about the gloomy place, but no wife was
to be seen. He called her name repeatedly, but she was nowhere to be
heard. The bittern alone responded to his voice, as he flew screaming
by; or the bull-frog croaked dolefully from a neighboring pool. At
length, it is said, just in the brown hour of twilight, when the owls
began to hoot and the bats to flit about, his attention was attracted
by the clamor of carrion crows hovering about a cypress-tree. He
looked up and beheld a bundle tied in a check apron and hanging in
the branches of the tree, with a great vulture perched hard by, as
if keeping watch upon it. He leaped with joy, for he recognized his
wife's apron, and supposed it to contain the household valuables.
"Let us get hold of the property," said he, consolingly, to himself,
"and we will endeavor to do without the woman."
As he scrambled up the tree, the vulture spread its wide wings and
sailed off, screaming, into the deep shadows of the forest. Tom seized
the checked apron, but, woful sight! found nothing but a heart and
liver tied up in it!
Such, according to this most authentic old story, was all that was to
be found of Tom's wife. She had probably attempted to deal with the
black man as she had been accustomed to deal with her husband; but
though a female scold is generally considered a match for the devil,
yet in this instance she appears to have had the worst of it. She must
have died game, however; for it is said Tom noticed many prints of
cloven feet deeply stamped about the tree, and found handfuls of hair,
that looked as if they had been plucked from the coarse black shock of
the woodsman. Tom knew his wife's prowess by experience. He shrugged
his shoulders as he looked at the signs of fierce clapper-clawing.
"Egad," said he to himself, "Old Scratch must have had a tough time of
Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property, with the loss of
his wife, for he was a man of fortitude. He even felt something like
gratitude toward the black woodsman, who, he considered, had done him
a kindness. He sought, therefore, to cultivate a further acquaintance
with him, but for some time without success; the old black-legs played
shy, for, whatever people may think, he is not always to be had for
the calling; he knows how to play his cards when pretty sure of his
At length, it is said, when delay had whetted Tom's eagerness to the
quick and prepared him to agree to anything rather than not gain the
promised treasure, he met the black man one evening in his usual
woodsman's dress, with his axe on his shoulder, sauntering along the
swamp and humming a tune. He affected to receive Tom's advances with
great indifference, made brief replies, and went on humming his tune.
By degrees, however, Tom brought him to business, and they began to
haggle about the terms on which the former was to have the pirate's
treasure. There was one condition which need not be mentioned, being
generally understood in all cases where the devil grants favors; but
there were others about which, though of less importance, he was
inflexibly obstinate. He insisted that the money found through his
means should be employed in his service. He proposed, therefore, that
Tom should employ it in the black traffic; that is to say, that he
should fit out a slave-ship. This, however, Tom resolutely refused;
he was bad enough in all conscience, but the devil himself could not
tempt him to turn slave-trader.
Finding Tom so squeamish on this point, he did not insist upon it,
but proposed, instead, that he should turn usurer; the devil being
extremely anxious for the increase of usurers, looking upon them as
his peculiar people.
To this no objections were made, for it was just to Tom's taste.
"You shall open a broker's shop in Boston next month," said the black
"I'll do it to-morrow, if you wish," said Tom Walker.
"You shall lend money at two per cent. a month."
"Egad, I'll charge four!" replied Tom Walker.
"You shall extort bonds, foreclose mortgages, drive the merchants to
"I'll drive them to the devil," cried Tom Walker.
"You are the usurer for my money!" said black-legs with delight.
"When will you want the rhino?"
"This very night."
"Done!" said the devil.
"Done!" said Tom Walker. So they shook hands and struck a bargain.
A few days' time saw Tom Walker seated behind his desk in a
counting-house in Boston.
His reputation for a ready-moneyed man, who would lend money out for a
good consideration, soon spread abroad. Everybody remembers the time
of Governor Belcher, when money was particularly scarce. It was a time
of paper credit. The country had been deluged with government bills;
the famous Land Bank had been established; there had been a rage for
speculating; the people had run mad with schemes for new settlements,
for building cities in the wilderness; land-jobbers went about with
maps of grants and townships and Eldorados, lying nobody knew where,
but which everybody was ready to purchase. In a word, the great
speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country
had raged to an alarming degree, and everybody was dreaming of making
sudden fortunes from nothing. As usual, the fever had subsided, the
dream had gone off, and the imaginary fortunes with it; the patients
were left in doleful plight, and the whole country resounded with the
consequent cry of "hard times."
At this propitious time of public distress did Tom Walker set up as
usurer in Boston. His door was soon thronged by customers. The needy
and adventurous, the gambling speculator, the dreaming land-jobber,
the thriftless tradesman, the merchant with cracked credit—in short,
everyone driven to raise money by desperate means and desperate
sacrifices hurried to Tom Walker.
Thus Tom was the universal friend to the needy, and acted like "a
friend in need"; that is to say, he always exacted good pay and
security. In proportion to the distress of the applicant was the
hardness of his terms. He accumulated bonds and mortgages, gradually
squeezed his customers closer and closer, and sent them at length, dry
as a sponge, from his door.
In this way he made money hand over hand, became a rich and mighty
man, and exalted his cocked hat upon "Change." He built himself, as
usual, a vast house, out of ostentation, but left the greater part
of it unfinished and unfurnished, out of parsimony. He even set up a
carriage in the fulness of his vain-glory, though he nearly starved
the horses which drew it; and, as the ungreased wheels groaned and
screeched on the axle-trees, you would have thought you heard the
souls of the poor debtors he was squeezing.
As Tom waxed old, however, he grew thoughtful. Having secured the good
things of this world, he began to feel anxious about those of the
next. He thought with regret of the bargain he had made with his black
friend, and set his wits to work to cheat him out of the conditions.
He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent church-goer. He
prayed loudly and strenuously, as if heaven were to be taken by force
of lungs. Indeed, one might always tell when he had sinned most during
the week by the clamor of his Sunday devotion. The quiet Christians
who had been modestly and steadfastly travelling Zionward were struck
with self-reproach at seeing themselves so suddenly outstripped in
their career by this new-made convert. Tom was as rigid in religious
as in money matters; he was a stern supervisor and censurer of his
neighbors, and seemed to think every sin entered up to their account
became a credit on his own side of the page. He even talked of the
expediency of reviving the persecution of Quakers and Anabaptists. In
a word, Tom's zeal became as notorious as his riches.
Still, in spite of all this strenuous attention to forms, Tom had a
lurking dread that the devil, after all, would have his due. That he
might not be taken unawares, therefore, it is said he always carried a
small Bible in his coat-pocket. He had also a great folio Bible on his
counting-house desk, and would frequently be found reading it when
people called on business; on such occasions he would lay his green
spectacles in the book, to mark the place, while he turned round to
drive some usurious bargain.
Some say that Tom grew a little crack-brained in his old days, and
that, fancying his end approaching, he had his horse new shod,
saddled, and bridled, and buried with his feet uppermost; because he
supposed that at the last day the world would be turned upside-down;
in which case he should find his horse standing ready for mounting,
and he was determined at the worst to give his old friend a run for
it. This, however, is probably a mere old wives' fable. If he really
did take such a precaution, it was totally superfluous; at least so
says the authentic old legend, which closes his story in the following
One hot summer afternoon in the dog-days, just as a terrible black
thunder-gust was coming up, Tom sat in his counting-house, in his
white linen cap and India silk morning-gown. He was on the point of
foreclosing a mortgage, by which he would complete the ruin of an
unlucky land-speculator for whom he had professed the greatest
friendship. The poor land-jobber begged him to grant a few months'
indulgence. Tom had grown testy and irritated, and refused another
"My family will be ruined, and brought upon the parish," said the
"Charity begins at home," replied Tom; "I must take care of myself in
these hard times."
"You have made so much money out of me," said the speculator.
Tom lost his patience and his piety. "The devil take me," said he, "if
I have made a farthing!"
Just then there were three loud knocks at the street door. He stepped
out to see who was there. A black man was holding a black horse, which
neighed and stamped with impatience.
"Tom, you're come for," said the black fellow, gruffly. Tom shrank
back, but too late. He had left his little Bible at the bottom of his
coat-pocket and his big Bible on the desk buried under the mortgage
he was about to foreclose: never was sinner taken more unawares. The
black man whisked him like a child into the saddle, gave the horse the
lash, and away he galloped, with Tom on his back, in the midst of the
thunder-storm. The clerks stuck their pens behind their ears, and
stared after him from the windows. Away went Tom Walker, dashing down
the streets, his white cap bobbing up and down, his morning-gown
fluttering in the wind, and his steed striking fire out of the
pavement at every bound. When the clerks turned to look for the black
man, he had disappeared.
Tom Walker never returned to foreclose the mortgage. A countryman, who
lived on the border of the swamp, reported that in the height of the
thunder-gust he had heard a great clattering of hoofs and a howling
along the road, and running to the window caught sight of a figure,
such as I have described, on a horse that galloped like mad across the
fields, over the hills, and down into the black hemlock swamp toward
the old Indian fort, and that shortly after a thunder-bolt falling in
that direction seemed to set the whole forest in a blaze.
The good people of Boston shook their heads and shrugged their
shoulders, but had been so much accustomed to witches and goblins, and
tricks of the devil, in all kinds of shapes, from the first settlement
of the colony, that they were not so much horror-struck as might
have been expected. Trustees were appointed to take charge of Tom's
effects. There was nothing, however, to administer upon. On searching
his coffers, all his bonds and mortgages were reduced to cinders. In
place of gold and silver, his iron chest was filled with chips and
shavings; two skeletons lay in his stable instead of his half-starved
horses, and the very next day his great house took fire and was burned
to the ground.
Such was the end of Tom Walker and his ill-gotten wealth. Let all
gripping money-brokers lay this story to heart. The truth of it is not
to be doubted. The very hole under the oak-trees, whence he dug Kidd's
money, is to be seen to this day; and the neighboring swamp and
old Indian fort are often haunted in stormy nights by a figure on
horseback, in morning-gown and white cap, which is doubtless the
troubled spirit of the usurer. In fact, the story has resolved itself
into a proverb, and is the origin of that popular saying, so prevalent
throughout New England, of "The devil and Tom Walker."