The Devil and Tom Walker

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"The Devil and Tom Walker"
Devil and Tom Walker.JPG
AuthorWashington Irving
CountryUnited States/England
Published inTales of a Traveller
PublisherJohn Murray (UK)
Carey & Lea (USA)
Media typePrint
Publication date1824

"The Devil and Tom Walker" is a short story by Washington Irving that first appeared in his 1824 collection Tales of a Traveller,[1] as part of the "Money-Diggers" section. The story is very similar to the German legend of Faust.

Stephen Vincent Benét drew much of his inspiration for "The Devil and Daniel Webster" from this tale.


The story first recounts the legend of the pirate, William Kidd, who is rumored to have buried a large treasure in a forest in colonial Massachusetts. Kidd made a deal with the devil to protect his money. The devil's conditions are unknown. Kidd died never able to reclaim his money, but the devil has protected it ever since.

The story continues around 1727. Tom Walker, a greedy, selfish miser of a man, cherishes money along with his shrewish and equally greedy wife. They lived in a tarnished looking house that had stood alone and had an air of starvation. This is until he takes a walk in the swamp at an old Indian fortress (a relic of King Philip's War of 1675-1678), and starts up a conversation with the devil incarnate (referred to as "Old Scratch" and "the Black Man" in the story). Old Scratch appears as a lumberjack or a woodsman chopping trees, each with a prominent and wealthy colonialist's name branded on the trunk. One rotted and soon-to-fall tree has the name of a deacon who grew wealthy "trading" with the Indians. Another fallen trunk has that of a wealthy seaman rumored to be a pirate. Old Scratch strikes a deal with Tom Walker, offering the riches hidden in the swamp by Captain Kidd in exchange for a great price, which is often thought to be his soul. Tom agrees to think about it and returns home.

While Tom is perfectly willing to sell himself to Old Scratch for the treasure, he does not do so at first, as it would mean having to share the treasure with his wife. After he tells her of his meeting, she meets with Old Scratch herself, but tells her husband that Old Scratch requires an offering. When Tom is away, she takes all their valuables in and goes to make a deal with Old Scratch. When Tom searches for his wife and property, all he finds is her apron holding her heart and liver, tied to a tree.

Tom Walker agrees to Old Scratch's deal, as he considered his abusive wife's death a good thing. Because he can only use the treasure in Old Scratch's service, Tom agrees to become a usurer (today commonly called a loan shark), after refusing to become a slave trader.

During the governorship of Jonathan Belcher (1730-1741), speculation runs rampant and Walker's business flourishes. Becoming a member of the local stock exchange, Tom buys a big house and a coach but furnishes neither, even though he has the money (he is so miserly that he even half-starves his horses). Tom never tires of swindling people until he suddenly becomes fearful about the afterlife. He then becomes an obsessive church-goer, singing hymns in church in a much louder voice than all of the other parishioners, and always keeping two Bibles at hand—thinking that any sin on his neighbor's "account" is a "credit" to his own. He is said to have even had his best riding horse saddled and buried upside down in the belief that in the last days the world will be turned upside down and he will then try to "outride" Old Scratch (although the narrator adds that this is "probably a mere old wives' fable").

One day a ruined stock jobber (speculator) who had borrowed money from him asks for clemency and annoys Tom who says, "The Devil take me if I have made a farthing!" (the smallest currency of the time, 1/4 of a penny). There are three loud knocks at the door. Tom is drawn towards a black-cloaked figure and realizes, in horror, that he has left his Bibles at his desk.

Old Scratch tosses Tom Walker on the back of a black horse which rides toward the old fortress and disappears in lightning. Tom is never seen again. All his assets become worthless—his coach horses become skeletons, the gold and silver Tom hoarded turns into wood chips and shavings, his mortgages and deeds become cinders, and his great house burns to the ground. Since that day, his ghost haunts the site of the old fortress. His only legacy is a New England saying, "The Devil and Tom Walker".


Flier for The Devil and Tom Walker, 1913

In 2019, the story was adapted into audio drama as part of the debut season of Shadows at the Door: The Podcast.



  1. ^ Irving, Washington (1824). "The Devil and Tom Walker". Tales of a Traveller. ISBN 9780805785159.

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