I don’t mean to brag, but I Googled my own name recently and it showed more than nine million hits. Granted, that includes Walkers who are not Toms and Toms who are not Walkers, but still, that’s a big number.
Just for a benchmark, I Googled the name of a friend who is at least as eminent as I am and it came up with just 694,000 hits. I didn’t see any reason to go on and do a 10-person average.
But now the truth: if you Google Tom Walker, which I recommend, you’ll find out that most references to “Tom Walker” have nothing to do with me, but refer to an odious character in an 1824 short story by American author Washington Irving — “The Devil and Tom Walker.”
I had known for many years that Irving wrote such a story, but never bothered to check it out before. Someone else told me years ago there was a famous drink called “The Tom Walker,” but I have to confess that decades of searching has not found it.
I am no student of American literature, but I did recall from high school English that Washington Irving (1783-1859) was a New Englander most famous, probably, for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Enchanted Island” and others, mostly short stories.
I was unable to find an explanation for why he chose the name “Tom Walker” for his short story, although you’ll have to admit it sort of rolls off the tongue like a melody.
“The Devil and Tom Walker” is a version of the classic Medieval Faust legend, the tale of Mephistopheles. It comes in various forms but usually has some sinful individual so greedy he – and it’s always a he – sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for wealth and fame. It has been the subject of works by Christopher Marlowe, Goethe and others, in both literature and music.
Briefly, the story set in New England in the 1700s is about “a meager miserly fellow” best known to locals for his pitiful horse, loud wife and notorious penny-pinching habits. Local legend also has it that “Kidd the Pirate” had buried some treasure in the region and no one had ever found it.
Needless to say, Tom finds himself one night in a dark grove where he absentmindedly unearths an old skull, for which he is reprimanded by a scary voice. Tom soon realizes the guy with the voice is the devil himself, and calls him “Old Scratch.”
Old Scratch offers Tom the Kidd treasure in exchange for the usual conditions, but Tom refuses. When he tells his wife he turned down the devil’s offer, he gets angry and goes to the woods to make her own deal with Old Scratch.
Without going into detail — it’s a long short story — she ends up gone missing forever. Now freed of any obligation to share the treasure with his wife, Tom changes his mind and agrees to Scratch’s conditions. He rejects several business deals but finally sets himself up as a banker — “a userer.”
Now believe me, folks, this is where Irving’s yarn gets interesting. Keep in mind that it was published in 1824, but his description of the economy of Tom’s time rings familiar today. Here is how Irving tells the story:
“A few days’ time saw Tom Walker seated behind his desk in a counting house in Boston. . . when money was particularly scarce. It was a time of paper credit. The government had been deluged with government bills; . . . there had been a rage for speculating; the people had run mad with schemes for new settlements; for building cities in the wilderness. . . In a word, great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country, had raged to an alarming degree, and every body was dreaming of making sudden fortunes from nothing.”
Does that sound familiar or doesn’t it?
You can read the rest for yourself. Tom is especially bad about foreclosing on real estate after the bubble bursts! But as he gets older he gets scared of dying and meeting Old Scratch’s conditions. He becomes an ostentatious church goer, Bible in hand. But just as he least expects it, Old Scratch gallops up and whisks him away on his horse, to disappear forever. “Never,” writes Irving, “was sinner taken more unawares.”
“Such was the end of Tom Walker and his ill-gotten wealth,” writes Irving, who adds that the forest where Kidd’s treasure was dug up even now “is often haunted in stormy nights by a figure on horseback, in a morning gown and white cap, which is doubtless the troubled spirit of the userer.”
I think it might be a good idea if some of today’s bankers read this story and take it to heart. Who knows, Old Scratch may still be lurking about.