The Devil and Tom Walker Book summary

Washinton Irving



The Devil and Tom Walker were published in 1824, along with his collection of short stories titled Tales of a Traveller. Irving is widely revered as a prominent American Author who coined a unique style of American writing that influence other noteworthy authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe.

This short story can be seen as a didactic tale, which is an account intended to be morally instructional. However, Irving displays his skill as an author by steadfastly establishing that moral instruction and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Irving's talent for humor is perfectly expressed in this short story, especially in Tom's interactions with his wife and the devil. The moral instruction of the story is communicated expertly through the voice of a historian that Irving adopts in the narration of this story.


Plot Summary

An inlet works its way from the coast and ends in a swamp just a few miles from the city of Boston. Captain Kidd, the pirate, traveled up the inlet and found a memorable spot close to the large trees that dot a ridge above the inlet. It is said that he buried his treasure there, but he could never recover it since he was shortly caught and taken to England where he was hanged. Those who know of the rumor claim that the devil presided over the burial of the treasure, and continues to guard it as he does with all ill-begotten treasure.

The narrator then begins the tale from the year 1727, when New England bore earthquakes aplenty. Tom, a poor and miserly man lives close to the end of the inlet with his tough and violent wife, who happens to be just as miserly as her husband. Tom and his wife are often heard arguing with each other over the things they have hidden from one another, and marks of their arguments are periodically seen on Tom's face. Their poor demeanor is mirrored in the appearance of their house, and the starved condition of their horse.

One evening, Tom happens to take a shortcut through the swamp on his way back home. He cuts across the uneven boggy swamp and finds solid footing next to the remnants of an old native American fort. It was said that this had been one of the last bastions for the Native Americans in the region, and people avoided it because they believed that the Indians had sacrificed people there in their worship. Tom feels no fear for the past, and he digs up a cloven skull with an embedded tomahawk using his walking stick. He kicks at it with disdain, but he is halted from exacting further damage by a sharp voice. Tom finds himself face to face with a black man, who is neither African nor Native American, but he happens to be wearing the native garb.

He claims that Tom is trespassing on his land, though Tom knows that it belongs to Deacon Peabody, and he tells the black man so. The black woodsman says that Deacon Peabody is soon going to be damned, as he points out a large tree that's beginning to rot from the inside and is marked with the name of Deacon Peabody, a man with a reputation for greed. Tom notices that all the trees around the fort happen to have nearly all the names of the wealthy men of the colony and happen to be scored to a certain degree with the woodsman's ax. He notices that he has been seated on a tree trunk that has recently been felled, and it has been marked by the name Crowninshield, a rich man who had made his fortune by buccaneering. 

Tom asks the man to identify himself, and the devil introduces himself with various titles, including Old Scratch, a name that Tom is familiar with. The devil talks about how the native Americans consecrated the spot to him by sacrificing people there, but Tom isn't daunted by this meeting with the devil since he has been so long with a violent wife. The devil and Tom get to talking, and the greedy man learns of the treasure that had been buried by the pirate. The devil promises Tom the treasure if he fulfills some conditions, and drops Tom off close to his home. Tom goes home with a promise to think over the proposal, and he feels quite tempted to take the devil up on his offer.

He arrives home and learns of the death of Crowninshield from his wife who had read of it in the newspaper. Tom reluctantly decides to tell his wife about his meeting with the devil, since it's rather a significant event. She is extremely excited at the mention of the treasure and immediately begins to pressure Tom to go through with the deal. He had already been considering going through with it, but he decides against it just to spite his wife. She endeavors to move him, but he just grows more determined not to be damned for her sake. She decides to take matters into her own hands and sets out to find the black woodsman on her own. She returns with a dejected air that night and mentions to Tom that she met a sullen woodsman who had refused to interact. She decides to find him once more with an offering and leaves home with a heavily laden apron. This is the last time anyone ever sees her, and several rumors fly around about her disappearance.

Some say that she eloped with the house valuables since Tom had discovered that his wife had carried off all their silverware as well as all items of value. He decides to seek her out and makes his way to the Native American fort, there he finds her apron hanging in a tree with a vulture sitting on its branches. The creature flies off as Tom approaches, and Tom feels elated at the prospect of recovering his property. He is horrified when he discovers that the apron contains a heart and a liver. Tom isn't displeased at the loss of his wife and instead feels as if the Devil has done him a service by riding him off her. He also happens to note several footprints around the base of the tree, as well as many clumps of hair that appeared to have been ripped from Old Scratch. Tom concluded that the devil must have had a tough time dealing with his wife.

He attempts to cultivate a friendship with Old Scratch, and renegotiate their deal. Old Scratch knew then to bide his time until Tom's appetite had been whetted with impatience. He finally engages with the man, and they begin to discuss the terms. The first of these conditions is said to be a given with any deal that is struck with the devil. The devil wished that the money from the treasure should be used in his service, and so he suggested that Tom start a slave trader's business with the treasure. Tom refused to be involved in any such enterprise, and even the devil could not tempt him to become a slave trader. Finally, they agreed that Tom would use the money to become a usurer, a moneylender who charges exorbitant interests. The devil was visibly excited at Tom's eagerness to drive people to poverty and agreed to set him up with the treasure soon.

In the next few days, the narrator finds Tom seated in a counting-house operating a successful usurer practice. This occurred during the time of Governor Belcher after the market had been flooded with Government bills, and a time of depression had begun. People were flocking to Tom's business despite his impossibly high mortgage rates, so within a few years, Tom became an extremely wealthy man. He built himself a gigantic mansion but left it mostly unfurnished because of his miserly nature. He bought beautiful horses but starved them for feed, just as he failed to keep his ostentatious carriage properly oiled. Tom grew thoughtful in his old age and began to look at his fate in the afterlife. He decides to cheat the devil of his prize and becomes a zealot churchgoer who shames regular churchgoers with the violence of his worship. He condemns his neighbors for their sins and keeps a bible on his person at all times so as not to be taken unawares.

Some legends claim that he had his horse buried upside down with full gear so that he could find the horse upright on the day of judgment and thereby escape the clasp of the devil. It is said that Tom was finally caught unaware on the day of a thunderstorm when he had been working to close the account of a man who had once considered him to be his closest friend. In arguing with the man, Tom shouts "The devil take me if I've made a farthing." The devil knocks on his door and puts him on his horse while he is still wearing his cap, and morning gown. This was the last that was seen of Tom Walker, although some people near the swamp claimed to see a man of his garb howling as his horse galloped into the swamp. A thunderclap shook the sky and the whole forest burst into flames. The people of Boston were used to such odd occurrences and didn't turn their heads at his fate. Some people claim that a man of Tom Walker's description still haunts the swamp in his nightgown.

  • Author(s)

    Washinton Irving
  • Publication date


  • Language


  • Classification

    Short Story, Moral Story

  • Pages



Legend of Faust, American Romanticism


John Murray (UK), Carey & Lea (USA)

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