May 15, 2016

Tom Cook and the Devil: Be Careful What You Say

Many years ago out in Western Massachusetts there lived a man named Tom Cook.

Tom was not popular in town. He was a "rough sort of customer and it was commonly believed that he was in league with the Devil."

This belief was indeed true. Many years ago Tom had sold his soul to the Devil for material success and had been reaping the benefits ever since.

Well, one cold morning Tom was getting dressed next to his fireplace when he heard someone knocking at the door. When he opened it he was horrified to see the Devil standing there.

"Tom," the Devil said, "You've had a good run but now it's time to pay the price. I'm here to take you down to Hell."

The Devil grabbed Tom's arm as he said this. His grip was firm like iron and burned like hot coals.

Tom gulped. Things didn't look too good, but as the Devil began to drag him out the door he had an idea.

Tom said, "Sorry, can you hold on a moment? I need to put on my suspenders."

The Devil chuckled. What did it matter? Tom's soul was his. "Sure," the Devil said. "I'll wait until you put your suspenders on."

Tom ran to where his suspenders were and threw them into the fire.

"Ooops, sorry, Mr. Devil," he said. "My suspenders are gone. You'll have to wait until I get some new ones!"

The Devil gnashed his teeth, realizing that he had been tricked. With an angry shout he disappeared in a cloud of sulfurous smoke. 

Tom escaped the Devil's grasp, but he was never able to wear suspenders again as long as he lived.


This little story comes from Clifton Johnson's excellent book What They Say in New England (1896). 

Literature is full of stories about people who sell their souls to Satan. Probably the most famous one is Faust, whose story has been told by Christopher Marlowe, Johann von Goethe and even Thomas Mann. Literary stories about deals with the Devil usually end with a human being dragged to hell, and are heavy on the morality.

Folklore is also full of stories about people selling their soul to the Devil, but the folk tales tend to focus less on morality and more on how the bargain is either fulfilled or thwarted. Someone usually gets tricked.

For example, in this story a Connecticut man named Rufus Goodrich sells his soul to the Devil. Rufus wants to be famous. The Devil says, "Sure, you'll be so famous thousands will attend your funeral." Shortly after signing away his soul Rufus falls from a hayloft and dies. When his neighbors finally find his body they notice that it's covered with thousands of flies.

It's a gross story, but illustrates one of the key principles in these folk tales. The language used in the bargain is taken very literally. A person's true intention doesn't matter as much as what they sat. The Devil never actually told Rufus that thousands of people would attend his funeral, did he?

Usually the person who gets tricked is the Devil, as in the story about Tom Cook and his suspenders. The Devil probably meant to say "I can wait a minute or two before I drag you to Hell," but instead he said he'd wait for Tom to put on his suspenders. Again, the literal words are more important than anyone's intention.

You can see some other examples of literalism in this story about the Devil building a barn, or even this Native American story about a dwarf who grants wishes. Be careful what you agree to, and be careful what you say.

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