The Devil and Tom Walker and the Financial Crisis

Washington Irving’s famous short story, “The Devil and Tom Walker,” seems as prescient and uncanny as ever in the lurid light of our recent financial woes:

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 man.“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 merchant to bankruptcy—”“I’ll drive him to the d——l,” cried Tom Walker, eagerly.“You are the usurer for my money!” said the 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. Every body remembers the days 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 every body 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 every body 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.”

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