“When the devil buys your soul, he makes you sign a contract because even though he is pure evil, he has an unshakeable respect for tort law” – @TheTweetOfGod
17th Century English novelist Daniel Defoe once said, “’Tis no sin to cheat the devil”, and while theologically reasonable, it is practically imprudent, as efforts to bamboozle Satan rarely end well, no matter how smart you think you are. Satan has a few insurmountable advantages. The name “Satan” is derived from the Hebrew ha-Satan, which isn’t so much a proper moniker as a title meaning “the Adversary”. For those of you who have bothered to read the sadomasochistic tract that is the Book of Job, his role is that of the prosecuting attorney in the court of God (before he attempted a hostile takeover in the New Testament and was held in contempt of divinity), and thus we have to assume Satan was the first scholar of jurisprudence. No less important is his reputation as a consummate con man, and we have been amply warned that “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (New Testament, John 8:44). In short, you just can’t bedevil the devil, unless of course you can afford legal representation in the form of Daniel Webster, but even he didn’t win the Jabez Stone trial on its legal merits (see Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster should you require a transcript), rather impressed the jury of the damned with his eloquence. Satan probably hauled Mr. Stone off to Hell on appeal. Yet the Faustian bargain (worldly success in exchange for your immortal soul), named for Christopher Marlowes’ play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which itself has similarities to Gautier de Coincy’s Theophilus and Polish folklore figure Pan Twardowski, (opinions vary on the historical Dr. Faustus, variously associated with real people ranging from the ancient sorcerer Simon Magus, to famed printer Gutenburg’s business partner Johann Fust, to 15th Century alchemist Johann Georg Faust) remains popular among the overly ambitious set. Obviously, a bunch of fancy European magicians selling their souls to Old Scratch doesn’t play well in Peoria, and whereas the Devil and Daniel Webster communicated that even the Devil couldn’t contend against effective oratory, the United States legal system, and good old American gumption, it sort of missed the essential thrust of Faust, which is that if you deal with the Devil you’re going to get burned, both literally and figuratively. In the tradition of making our mythologies “more real than real”, America identified its own true Faust (although not as well-known because he didn’t have philosophical big shots like Goethe as a promoter) in the form of Revolutionary War General and New Hampshire politician Jonathan Moulton, widely believed to have sold his soul to the Devil, forever enshrining him as “The Yankee Faust”.
The Moulton Annals, a history of the Moulton family compiled by Henry William Moulton (1833-1896 A.D.) politely suggest that the Moulton family were descendants of Sir Thomas de Moulton, who fought alongside Norman King William at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 A.D., securing for himself a Lincolnshire estate in the British Isles for his troubles. In 1624, one of the settlers in the Virginia colony of Jamestown was a certain Thomas Moulton, followed in 1629 by shipwright Robert Moulton who settled in the Salem, Massachusetts. It’s not clear how closely connected these esteemed personages were genealogically, but what we do know with some degree of assurance is that the among the original fifty-six inhabitants, newly arrived from Norfolk, England in 1638, that founded the town of Hampton, New Hampshire there were a John and Robert Moulton, and that General John Moulton was a direct descendant of the original settler John Moulton.
General Jonathan Moulton was a descendent of John above named: he was born in Hampton, New Hampshire, June 30th,1726, and died at Hampton in the year 1788, at the age of 62. He was a large proprietor in lands, and several flourishing towns in the interior of this State owe their early settlement to his exertions and influence. This fact is mentioned in “Farmer and Moore’s Gazetteer,” published in 1823. When he was thirty-seven years old, the town of Moultonborough was granted to him’ and sixty-one others, by the Masonian proprietors, November 17, 1763. He was already noted for the distinguished service which he had rendered in the Indian wars, which ended with the Ossipee tribe, along the northerly borders of Moultonborough, in 1763. Many of his adventures during this bloody period have been preserved and transmitted to the present time (Moulton, 1906, p243).
Curiously, even the Moulton Annals mentioned the common belief that John Moulton sold his soul, odd in that you would think that you wouldn’t want to advertise that your ancestors had a lucrative, but ill-fated business relationship with the forces of evil. After distinguishing himself as a tough dude in King George’s War (1744-1748 A.D. British military operations in North America that were actually part of the War of the Austrian Succession), as a New Hampshire Militia captain in the French and Indian War (1754-1763 A.D.), and as a colonel, and finally brigadier general in the American Revolution, General John Moulton settled down on a nice estate in North Hampton, New Hampshire that was his reward for battlefield successes. By all accounts he was a relatively successful and shrewd businessman. Unsurprisingly given his lifetime of fierce combat, a quiet retirement didn’t suit General Moulton, and he longed for the stunning successes of his military career. Peacetime New Hampshire just didn’t offer the thrills of chasing hostile Native Americans or outmaneuvering Redcoats. Vermont, maybe, but never New Hampshire. Longing to outsmart yet another opponent, General Moulton decided to up the ante and take a shot at the devil. The same ceaseless drive to reach farther that we prize, that drove our nation inexorably westward, lead to countless inventions and innovations, landed us on the moon, and motivates blogging weighed heavy on the shoulders of the otherwise comfortable General Moulton, and he needed to strive for something more, which of course is the essence of Faust, as observed by psychologist Gordon Allport when he commented, “According to his pact with the Devil, Faust would have been damned if he had said, Hold, thou art so fair, that is, if he had ever thought his goals were attained. To be a complete man is what Faust wanted, and to be a complete man he had to aspire and plan and work and reach forever toward something that lay always ahead” (Allport, 1951, p22).
Moulton was born in Hampton in 1726, and in the French and Indian Wars got to be a general. To give him his due, he fought as bravely and fiercely as any Algonquin or Iroquois. When the war was over, he came back to Hampton and prospered mightily. No one knew just how it happened, but it was curious that the more vessels there were wrecked on the coast, the richer Moulton got to be. He obtained an enormous grant of land from the Governor, cheating His Excellency out of most of it, although he was well able to pay for it, and built himself a beautiful house, the color of gold, set on a piece of high land and surrounded with lilacs and maples. Sitting before his big kitchen fireplace one night, the General was going over his accounts. They were satisfactory in the extreme, but still he sighed and little lines stood out straight around his thin lips. He said out loud that he would sell his soul to the Devil if he could be the richest man in the province. At once a shower of sparks came down the chimney and sure enough, there stood Satan himself in the kitchen. The bargain was struck then and there, the two understood each other perfectly, and they had a glass of hot cider on the strength of it. In return for the General’s soul—which he wasn’t to have till he died—Satan agreed to fill Moulton’s high boots with guineas on the first of every month. This he did faithfully, and Moulton became the richest man in New Hampshire (certainly, anyway, the richest man in Hampton), and still he wasn’t satisfied. One day, when the guineas were due, he cut the soles out of his boots and hung them in the chimney. Satan arrived, punctilious as ever, and started to fill them. Of course the gold pieces poured and poured all over the kitchen, till the happy General stood knee deep in them, and Satan, who was pouring them down the chimney into the empty boots, could not understand what had happened. But he found out soon enough, and in a towering rage gathered up all the gold he had ever paid the General for his soul and went off with it, without, however, releasing his hold on the soul, which he claimed as soon as Moulton died. There were some in Hampton who thought the Devil must have taken him body and soul, because it is said that when his coffin was carried to the churchyard it was weighted as if with stones, and much heavier than the body of a man would have made it. Even without the bootfuls of gold, Moulton was a rich man. Like most of the Devil’s business acquaintances, he was always prosperous and always heartily disliked. His fellow townsmen still remember why (Lowndes, 1941, p100-102).
The General was a pretty sharp guy, but his ingenious plan to cheat Satan had a few fundamental flaws, the first being that he was trying to cheat Satan. Secondarily, at some point the Devil was bound to eventually notice that he never seemed to be able to fill the boot with gold. It’s not like he was born last millennia. He’s been around the block. And finally, since you made a deal for your immortal soul, even should the devil exhibit restraint, which he is not known for, as soon as you die, you will no doubt be singled out for special attention involving copious amounts of fire, brimstone, and skilled displays of the many uses of pitchforks. Of course, the Devil showed no such restraint with General Moulton and immediately responded by burning his house down. I think this still shows remarkable evenhandedness on the part of Satan, keeping in mind that this is the fellow who regards Armageddon as one big party.
The Devil gave a horrible grin, and disappeared. The same night Hampton House was burned to the ground, the General only escaping in his shirt. He had been dreaming he was dead and in hell. His precious guineas were secreted in the wainscot, the ceiling, and other hiding-places known only to himself. He blasphemed, wept, and tore his hair. Suddenly he grew calm. After all, the loss was not irreparable, he reflected. Gold would melt, it is true; but he would find it all, — of course he would, — at daybreak, run into a solid lump in the cellar, — every guinea. That is true of ordinary gold. The General worked with the energy of despair, clearing away the rubbish. He refused all offers of assistance; he dared not accept them. But the gold had vanished. Whether it was really consumed, or had passed again into the massy entrails of the earth, will never be known. It is only certain that every vestige of it had disappeared. When the General died and was buried, strange rumors began to circulate. To quiet them, the grave was opened; but when the lid was removed from the coffin, it was found to be empty (Drake, 1901, p327-328).
The moral of the story is that you probably shouldn’t make a pact with the Devil, and more importantly, if you do make a pact with the Devil, his supernatural acumen, thousands of years of experience at stealing people’s souls, and knowledge of contract law should probably cue you into the fact that cheating him is inadvisable. The sad truth is that even though we credit the Devil with all sorts of dastardly machinations, his job is actually rather easy, given the strange ethical systems of those folks, who having already sold their soul to him, then turn around and try to cheat on the deal. Author Neil Gaiman said it best, commenting “The Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven…was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.” When making deals with the devil, remember the same basic tenets relevant for a visit to Las Vegas–you might be able to throw caution to the wind and make a little cash while you’re there, but in the end the house always wins.
Allport, Gordon W. 1897-1967. Roots of Religion: a Dialogue Between a Psychologist And His Student. New York: National Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 1951.
Drake, Samuel Adams, 1833-1905. A Book of New England Legends and Folk Lore In Prose And Poetry. New and rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1901.
Lowndes, Marion S. Ghosts That Still Walk: Real Ghosts of America. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1941.
Moulton, Henry W. 1833-1896. Moulton Annals. Chicago: Edward A. Claypool, 1906.
Skinner, Charles M. 1852-1907. Myths and Legends of Our Own Land. Philadelphia &: J.P. Lippincott company, 1896.