Appalachian Folklife: The Ghostly Legend of Wicked John and the Devil
Storytelling has been a long-standing deep-rooted tradition with Appalachian families. The pioneers of Appalachia developed an elaborate structure of folklore combined with various tales that were passed on orally from one generation to the next. These oral histories were told to ensure the preservation of their community.
Campfire ghost stories told to children in Appalachia were not just tales of your ordinary everyday house ghost. These were the kind of ghosts that inhabited old caves and tunnels, walked around with their heads in their hands, rattled chains, and moaned and groaned with agony. It’s an art form of orature where the basis of the folktale stays the same, but the story continues to evolve and change.
The tradition of storytelling is interwoven into the Appalachian culture to teach, preserve the past, and humorously captivate all ages.
Our Irish ancestors recounted these stories in The Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales of the Appalachian Mountains.
The Tale of Jack of the Lantern
A favorite tale during Halloween is the story of “Wicked John and the Devil”.
There are several versions of the folktale. The Irish folktale version is called “The Legend of Stingy Jack” or sometimes known as “Jack’s Lantern” or “Jack of the Lantern.” It’s a story about a greedy alcoholic blacksmith, a turnip and the Devil.
Jack tricks the devil several times from getting his soul only to learn that upon his death, heaven doesn’t want him nor do the realms of hell. So Jack is doomed to walk the face of the earth for all eternity carrying with him a lantern made from a turnip and coal plucked from the fires of hell to light the way. Thus, the story of how the jack-o’-lantern was born.
Appalachian historian Dave Tabler has a version of Stingy Jack you can read on his blog, Appalachian History.
The story is traditionally connected to the Celtic farming festival Samhain and is one of the most famous ghost legends that has influenced modern traditions of Halloween. The eve of Samhain or summer’s end of the Celtic year fell on October 31. At this time, the pre-Christain Celtic priest held a joint celebration for the sun god and the god of the dead. Since winter was approaching and the harvest season was over, the Celtics gave thanks to the sun god. According to the Celtics, on this evening the souls of everyone who had died during the preceding year were assembled and went out to play tricks.
When Irish immigrants came to the United States during the 1840’s to escape the potato famine, the Celtic practices became more widespread. The Irish brought both the religious and secular observance of Halloween to the new world. They contributed jack-o’-lanterns to the festivities that were made with pumpkins instead of turnips.
The pumpkins were easier to carve instead of turnips. They also influenced “trick or treating” and blamed the mischievous deeds done on October 31 on the lurking spirits who roamed during the night. The “treat” was traditionally a soul-cake which are square buns made with currents to remember the dead.
The Southern Appalachian version of “Wicked John and the Devil” is a variation of folktale of “Jack’s Lantern.” The version of this folktale is about a blacksmith named John, Saint Peter, and the Devil. In this tale, Wicked John uses three wishes bestowed on him by St. Peter to bargain with the devil who comes to take Wicked John’s soul. The tale is also known in European versions as “The Smith and the Devil.” According to folklorist and anthropologist, it may be one of the oldest folk tales dating back more than 6,000 years ago during the Bronze Age.
Who doesn’t love a good story about cheating the devil or tricking death itself? In the Appalachian Southern tale, John defeats the Devil, but not in a way acceptable to mainstream Christianity. John did not defeat the Devil by being pious, humble, or repentant. John defeats the Devil because he was a trickster in his own right. John was often sent away from hell with a lit coal from the embers of hell’s fire. In this folklore, Jack-O’-Lanterns have retained the fairy-like nature of a trickster spirit to explain swamp lights or Will-o-wisp.
The folktale of Wicked John and the Devil does not come without controversy. In the early 1960’s, the book was banned from school libraries. The wife of a clergyman complained to the East Greenbush School Board in East Greenbush, New York that the book was blasphemous and ridiculed Heaven and Hell. The author of the book, Richard Chase, reacted with a smile of amusement. Mr. Chase responded that “book banning usually boosts sales, but this will have no effect on my book.” At the time, his book was out of print.
To listen to the story told by Richard Chase himself, you can visit this website.
Here is a condensed version of the folktale:
- There once was a man so mean that everyone called him Wicked John. He had a blacksmith shop and he didn’t like to be bothered by nobody. He swore at the kids that came snooping around, he kicked stray cats and shouted at the ladies that tried to get him to go to church. Mean as he was, he always kind strangers. And that’s just what happened one day. An old man all shriveled up like a raisin, came hobblin’ along the road hunkered over and using two canes. The town folk were passing him by on the other side of the road and casting backward glances at him.
- Wicked John just gave a scowl and invited that old man into his shop. He put down his work and went to get him some supper. Wicked John brought back a big plate loaded up with ham-meat, a mess of greens, cornbread and boiled sweet potato and said, “Now here you go old man, just see if there’s something you can chow on.” Wicked John went back to his work. The next time John looked up, the old man had finished his meal and was beginning to stand up. He was looking a might stronger. All of a sudden, away went one cane and then the other. The old man started to straighten up, taller and taller and taller. And there he stood with a long white robe and a long white beard and he just sort of glowed. And he had a bunch of keys hanging on a chain around his waist. He says, “John, I reckon you know who I am.” Well Wicked John hadn’t step foot inside a church all his born days, so he didn’t have a clue. “I am Saint Peter, John. I guard the pearly gate to heaven. Once a year I come down to see if I can find any decent folks left on the earth.
- The first one I come across that treats me with kindness, I give them three wishes. Now I know what a mean man you’ve been your whole life, but you’ve been good to me, so I’m going to give you the three wishes.” Wicked John just stood there a thinking. “Go on John,” said St. Peter, “Anything you’ve got a mind to, you can wish for it and hit’ll be that away.” John started looking around the room, trying to get an idea of what to wish for. John, said “I know! You see this big hammer here? Those blame boys are always coming in here and messing with it. They like to take it out back and bust up rocks with it and every time I need it, I have to go looking for it and, con-found, if it ain’t been left to rust in the rain. And I jest wish that anybody that touches my hammer won’t be able let go of it and it would pound on them something fierce till I say stop!” Well Saint Peter looked pretty sorry, and said,“Laws, John, that’s a terrible wish, but I’ve got to give it to you. Now, what’s your next wish?”
- John was still looking around his shop when his eyes lay on his rocking chair. He got a devilish grin on his face and he said, “You see that rocking chair over there on my porch? That’s my chair! And there’s nothing I like better after a hard day’s work that to sit out there and rock into the evening. But blast it all, if most nights, someone else is already sitting in it and it just makes me mad! I wish that whoever sits in my chair won’t be able to get out of it and would get rocked so hard it’d about knock his brains out till I say stop.” Saint Peter just shook his head and replied, “You’ve just one wish left, John, and it seems to me that you might want to be thinking of your immortal soul.”
- But John he had already decided on what his last wish should be. “Come here, Saint Peter,” and John led him out onto the porch, “You see that old thorn bush over there? That there is a fire bush and in the spring that old thorny bush grows the biggest and purtiest red blossoms you ever did see, but con-found if folk don’t come along and break off a switch whenever they got a mind to. And folks driving their buggy to my shop, back over it and trample all over it until it’s a wonder that it’s still alive. I just wish that anybody who touches my bush, that it will just catch them and hold them down in the middle of the bush where the thorns are the longest and it will just sticker them till I say stop.” Well, old Saint Peter looked mighty sad, stepped over the threshold and was gone. Wicked John grew older and the older he got, the meaner he got, until finally folks said that he was wickeder than the devil himself. When Old Scratch heard this, he decided it was time to take Wicked John from this world, cause he didn’t want anyone getting a bigger or better reputation than himself.
- So the devil called one of his sons to him, “Little Devil, you go on up there get that old man, Wicked John. Tell him it’s time for him to come down here to live.” Wicked John was working on a wagon tire when he looked up and there in the doorway stood a little baby devil and he said, “Wicked John, you a vewy, vewy bad man. My daddy says it time fow you to come and live with us now.” Well, Wicked John didn’t want to go but he said, “Well, I don’t mind going with you little devil, but I just can’t go until all my work is finished. You see this wagon wheel? I just wouldn’t feel right unless I got this job done. Why don’t you grab that hammer over there and give me a hand?” Well, all kids like to play with tools, so the little devil went right over to that hammer and picked it up. Lam-bam! Lam-bam! Lam-bam! That hammer was hitting him all over and he couldn’t let go of it either! “Wicked John, tell this hammer to stop. I want my mommy!” “If I tell that hammer to stop, are you going to go out that door and not come back any more?” “Oh, I AM I AM! Pwease tell this hammer to stop!” “All right then….stop hammer.” And that hammer let loose of that little devil and – whippity cut – that devil tore out of there and never came back! Well, Old Scratch didn’t much like that, so he called one of his bigger sons to him, ‘bout teenager size. “Little Devil, you go up there and tell that old man, Wicked John, to get on down here and no more FOOLISHNESS!”
- Wicked John was working on a horseshoe when he looked up and saw a medium-sized devil in his doorway. “Daddy says to come get you, Old Man, and no foolishness!” “All right,” said Wicked John, “just a few more licks. Reckon you can let me finish this horseshoe. Come on in. I’ll not be a minute or two.” “Don’t think about asking me to help you, Old Man, you’ll find I’m not as easy to trick as my baby brother.” “Oh, I wouldn’t think of it. You can just take a load off while you wait if’n you want. There’s a chair over there.” And he pointed to the rocking chair. The minute that devil sat down, the chair grabbed on to him and wouldn’t let him go. It began rocking back and forth, back and forth. The more the devil tried to get out, the harder that old chair rocked him, until his head was just a going whammity-bang, whammity-bang whammity-bang on the back on that high rocker. And finally he got to beggin and hollering for Wicked John to let him loose. Wicked John said, “If I tell that chair to stop, are you going to go out that door and not come back no more?” “Oh, I AM I AM, just tell the chair to stop!” “All right then. Stop chair.” And that devil tore out there – whippity cut – and was never seen again.
- Well Old Scratch didn’t like that and decided that he would have to go up and get Wicked John himself. Next thing John knew, there was the Old Boy himself standing in the doorway himself, with his horns, his long tail and his pitchfork and he said, “Wicked John, now I’ve come to get you. I don’t appreciate how you’ve treated my boys and it’s going to go poorly for you. Get up! You a coming with me and no more of this FOOLISHNESS!” The Old Devil reached in and grabbed Wicked John by the collar and started dragging him out. Now Wicked John might have been old, but all those years of rotten, mean behavior had made him tough and scrappy and the two old boys went at it, fighting, punching, scratching, beating and biting, till the Devil was foaming-at-the-mouth mad! “Confound Ye, Old Man! I’m going to lick the hide off you right now, just see if I don’t. Now, where’ll I get a switch?”
- The Old Devil looked around and reached for that fire bush and the instant he touched it – whoosh – it sucked him up into the middle of it where the thorns were the thickest. He tried to thrash around, but the more he did, the more he was stuck fast. Finally, he just stayed right still with his legs sticking out of the top of the bush and said in a very small voice, “Mister?” “What do you want?” “Please, sir, let me out of here.” “I’ll let you go on one condition, that you nor none of your boys will ever bother me again, ya hear? You promise me that and I might let you go!” “I promise! You’ll never see me or any of mine ever again.” So Wicked John set him loose and such a kicking up dust, you never did see and – whippity cut – the Old Boy left and he wasn’t moseyin’ neither. Well, Wicked John just kept getting older and meaner, and eventually, even though no one was coming for him, there was nothing for him to do, but up and die. He went on up to the pearly gates and knocked. Saint Peter opened the gates a crack and said, “Why Wicked John, what are you doing here?” “Well, I’ve passed on and need a place to go.” Saint Peter just shook his head and pulled out his big recording book. “You see this book, John?
- This is where we make an accounting of all the deeds a person does in his life. This here page is yours. On this side is where we record all the good deeds you’ve done and if you look closely, there are a few entries written, way up at the top. And this other side, this is where we write all the mean and wicked deeds you’ve done. As you can see, it’s plum full down to the bottom. Why we’ve had to squeeze in more, diagonally and crosswise in the borders. No, John, there hain’t a chance in the world of you getting in this place,” And Saint Peter shut the gates. So Old John turned around and went down the staircase. Down, down, down. And when he came in sight of the gates of the other place, one of the little devils happened to peek out. “Daddy, daddy, look a yonder!” Old Scratch came a running and when he saw who was a coming, he said, “Bar the gates, boys, bar the gates!” They slammed them shut and turned the key. When Wicked John got to the gates, the Devil said, “You’re not welcome in here, Wicked John, you just turn right around there now and put off from here.”
- And John replied, “Well, I thought that was the point of this here place.” “Old man, you made us a promise to have nothing more to do with you and that’s that way it stands.” Wicked John felt a little lost, “Con-found! What in tarnation am I to do now? Saint Peter won’t let me in yonder and you’ve locked me out. What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?” So, the Devil, he looked around for his longest set of tongs and reached way back into his fiery furnace and pulled out a white-hot glowing ember. “Here you go, Old Man, you jest take this chunk of fire and go on off somewheres and start you a hell all of your own.” Now sometimes in the night, if you’re out in the swamp, you might see a ball of light moving along the horizon. Some folks call it will-o-wisp. It’s just Wicked John doing his lonely wandering looking for a place to call his own.
- Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase