Countless people from history have been accused of making a seal with the devil, otherwise known as a Faustian Pact. Bridges built over especially steep cliffs were said to be the work of Satan, that only someone who sold his soul to the devil could be skilled enough to build it. And it’s not just people who wast their life building bridges. Notably talented musicians, explorers, and business people have at times been accused of this. Among them was a general in the American war of Independence.
Jonathan Moulton rose from being a poor craftsman to an extremely wealthy man. But like many wealthy men he desperately wanted more. Rumor told he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his boots being filled with gold each month. On the first day of the month he would hang his boots by the fireplace at night. By morning they were full of gold. But Moulton tricked the devil. One month he cut the soles from his boots, meaning they could not be filled by the devil. With that side of the deal unfulfilled, the devil was unable to claim his soul. He hoped to be able to keep the gold collected up until that point, as he planned to be the richest man in New Hampshire.
But when the devil disappeared so did the gold. And then the devil came back to burn down his house. Moral of the story, Satan always wins. Most of these legends are intended as a warning never to make a Faustian pact. But they often feature people outwitting the devil so the whole thing is pointless.
The namesake of this kind of deal was Johann Faust, a 15th century alchemist and magician. The life of this man has been obscured by folk legend. So little about him is known with certainty. It is said he spent years studying mysterious ancient documents. Then one day he used what he’d learned to summon a demon called Mephistopheles. Having spent his life thus far studying and with only one magical ability to show for it, Faust was not concerned with the consequences. The demon acting as a kind of broker for Satan, he sold his soul to the devil. In exchange for his soul he would first receive a lifetime of supernatural ability. The demon taught him knowledge of the universe and granted him real magical powers. The contract they signed was for 24 years. This to the young Faust seemed like a lifetime.
And so for 24 years he lived a life of hedonism and adventure, travelling Germany and doing whatever he wanted. He visited the pope of Rome, the Ottoman Sultan, and the Russian Tsar. He brought Helen of Troy back to life and married her. But around the 15th year into the contract he began to realize what a terrible mistake he’d made. He literally sold his soul for two decades of fun. Then one day he was found dead at his home. Blood and guts covering the walls as if he imploded. The legend of Faust has been retold many times since his death.
The True Story
In reality he was a truly mysterious figure, a travelling magician who according to rumor poisoned people and died in an explosion. Perhaps he really did sell his soul and is still now burning in hell. Either way it was a long time before anyone achieved his level of notoriety. In fact, accusations of Faustian pacts really died down in the centuries following his death. But in the 17 hundreds they reappeared in a surprising place: music.
Composers and violinists were accused of being so good only Satan could be behind it. The Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini was a true musical genius. But it was said he would take on a demonic appearance when playing, holding his body in strange positions with a look of anger in his eyes. Many walked out during his performances or were left traumatized by them. It was said even on a broken string he could play a perfect note. After he died many would refuse to even go near his grave. Yet even he was still largely forgotten about. And the legend of another musician would one day dwarf those concerning him.
Robert Johnson was a pioneer of Delta Blues, a style of music originating in the Mississippi Delta. As a young man he was an especially untalented guitar player. Other musicians would scold him and demand he stop playing. Then in his early 20s he rapidly improved, mastering the guitar in almost no time. If that alone did not raise suspicion his music did. His songs were haunting and bizarre. In them he described meeting the devil and selling his soul, giving rise to the legend. According to that legend all he ever wanted was to be a great blued musician. But he had no talent or job prospect. One night he ventured to a remote crossroad with his guitar. At midnight Satan himself emerged from the darkness, known Robert Johnson would give anything for musical talent.
On returning from the crossroad the devil had a new contract and Robert Johnson had a gift. He had sold his soul to the devil that night. People were blown away by his new found talent and he soon recorded dozens of songs. In his published songs he described in detail being chased by demonic forces and encountering Satan. Then a year after recording his music he suddenly died at the age of 27. The cause of death in unknown, his death certificate listing none. Some believe it was disease. Others say he was murdered. But others claim his contract with the devil ran out.