By John Morgan
Halloween is filled with fascinating folklore. One of the more colorful legends can be found in the story of “Stingy Jack.” After all, the namesake of the Jack-O-Lantern deserves a memorable tale. And just like the endless variety of faces that can be carved onto pumpkins, our story in question has equally inexhaustible variations to fit the designs of those doing the telling. The details might change a bit, but the main plot of the story remains consistent.
So with that in mind, we will instruct Mister Peabody and Sherman to step aside, while we enter the “Wayback Machine” (and for you younger readers think “Time Warp Trio” and for the racier set, think “Hot Tub Time Machine”) and set the controls to Ireland, say a few centuries back.
Now according to all accounts, Stingy Jack was not only renowned as a drunkard, he was equally reviled for his inability to pay for his drinks. Charming characteristics, I think we’ve all known a Jack or two. Anyway, Jack wasn’t without other virtues, all of them bad; he could bamboozle and hoodwink almost anyone into paying his bar tab for him. Now, it’s mighty hard to find loyal repeat customers when your primary services are deception and being a prodigious drinker, so Jack was forced to wander from village to village seeking new customers to ply his undesirable trade.
Many have argued that vanity might be humanity’s greatest sin. However, did you know that the devil isn’t without his conceit as well? So when he learned of Jack’s unscrupulous behavior, the devil set off to find Jack and confirm whether or not the rumors about Jack’s less than angelic qualities were true.
On that fateful night, Jack had been successful in acquiring drink a plenty. As he was staggering down a cobblestone path Jack noticed a body in the road. Upon closer inspection, he realized that the body was none other than Prince of Darkness; no question, it looked like it was finally time for Jack to give the devil his due.
Since Jack found himself at bat in the big leagues with the Great Deceiver firing nothing but heat from the pitcher’s mound, he figured he had nothing to lose by taking his best cuts. He persuaded the devil to forestall collecting Jack’s soul until Jack could have some parting drinks of ale before the devil forever cut his mortal coil. Old Beelzebub recognized a kindred spirit when he saw one and he agreed to honor Jack’s request. They went to the local pub. After knocking a few dozen back, it was time to settle the score with the barkeeper and then the devil. Well just like the Grinch, good ‘ol Jack, “thought of a lie and he thought of one quick.” Jack convinced the devil to turn into a sixpence so that Jack could pay the tab. Astounded and more than a little impressed by the boldness of Jack’s query, Lucifer agreed.
Well, what do you expect would happen when two master deceivers collide? Of course, game on! Once the devil had shape shifted into a coin, Jack placed the coin in his pocket next to a crucifix. A crucifix is the devil’s equivalent to kryptonite to Superman, so the Great Deceiver was left powerless and unable to resume any other form. Ultimately a deal was struck between Jack and the devil. The devil would be allowed to morph back as long as Jack could keep his soul for another ten years (in some accounts the bargain is just a one year contract extension; of course, it’s nearly impossible to confirm the accuracy of events when your only witnesses are the village drunk and Satan himself).
OK, let’s fast forward ten years, the devil comes to collect. It appears there will be no escape for Jack this time. He makes one final appeal to the devil to please allow Jack to at least enjoy one juicy apple before he goes to the eternal barbecue pit below. Unbelievably, the devil agrees and he even climbs the apple tree himself to fetch Jack’s apple. Immediately, Jack surrounds the trunk of the tree with crucifixes (he carves the sign of the crucifix into the tree in other accounts). This time Jack isn’t seeking a one or even a ten-year extension, this time Jack wants his record to be completely exonerated. Jack demands that the devil promises to never take his devious soul to Hell. Reluctantly, the devil concedes to Jack’s terms.
Well just like “one doesn’t simply walk into Mordor,” as a rule one just doesn’t simply trick the Prince of Darkness and live happily ever after. All that fast and easy living caught up to Jack, which led to an early demise. Upon Jack’s death he was denied entry into heaven for his sinful and unrepentant ways. Dejected he dragged his sorry soul down to the gates of Hell, where the devil refused to allow him to enter as per their bargain. While the devil admired Jack’s shrewd resourcefulness, he felt that Jack was a bit too clever to have running amuck in Hell, so he wasn’t too upset about letting this one get away. Refused entry to both Heaven and Hell, Jack was forced to endlessly wander all eternity in the netherworld with only a lantern carved from a turnip and a single coal from the furnace of Hell to guide him.
Now, soon after Irish immigrants arrived in America, they discovered that the New World pumpkins made a much superior lantern in which to tell their “Stingy Jack” legend and that’s where the Jack in Jack-O-Lantern got its name - at least that's the story I am telling.