Smallpox Introduced to American Natives

A Summary of “Smallpox fears stir memories of heavy toll Indians suffered” by Donna Healy

A Billings Gazette article from 2003 discusses how smallpox was spread among Native Americans especially the Blackfeet and Crow tribes. Significant to our present situation with COVID-19, smallpox was a disease well-known and constantly present in Europe, but deadly to native Americans who had no prior exposure and no immunity.

One myth about the spread of smallpox to Native Americans is debunked. “Intentional infection” is not documented says Michael Casler, a park ranger for the Fort Union Trading Post National Historical Site, but it seems not much aid was provided either. Warnings to natives to stay away were misinterpreted and at least one inoculation attempt proved disastrous.

Native Americans had their own methods for coping with smallpox: isolation, suicide, and sending their children on spirit quests. Those whose tribes were wiped out by the disease might have joined other tribes.

Billings Gazette Jan 24, 2003

Emphatically a Bon-Bonist

The short story “Bon-Bon” is strange, and I admit that I do not entirely understand it. I have read it because it is a devil tale and because it is American, written by none other than the illustrious Edgar Allan Poe.  

Bon-Bon is a successful French restaurateur who is engaged in writing a philosophical treatise on the French philosophy of his day. Apparently, Bon-Bon is an expert at philosophy, and if only he did not drink so much, maybe he would finish his book. The devil visits Bon-Bon for reasons unknown to me. Is he looking for a soul to eat? Is he particularly interested in tasting the soul of a philosopher? 

Poe describes the devil as tall and skinny and wearing worn clothing made for a shorter person. Most of his head is bald except for the very long hair reaching down his back. Even though he wears “green spectacles, with side glasses,” he has no eyes. Besides the spectacles, he carries two other items on his person: a stylus and a little black book.

Bon-Bon is not at all disturbed by the identity of his visitor. Instead, he sees an opportunity to learn about philosophy.  The devil critiques Bon-Bon’s book as “clever” but needing improvement. He says that Bon-Bon’s “notions” remind him of Aristotle, who had only hit upon “one solid truth in all that he has written.” 

As their conversation progresses, Bon-Bon becomes increasingly drunker while learning nothing useful about philosophy and too much about which souls the devil finds tasty.  Bon-Bon discovers only that his soul is not a shadow or a stew or a soufflé. It is a fricassée.*

The drunk restaurateur is quite all right with having his soul be a fricassée and offers it to the devil.  But the devil refuses it, saying that he is well supplied at the moment. What then was the devil’s intent in visiting Bon-Bon?  Perhaps, the devil is a kind of chef and has work to do on Bon-Bon’s soul before it is ready to eat.

*The meat in a fricassée is cut into pieces, braised, and then served with a white sauce.

Leave a comment, please!

What, for instance, do you mean by all that humbug about the soul? Pray, sir, what is the soul?

the devil in “Bon-Bon” by Edgar Allan Poe

The Devil Take Tom Walker

You don’t need me to tell you that Washington Irving (1783-1859) is a famous American author.  In school most of us read at least one of his short stories–“The Devil and Tom Walker”,“Rip Van Winkle”, or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.  

Stories where the devil offers a deal in exchange for a man’s soul are common. The deal is made, but then the man (or woman) thinks better of the bargain and tries to cheat the devil.  Sometimes he succeeds like Johnny does in the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”.  Although the devil has preyed upon Johnny’s weakness, pride, Johnny’s arrogance is proved valid when he defeats the devil in a fiddle duel.

Washington Irving’s Tom Walker is not as lucky or clever as Johnny. Miserable, miserly Tom Walker has no God-given talent coming to his aid.  To escape his bargain with the devil, Tom “prayed loudly and strenuously, as if heaven were to be taken by force of lungs.”  Do Tom’s prayers save him?  Irving’s story is well worth the read if you are unsure of the answer.

Folktales are stories that have been passed orally down through generations.  By this definition “The Devil and Tom Walker ” does not qualify as a folktale since it is written.  But, this story, and others like it, are based upon the same traditions, themes, and morals as the older tales.  Maybe they can be categorized as folk narratives, a much broader genre that covers myths, fairy tales, and jokes. 

I define my own narrative, The Devil and Ella Davis, as a folktale novel.  Ella Davis is abducted from her middle age back to her youth in order to pay her great grandmother’s debt to the devil.  Although my tale is influenced by time travel and alternate history fiction, its Irving-inspired title aims to establish it as a folk legend.  

Let all the griping money-brokers lay this story to heart. 

— Narrator in “The Devil and Tom Walker”

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