Cindy is an author and paranormal enthusiast who has published numerous books and articles on the subject of true unexplained phenomena.
From Rags to Riches
This story was submitted to me by a woman named Carly Jamison,* whose aunt married a man whose inexplicable wealth left all those who knew him scratching their heads. Over time, they began to wonder to what lengths he had gone in order to achieve success.
Carly grew up knowing little of her extended family. Her parents moved their children from their native North Carolina to Illinois when she was still in diapers. It was during a summer visit with relatives that she first learned the story of her Uncle Jake's suspected pact with the devil.
Jake Hopkins had married the teenager's Aunt Penny in the 1960s. Although they were family, Carly admits that she barely knew him. She had, however, heard her parents mention the pair numerous times over the years. What they had to say was seldom flattering.
Carly's father, who was not blood-related to the couple, disliked Jake intensely. A hard worker who had often struggled to keep food on the table and a roof over his family's heads, he resented Jake's shiftlessness. His main issue had been the odd fact that, although his brother-in-law had never done an honest day's work in his life, good fortune seemed to follow him wherever he went.
When she saw Jake and Penny's house for the first time, Carly finally understood what the fuss was all about. Compared to the homes of her other relations, the place was a palace. To her, it looked like a picture out of a magazine.
The house was two-stories high with stone pillars in front. A flower garden with an eternal fountain in the middle was the first thing she noticed when they pulled up to the estate.
Her father had often described Jake as being "as mean as a red-bellied snake," but he had seemed pleasant enough to Carly. Both he and Penny welcomed the clan with open arms. In spite of the fact that her uncle had seemed perfectly nice, Carly recalls that a chill shot through her body when he attempted to give her a hug, causing her to instinctively pull away.
The interior of the house was even more impressive than the outside. Every piece of furniture looked like it was brand new. Carly had heard countless times that Jake had never held a job and, as far as she knew, neither had her aunt. Still, they somehow lived like royalty.
The visit turned out to be cordial, but uneventful. Carly doesn't remember much of what was said since most of it didn't involve her. It was only after they bid their hosts farewell and went to her grandmother's house that things got interesting.
It seemed that Carly's parents couldn't wait to gossip with her grandma about Jake and Penny. That conversation, unlike the ones earlier in the day, was full of surprises.
And So It Begins
The adults present knew a lot more about her aunt and uncle's situation than they had previously let on. Carly and her siblings listened intently as their grandmother spoke of the early years of her daughter Penny's marriage to Jake.
She revealed that she had never cared for her son-in-law. From their first introduction, she had found him arrogant and thoroughly unlikable. She wasn't alone in her assessment. No one in the family could stand him. No one, that is, except for Penny who was determined to be his wife in spite of what anyone else thought.
After the wedding, the couple lived for a time with Jake's parents until they had a falling out. With nowhere else to go, they had moved in with Penny's mother, an arrangement that was doomed from the very beginning.
Carly's grandmother confessed that she had nagged Jake relentlessly to look for work. She didn't mind supporting her daughter, but resented with every fiber of her being providing room and board to her mooching son-in-law.
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After several months of constant bickering, things came to a head one day when Carly's grandmother had given Jake an ultimatum; shape up and get a job or get out. Furious, he had stormed out of the house with nothing but the clothes on his back.
A distraught Penny had run after him, but he had ordered her to get back in the house. Her mother, fearing for her daughter's safety, had pulled her inside as she struggled to join her husband. As they watched Jake disappear in the distance, Carly's grandma hoped that it was the last they would see of him.
Two weeks later, a shiny black car pulled up in front of the house. Carly's grandmother and Penny had both stood on the porch, assuming that someone was about to try to sell them something. Instead of a stranger, Jake stepped out, dressed in a tailored suit.
Carly's grandmother's heart sank as her daughter ran into the arms of the husband she thought was gone forever. The fancy car wasn't the only surprise Jake had in store. He told Penny to go pack her things; he had purchased a house for them in a neighboring town. Their days of depending on other people were over.
Penny had rushed into the house to gather her belongings. While she was busy inside, her mother inquired how Jake had come into such good fortune in only a few days' time. She recalled that he hadn't said a word in response. He had simply smiled and rubbed his hand across the hood of his brand new automobile.
Within minutes, Penny had rejoined them. After giving her mother a quick peck on the cheek, she climbed into the car and took off with her husband. She didn't know what he had done, but Carly's grandmother was certain that Jake's sudden wealth was ill-gotten. She fully expected the law to come for him at any time.
To her dismay, Jake's luck only got better in the coming years. Although he made no secret of the fact that he was not gainfully employed, he continued to amass physical possessions that were the envy of his neighbors.
After teaching her to drive, Jake bought Penny her own car, fresh off the assembly line. The couple wore only the finest clothing, much of it purchased during their travels up and down the Eastern Seaboard. They did not, however, share a cent of their seemingly endless cash reserves with anyone else. Even though they had sponged off of others in the past, they made no effort to return the favor; a slight that never failed to rankle Carly's grandmother.
The discussion shifted to other subjects from there. Several years would pass before the rest of the story would emerge, the details of which Carly would never forget.
It was after Jake passed away that Penny finally opened up to her family about what she believed to be the source of her husband's financial upturn.
In her sixties at the time of her spouse's death, Penny was suffering from a variety of ailments that would keep her confined to her home for the remainder of her life. Her mother, who had not been welcome on the premises when Jake was living, began paying her daughter regular visits. Despite being well into her eighties, she was as able-bodied as ever.
It was during these get-togethers that Penny talked about Jake's astonishing ability to pull money out of thin air, figuratively speaking. She said that he told her that, in the days after he left her mother's house, he had made a bargain with someone that would ensure that they would have all they dreamed of and more. He added that he would have to pay his benefactor back at some point in the future, but gave no further details.
The last part had worried his wife who asked how he could possibly come up with reimbursement for the house and cars, not to mention all of the furnishings and extravagant trips. He assured her that the arrangements had already been made. She had nothing to worry about; everything had been taken care of.
Over the years, as their good fortune only grew, Penny would occasionally bring the subject of repayment up with her husband. He calmed her fears each and every time by saying that the debt would be paid, he had seen to it.
After Jake died, Penny expected at any moment to be put out in the street, but such an event never occurred. No one ever contacted her, or anyone else in the family, seeking payment.
Although he had never said it outright, Penny told her mother that she came to believe that the deal her husband had brokered had not been with a bank or any other financial entity. She reasoned that anyone who dealt in money lending would have expected to see some sort of return for their services. In all the years they spent together, Penny claimed that she had never seen her husband settle up with anyone.
When recounting the story, Carly's grandmother spoke aloud the allegation that her daughter only alluded to; namely, that her worthless son-in-law had sold his soul in exchange for wealth. In her mind, there could be no other explanation.
The implausible notion gained traction after Penny died. While the estate was being settled, it was discovered that, on the day that Jake bought the house, he had paid for it free and clear. The same proved true for all of their worldly possessions. The couple had not owed a dime on anything.
No one in Carly's extended family had any idea who might have funded the lifestyle he and his wife enjoyed for decades. The bigger mystery was, of course, how the anonymous backers were recompensed.
Most of those familiar with the situation believe that the debt was paid on the day of Jake's passing. It was then, as he lay dying, that the other party came to collect what was rightfully theirs. The transaction was, at last, complete.
*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of those involved.
As it happens, the dubious Mr. Hopkins isn't the only one suspected of having sold his soul in order to make his dreams come true. A legendary bluesman known as RJ* is also rumored to have made a similar arrangement. His desire had not been for riches, but for a talent that had not come naturally.
The Mississippi teenager's journey to fame began one night when he played a Robinsonville juke joint. Guitar in hand, he put on his best performance for the crowd who, in turn, booed him off the stage.
His abilities were so poor that he was thrown out into the street at the request of patrons. Many of them had exclaimed, within earshot of the nineteen-year-old would-be musician, that they had never heard such horrendous guitar playing.
Embarrassed and defeated, the youth walked into the darkness and was not seen again for nearly a year. He would return a changed man, in more ways than one.
Months later, on a hot summer's night, the disgraced performer would take the stage again; this time in the town of Bank. As spectators looked on, he added a seventh string to his guitar. Moments later, he launched into a scorching set that brought down the house.
Those who witnessed RJ's triumphant return marveled at his skillful command of the instrument. Some claimed that his hands had moved so swiftly that it appeared to them as if the guitar was playing itself.
RJ's days of being hounded off the stage ended that evening. From then on, he was considered the best guitarist in the Mississippi Delta, bar none. His prowess so exceeded that of everyone else that he was placed in a league of his own.
Almost immediately, the gossip mill began to churn out stories suggesting that RJ's remarkable talent had come with a price. Many wondered how someone whose playing had been the worst anyone had ever heard could have risen to such heights over the span of only a few months.
Some theorized that, following the disastrous performance at the juke joint, RJ had set out in search of someone who could help him master the instrument he carried on his back. His quest ended, they said, when he happened upon a crossroads at the junction of Highways 61 and 49.
It was at this gateway that the youth came face-to-face with a beastly figure who made him an offer he couldn't refuse. The monstrosity had assured the failed musician that it would bestow upon him a talent the likes of which no one had ever seen. In exchange, it would have dibs on the one thing it coveted; his mortal soul.
Having hit rock bottom, RJ, in his youthful naivety, did not hesitate to take the deal. It is believed that he sealed his fate by adding his name to a list of others on a bloody scroll. From that point on, there was no turning back.
With the formalities out of the way, the broker asked for the guitar. It then tuned the instrument before playing a song that RJ had never heard before. When the music stopped, the creature returned the guitar to its owner before disappearing in a flash of lightning.
Although RJ had allegedly confided to those closest to him that the entire transaction had taken only a few minutes, he would come to find that a year had passed. He would have dismissed the entire incident as a dream had it not been for what happened when he strapped on his guitar and began to play.
The sound he created was beyond his wildest expectations. He knew, in those glorious moments, that he was now a force to be reckoned with.
RJ's reputation as a guitar virtuoso exploded soon after he resurfaced. In no time at all, he was fielding offers from record companies eager to capitalize on his popularity.
With the music world groveling at his feet, RJ had it all. Unfortunately, his worldly demons prevented him from reaching his full potential. A notorious drinker and womanizer, he couldn't seem to stay focused on his burgeoning career. By the mid-1930s, he was spiraling downward.
RJ's star crashed to the ground for the last time on August 16, 1938. The details of the events are sketchy, but the end result remains the same. He had been out drinking with a group of friends when he was suddenly taken ill. Within hours, the guitar prodigy would be pronounced dead.
While some believe that RJ's untimely passing was a result of his lifestyle, others aren't so sure. Those who were present that evening claimed that a man had offered him a drink which he had readily accepted.
After consuming the alcohol, he complained that he was not feeling well. A short time later, he was found unresponsive, leading many to conclude that he had been poisoned.
Although he was never charged with any wrongdoing, the man who had so generously provided the beverage was allegedly the husband of one of the musician's many not-so-secret lovers.
The blues great recorded only twenty-nine songs in his brief life. Well-aware of the ongoing curiosity regarding his remarkable abilities, he often referenced the devil and Hell in his lyrics. When questioned, he refused to either confirm or deny his fabled encounter at the crossroads.
Only three photographs of RJ are known to exist. In two of those images, he is holding a guitar. No video recordings of him have ever been found.
The blues great's skills are indisputable. How he attained them is still debated nearly a century after the fact. There are many who believe that his extraordinary talent came, not from some demonic force, but as a result of hard work and practice.
They speculate that, after having been chastised for his abysmal playing, RJ had retreated to his hometown of Hazlehurst to lick his wounds. While there, he caught the attention of Cal Jackson, a renowned blues guitarist in his own right. It is believed that, with his guidance, RJ's light began to shine.
If this is truly how RJ obtained his skills, then Jackson was a tutor of the highest order. He had taken someone who had shown not a shred of talent and turned him into a legend. His abilities were so exceptional, in fact, that they far surpassed those of his mentor. Whether or not this was simply an example of the pupil rising above the teacher, we'll never know.
Even though this scenario is certainly more likely, there are still those who are convinced that something far more sinister was at play. They argue that no one, not even the most proficient of instructors, could have taken the mediocre RJ and turned him into one of the greatest guitarists of all time in less than a year.
Proponents of the theory that RJ sold his soul for success point out the prominence of the number seven in his rise and fall. In Christianity, seven is the most divine of all numerals, signifying spiritual perfection. In the darker realm, its meaning is a tad more ominous.
According to the 15th century Faustian legend, a pact with the devil is payable in full at the end of the seventh year. At age twenty-seven, RJ's death had come in what is known by spiritualists as the fourth of his seven years.
The seventh string with which he modified his guitar is also used to illustrate his connection to the netherworld. Considered a number of completion, seven would be how many years he would prosper before his life was summarily cut short.
RJ will forever be remembered, not only as a master musician, but also as someone who may or may not have bargained with the devil. Over the years, the legend he helped cultivate has overshadowed his genius. It has also made his name forever synonymous with the crossroads; a place where the most desperate among us are willing to pay the ultimate price for the promise of fame and fortune.
*All names were either changed outright or altered in order to protect the privacy of those involved.
- How Stuff Works
- uDiscover Music
- Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads (2019)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.