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The Scarlet Letter

The rare genius of Hawthorne has immortalized in his Scarlet Letter
one mode of stigmatizing punishment common in New England. So faithful
is the presentment of colonial life shown in that book, so unerring the
power and touch which drew the picture, it cannot be disputed that the
atmosphere of the Scarlet Letter forms in the majority of hearts, nay,
in the hearts and minds of all of our reading community, the daily life,
the true life of the earliest colonists. To us the characters have
lived--Hester Prynne is as real as Margaret Winthrop, Arthur Dimmesdale
as John Cotton.

The glorified letter that stands out of the pages of that book had its
faithful and painful prototype in real life in all the colonies; humbler
in its fashioning, worn less nobly, endured more despairingly, it shone
a scarlet brand on the breast of those real Hesters.

It was characteristic of the times--every little Puritan community
sought to know by every fireside, to hate in every heart, any offence,
great or small, which could hinder the growth and prosperity of the new
abiding-place, which was to all a true home, and which they loved with a
fervor that would be incomprehensible did we not know their spiritual
exaltation in their new-found freedom to worship God. Since they were
human, they sinned. But the sinners were never spared, either in
publicity or punishment. Keen justice made the magistrates rigid and
exact in the exposition and publication of crime, hence the labelling of
an offender.

From the Colony Records of "New Plymouth," dated June, 1671, we find
that Pilgrim Hester Prynnes were thus enjoined by those stern moralists
the magistrates:

"To wear two Capitall Letters, A. D. cut in cloth and sewed on their
uppermost garment on the Arm and Back; and if any time they shall be
founde without the letters so worne while in this government, they shall
be forthwith taken and publickly whipt."

Many examples could be gathered from early court records of the wearing
of significant letters by criminals. In 1656 a woman was sentenced to be
"whipt at Taunton and Plymouth on market day." She was also to be fined
and forever in the future "to have a Roman B cutt out of ridd cloth &
sewed to her vper garment on her right arm in sight." This was for
blasphemous words. In 1638 John Davis of Boston was ordered to wear a
red V "on his vpermost garment"--which signified, I fancy, viciousness.
In 1636 William Bacon was sentenced to stand an hour in the pillory
wearing "in publique vew" a great D--for his habitual drunkenness. Other
drunkards suffered similar punishment. On September 3, 1633, in Boston:

"Robert Coles was fyned ten shillings and enjoyned to stand with a white
sheet of paper on his back whereon Drunkard shalbe written in great lres
& to stand therewith soe longe as the Court finde meete, for abuseing
himself shamefully with drinke."

The following year Robert Coles, still misbehaving, was again sentenced,
and more severely, for his drunkard's badge was made permanent.

"1634. Robert Coles, for drunkenes by him comitted at Rocksbury, shalbe
disfranchized, weare about his necke, & soe to hange vpon his outwd
garment a D. made of redd cloth & sett vpon white; to continyu this for
a yeare, and not to have itt off any time hee comes among company, Vnder
the penalty of xls for the first offence & v£ for the second &
afterwards to be punished by the Court as they think meete, alsoe hee is
to weare the D. outwards."

We might be justified in drawing an inference from the latter clause
that some mortified wearers of a scarlet letter had craftily turned it
away from public gaze, hoping thus to escape public odium and ostracism.

Paupers were plainly labelled, as was the custom everywhere in England.
In New York, the letters N. Y. showed to what town they submitted. In
Virginia this law was in force:

"That every person who shall receive relief from the parish, and be sent
to the said house, shall, upon the shoulder of the right sleeve of his
or her uppermost garment, in an open and visible manner, wear a badge
with the name of the parish to which he or she belongs, cut in red,
blue or green cloth, as the vestry or church wardens shall direct; and
if any poor person shall neglect or refuse to wear such badge, such
offence may be punished either by ordering his or her allowance to be
abridged, suspended or withdrawn, or the offender to be whipped not
exceeding five lashes for one offence; and if any person not entitled to
relief, as aforesaid, shall presume to wear such badge, he or she shall
be whipped for every such offence."

The conditions of wearing "in an open and visible manner" may have been
a legal concession necessitated by the action of the English goody who,
when ordered to wear a pauper's badge, demurely pinned it on an

A more limited and temporary mortification of a transgressor consisted
in the marking by significant letters or labels inscribed in large
letters with the name or nature of the crime. These were worn only while
the offender was exposed to public view or ridicule in cage, or upon
pillory, stocks, gallows or penance stool, or on the meeting house
steps, or in the market-place.

An early and truly characteristic law for those of Puritan faith reads

"If any interrupt or oppose a preacher in season of worship, they shall
be reproved by the Magistrate, and on a repetition, shall pay £5 or
stand two hours on a block four feet high, with this inscription in

This law was enacted in Boston. A similar one was in force in the
Connecticut colony. In 1650 a man was tried in the General Court in
Hartford for "contemptuous carriages" against the church and ministers,
and was thus sentenced:

"To stand two houres openly upon a blocke or stoole foure feet high
uppon a Lecture Daye with a paper fixed on his breast written in
ORDINANCES, that others may feare and be ashamed of breakinge out in
like wickednesse."

The latter clause would seem to modern notions an unintentional yet
positive appeal to the furtherance of time-serving and hypocrisy.

Drunkards frequently were thus temporarily labelled.

I quote an entry of Governor Winthrop's in the year 1640:

"One Baker, master's mate of the ship, being in drink, used some
reproachful words of the queen. The governour and council were much in
doubt what to do with him, but having considered that he was
distempered, and sorry for it, and being a stranger, and a chief officer
in the ship, and many ships were there in harbour, they thought it not
fit to inflict corporal punishment upon him, but after he had been two
or three days in prison, he was set an hour at the whipping post with a
paper on his head and dismissed."

Many Boston men were similarly punished. For defacing a public record
one was sentenced in May, 1652, "to stand in the pillory two Howers in
Boston market with a paper ouer his head marked in Capitall Letters A
DEFACER OF RECORDS." Ann Boulder at about the same time was ordered "to
stand in yrons half an hour with a Paper on her Breast marked PVBLICK

In 1639 three Boston women received this form of public punishment; of
them Margaret Henderson was "censured to stand in the market place with
a paper for her ill behavior, & her husband was fyned £5 for her yvill
behavior & to bring her to the market place for her to stand there."

Joan Andrews of York, Maine, sold two heavy stones in a firkin of
butter. She, too, had to stand disgraced bearing the description of her
wicked cheatery "written in Capitall Letters and pinned upon her
forehead." Widow Bradley of New London, Connecticut, for her sorry
behaviour in 1673 had to wear a paper pinned to her cap to proclaim her

Really picturesque was Jan of Leyden, of the New Netherland settlement,
who for insolence to the Bushwyck magistrates was sentenced to be
fastened to a stake near the gallows, with a bridle in his mouth, a
bundle of rods under his arm, and a paper on his breast bearing the
words, "Lampoon-riter, False-accuser, Defamer of Magistrates." William
Gerritsen of New Amsterdam sang a defamatory song against the Lutheran
minister and his daughter. He pleaded guilty, and was bound to the
Maypole in the Fort with rods tied round his neck, and wearing a paper
labelled with his offense, and there to stand till the end of the

This custom of labelling a criminal with words or initials expositive of
his crime or his political or religious offense, is neither American nor
Puritan in invention and operation, but is so ancient that the knowledge
of its beginning is lost. It was certainly in full force in the twelfth
century in England. In 1364 one John de Hakford, for stating to a friend
that there were ten thousand rebels ready to rise in London, was placed
in the pillory four times a year "without hood or girdle, barefoot and
unshod, with a whetstone hung by a chain from his neck, and lying on his
breast, it being marked with the words A False Liar, and there shall
be a pair of trumpets trumpeting before him on his way." Many other
cases are known of hanging an inscribed whetstone round the neck of the
condemned one. For three centuries men were thus labelled, and with
sound of trumpets borne to the pillory or scaffold. As few of the
spectators of that day could read the printed letters, the whetstone and
trumpets were quite as significant as the labels. In the first year of
the reign of Henry VIII, Fabian says that three men, rebels, and of good
birth, died of shame for being thus punished. They rode about the city
of London with their faces to their horses' tails, and bore marked
papers on their heads, and were set on the pillory at Cornhill and again
at Newgate. In Canterbury, in 1524, a man was pilloried, and wore a
paper inscribed: "This is a false perjured and for-sworn man." In the
corporation accounts of the town of Newcastle-on-Tyne are many items of
the expenses for punishing criminals. One of the date 1594 reads: "Paide
for 4 papers for 4 folkes which was sett on the pillorie, 16d."

Writing was not an every-day accomplishment in those times, else
fourpence for writing a "paper" would seem rather a high-priced

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