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