The Scarlet Letter

Chapter IV.
The Pillory.

Hawthorne says in his immortal Scarlet Letter:

“This scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical or traditionary among us, but was held in the old time to be as effectual in the promotion of good citizenship as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks - against our common nature - whatever be the delinquencies of the individual no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame.”

This “essence of punishment” — the pillory or stretch-neck — can be traced back to a remote period in England and on the Continent — certainly to the twelfth century. In its history, tragedy and comedy are equally blended; and martyrdom and obloquy are alike combined. Seen in a prominent position in every village and town, its familiarity of presence was its only retrieving characteristic; near church-yard and in public square was it ever found; local authorities forfeited the right to hold a market unless they had a pillory ready for use.

A description of a pillory is not necessary to one who has read any illustrated history of the English Church, of the Quakers, Dissenters, or of the English people; for the rude prints of political and religious sufferers in the pillory have been often reproduced. Douce, in his Illustrations of Shakespeare gives six different forms of the pillory. It was an upright board, hinged or divisible in twain, with a hole in which the head was set fast, and usually with two openings also for the hands. Often the ears were nailed to the wood on either side of the head-hole. Examples exist of a small finger-pillory or thumb-stocks, but are rare.


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