The Scarlet Letter

The Pillory,
page 2 of 6

It would be impossible to enumerate the offences for which Englishmen were pilloried: among them were treason, sedition, arson, blasphemy, witch-craft, perjury, wife-beating, cheating, forestalling, forging, coin-clipping, tree-polling, gaming, dice-cogging, quarrelling, lying, libelling, slandering, threatening, conjuring, fortune-telling, “prigging,” drunkenness, impudence. One man was set in the pillory for delivering false dinner invitations; another for a rough practical joke; another for selling an injurious quack medicine. All sharpers, beggars, impostors, vagabonds, were liable to be pilloried. So fierce sometimes was the attack of the populace with various annoying and heavy missiles on pilloried prisoners that several deaths are known to have ensued. On the other side, it is told in Chamber’s Book of Days that a prisoner, by the sudden collapse of a rotten footboard, was left hanging by his neck in danger of his life. On being liberated he brought action against the town and received damages.

The pillory in England has seen many a noble victim. The history of Puritanism, of Reformation, is filled with hundreds of pages of accounts of sufferings on the pillory. When such names as those of Leighton, Prynne, Lilburne, Burton and Bastwick appear as thus being punished we do not think of the pillory as a scaffold for felons, but as a platform for heroes. Who can read unmoved that painful, that pathetic account of the punishment of Dr. Bastwick. His weeping wife stood on a stool and kissed his poor pilloried face, and when his ears were cut off she placed them in a clean handkerchief and took them away, with emotions unspeakable and undying love.

De Foe said, in his famous Hymn to the Pillory:

          “Tell us, great engine, how to understand
          Or reconcile the justice of this land;
          How Bastwick, Prynne, Hunt, Hollingsby and Pye —
                  Men of unspotted honesty —
                  Men that had learning, wit and sense,
                  And more than most men have had since,
          Could equal title to thee claim
          With Oates and Fuller, men of fouler fame.”


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