Women, Crime And Punishment In Ancient Law And Society

Chapter VII.
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.”


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