Encyclopedia of Capital Punishment

The Scarlet Letter,
page 3 of 5

“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to wear such badge, such offence may be punished either by ordering his or her allowance to be abridged, suspended or withdrawn, or the offender to be whipped not exceeding five lashes for one offence; and if any person not entitled to relief, as aforesaid, shall presume to wear such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 under-petticoat.

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 thus:

“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 Capitalls, A WANTON GOSPELLER.”

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 Capitall Letters, AN OPEN AND OBSTINATE CONTEMNER OF GOD’s HOLY 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.


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