The Scarlet Letter

Branks and Gags,
page 5 of 5

“6 September, Boston, 1636. Robert Shorthouse for swearinge by the bloud of God was sentenced to have his tongue put into a cleft stick, and soe stand for halfe an houre & Elizabeth wife of Thomas Applegate was censured to stand with her tongue in a cleft stick for half an houre for swearinge, railinge and revilinge.”

Robert Bartlett in the same court in 1638 was C4 psented “for cursing, and swearing, and had his tongue thrust in a cleft stick. Samuel Hawkes for cursing, lying and stealing received the same sentence. In 1671 Sarah Morgan struck her husband. He evidently ran whining to the constables, and Wife Sarah received a just punishment. She was ordered to “stand with a gagg in her mouth” at Kittery, Maine, at a public town-meeting, and “the cause of her offense written and put on her forehead.” Thus gagged and placarded she must have proved a striking figure; jeered at, doubtless, as an odious example of wifely insubordination, by all the good citizens who came to shape the “Town’s Mind” at the Town’s Meeting.

As years passed on the independent spirit of the times became averse to gagging, though whipping and imprisonment still were for some years dealt out for reviling and railing. America was in some ways earlier in humane elements of consideration for criminals than England, and while women were still wearing the brank in English villages American women no longer feared either gag or cleft stick for unruly tongues.

Long after the punishment of which I write had been banished from American courts it lingered in various forms in American schools — as did the stocks, the penance-stool, and the whip. I have an example of a “whispering-stick,” a wooden gag, provided with holes by which it could be tied in place, and which was used in a Providence school during this century as a punishment for whispering. And many a child during the past century had a cleft stick placed on his tongue for ill words or untimely words in school. Sometimes, with an exaggeration of ridicule, a small branch of a tree in full leaf was split and pinched on the tongue—a true pedagogical torture.


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