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On the trail of The Scarlet AD.

In his introduction to the critical edition of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, volume one of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (abbreviated CE), William Charvat stated that Hawthorne knew of "cases of adultery and of the punishments therefor in New England history" that were analogous to Hester Prynne's. Charvat wrote, "A Plymouth law of 1636 decreed two whippings and the wearing of the letters AD on arm or back, and the penalty was inflicted on one Goodwife Mendame of Duxbury for seducing an Indian" (CE 1:xxvi). The editor of the definitive edition of Hawthorne's American Notebooks, Claude M. Simpson, quoted the Plymouth law of 1636 in an explanatory note (CE 8:618). Nearly every writer on Hawthorne who has discussed sources for his scarlet a, whether before or after Charvat, has accepted, and thus propagated, these two beliefs about Plymouth history.

In an 1844-1843 notebook entry commonly taken to be the seed for The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne wrote, "The life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter a, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery" (CE 8:254). (1)

In The Scarlet Letter itself, which is set during the 1640s, (2) Hawthorne wrote as though the Massachusetts magistrates had the discretionary power in cases of adultery to decree either death, as "both in the Scripture and the statute-book"; or "the brand of a hot iron on [the] forehead or standing "three hours on the platform of the pillory" and "thereafter, for the remainder of [one's] natural life" wearing "a mark of shame." And a townsman comments that the magistrates, "in their great mercy and tenderness of heart," have forgone the death penalty and imposed merely the pillory and the mark of shame. (3)

But significant elements of these factual assertions and fictional observations are incorrect or inexact. There was no Plymouth law of 1636 specifying the wearing of the letters ad. Goodwife Mendame was not sentenced to wear those letters. Also, we can uncover to what extent Hawthorne took liberties in writing about the law of and punishments for adultery: There was no "old colony law"--whether one understands Hawthorne's phrase as "an old law, in the colonial period" or (more likely) "a law of the 'old colony,' Plymouth"--that prescribed the (single) letter a. (I use "colonial" for the period up to 1692, the year the second charter was proclaimed in Massachusetts, and "provincial" for the period from 1692 to the Revolution.) At no time in Massachusetts did the law state that death, branding, and wearing a letter were alternative punishments for adultery. And in colonial Massachusetts no one was ever sentenced for adultery to wear letters--red or not--for life. (However, for crimes other than adultery there were a few cases where a "mark of shame" was permanent or its color was red; and in provincial Massachusetts, later than the period of The Scarlet Letter, there were several women--and men--sentenced for adultery to wear a letter a, color unspecified, permanently.)

The Plymouth Adultery Law of 1636

For the alleged Plymouth law of 1636 that required wearing of the letters ad, Charvat cited Randall Stewart's 1932 edition of The American Notebooks. Stewart's source for this law was William Brigham's 1836 transcription of the Plymouth laws. Simpson's source, in his edition of The American Notebooks, also was Brigham. Brigham stated the requirement as "two Capitall letters viz. A D. cut out in cloth." (4)

But the writers citing Brigham (5) have misunderstood his less than transparent method of transcribing and chronologically arranging the manuscript records of the Plymouth laws. Brigham claimed "their chronological arrangement has been preserved." His Part I contains "all the laws from the settlement of the Colony to [but not including] 1658." Part II contains "all the laws found in the records from that period [meaning starting with 1658] to its union with Massachusetts." But then, discussing the revision of the Plymouth laws in 1658, he wrote, "This collection of laws are [sic] not published together ..., but are arranged under the year when they were originally enacted, with a note of their having been re-enacted in 1658" (emphasis added). Brigham included in Part II "such portions of the collection [the 1658 code of laws] as were then for the first time enacted, or had received material alterations." This last statement means that he did not reproduce in his Part II laws enacted earlier and not materially modified by the 1658 code. (6)

The adultery law with the punishment of wearing the letters AD that writers on The Scarlet Letter cite from Brigham is recorded in his Part II. Therefore--as a consequence of his method of chronological ordering and selection--it must have been first enacted, or been materially altered, in or after 1658, not in 1636.

Then why do those writers on Hawthorne who cite Brigham assign the date 1636? They may not have read or understood Brigham's preface. They certainly did not credit George Parsons Lathrop, Hawthorne's son-in-law, who in 1876 wrote, "I may here transcribe, as a further authority, which Hawthorne may or may not have seen, one of the laws of Plymouth Colony, enacted in 1658." (7)

They presumably did not see Francis Baylies' Historical Memoir of New Plymouth (1830), which is likely the "authority" Hawthorne did see. In his volume two, Baylies describes the adultery law and dates it to 1658. Hawthorne is recorded only as withdrawing volume one, in 1837, but he could also have read volume two since both volumes were held by the Salem Athenaeum. (8) Also, therefore, Baylies could have been Hawthorne's source for his 1844-1845 notebook entry about "the old colony [meaning Plymouth] law."

Additionally, those writers did not consult David Pulsifer's later (1861), more faithful and accurate transcription in Records of the Colony of New Plymouth. Instead, they cite the page on which Brigham has the marginal entry, "Adultery, how punished / 1636." However, as shown above, this marginal note cannot mean that this law was enacted in 1636.

The relevant portion of the adultery law, as transcribed by Pulsifer, reads: "and likewise to weare two Capitall letters viz. A D. cut out in cloth and sowed on theire vpermost Garments on theire arme or backe." (9)

Although Pulsifer did not repeat the following in his volume eleven, in volume one of the Records of New Plymouth its editor, Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, wrote, "All the marginal entries in the original volumes have been preserved in the printed copies." In contrast, much of the contents of Brigham's marginal entries is his own annotations, and not present in the original manuscript. (10) In Pulsifer's transcription, the marginal entry is, and only is, "1658"! In other words, this law was enacted in 1658, and the entire marginal entry in Brigham was his fabrication. (11)

Brigham's approach to dating is like that of the Plymouth code of laws of 1658, which "[in] form and organization closely followed the Massachusetts Laws and Liberties." Massachusetts' Book of the General Lauues and Libertyes (first published in 1648) was a collection and revision into a comprehensive code of all laws passed to that time, and is organized alphabetically by topic rather than chronologically. Dates following a section of the laws are the earlier years in which laws related to the topic of that section were enacted. (12) The Massachusetts code of 1648, the Plymouth code of 1658, and Brigham all have used the same method of dating. Brigham's date of 1636 (even though his marginal note is a falsification) means that there was an earlier law on adultery, enacted in 1636. But that earlier law did not prescribe the wearing of letters. (13)

In conclusion, the Plymouth law prescribing the wearing of the letters AD upon conviction for adultery was enacted in 1658, somewhat after the period of The Scarlet Letter, not 1636. (14)

The Punishment of Goodwife Mendame

Was "Goodwife Mendame" actually sentenced to wear the letters AD for adultery? In his edition of The Scarlet Letter (1962), Charvat cited Austin Warren's 1947 edition. Warren had written:
   For seducing an Indian, "Goodwife Mendame of Duxbury was sentenced
   to be whipt at a cart's tayle through the town's streets, and to
   weare a badge with the capital letters AD cut in cloth upon her
   left sleeve ... and if shee shall be found without it abroad,
   then to be burned [presumably with ad] in the face with a hot iron

(The ellipses and brackets above are Warren's.) Warren has quoted someone, but he did not say whom. (15)

Some other writers on Hawthorne have cited or quoted an earlier source than Warren--George F. Willison's Saints and Strangers (1945). Willison wrote:
   For seducing an Indian, "Goodwife" Mendame of Duxbury was sentenced
   "to be whipt at a cart's tayle through the town's streets, and to
   weare a badge with the capital letters AD cut in cloth upon her
   left sleeve, ... and if shee shall be found without it abroad, then
   to be burned in the face with a hott iron."

(The ellipsis above is Willison's.) Willison too has quoted something, and he too did not cite his source. (16) It appears that Warren's source was Willison, since apart from the differences in the quotation marks and the bracketed presumption by Warren, their texts are identical--including both spelling (except only for "hott") and the interior ellipsis. Other writers on The Scarlet Letter who quote Willison or Warren also use this text, but what disappears is who exactly is being quoted, the writer cited, or his source: interior quotation marks go missing, including first in Warren. (17) (Willison properly quotes only the punishment.) However, I have not found any source for Willison's quotation.

But there is an even earlier source, one who has not, I believe, been previously recognized, who quoted the sentence of the Plymouth court upon Mendame, and correctly. In her In the Days of the Pilgrim Fathers (1920), Mary Caroline Crawford transcribed the decision in this 1639 case:
   Mary, the wyfe of Robt. Mendame, of Duxburrow, for using dallyance
   ... and after committing the act of uncleannesse ... the Bench doth
   therefore censure the said Mary to be whipt... and to weare a badge
   upon her left sleeve during her abroad within this gount; and if
   shee shalbe found without it abroad, then to be burned in the face
   with a hott iron;...

(Here the ellipses are mine.) The Plymouth court records had been transcribed in 1855 by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff; Crawford's transcription is complete and only minimally different from Shurtleffs. (18)

Frederick Newberry discusses the notorious case from Maine in 1651, in which Mary Batchellor was branded for adultery with the letter a. We see that the 1639 Mendame case is another possible source for the sensation of a "red-hot iron" felt by the narrator of "The Custom-House" when he placed the faded badge on his breast. Also, the Mendame case includes a badge, as does The Scarlet Letter, the Batchellor case does not. However, for Mary Mendame burning would have ensued only if she appeared in public without the badge; Mary Batchellor actually felt the hot iron that the narrator sensed. (19)

Thus Willison and Warren reported Mendame's sentence incorrectly. Most significantly, of course, the record does not say that Mendame was sentenced to wear "the capital letters AD"--the letters on her badge, as well as whether she would be burned with letters or in some other way, were not specified. Also, Mendame was not convicted specifically of adultery, rather just "dallyance" and "uncleannesse." (20)

Crawford also reported a case of adultery in the Plymouth colony where the letters AD were decreed. In 1641 "Thomas Bray ... a single prson, and Anne, the wyfe of Francis Linceford," were both sentenced for "the act of adultery and uncleanesse" to (in part):
   weare whilst they remaine in the Govment two letters, viz, an AD,
   for Adulterers, daly upon the outside of their uppermost garment,
   in a most emenent place thereof; and if they shalbe found at any
   time in any towne or place wthin the goverment without them so
   worne ... that then the constable of the towne or place shall take
   them, or either of them, omitting so to wear the said two letters,
   and shall forthwth whip them ... and shall cause them to be
   immediately put on againe, and so worne by them and either of them
   ... (21)

Even earlier, two additional writers had reported these 1639 and 1641 cases correctly: Andrew McFarland Davis, in 1895; and George Elliott Howard, in 1904. However, they just briefly quoted or paraphrased from the punishments and did not name Mendame or Linceford, although they both cited the relevant pages from the Records of New Plymouth. (22)

In passing, although the wearing of a scarlet letter may be thought today to have been a penalty imposed only upon the woman, we see in the Linceford case (and in three others, from Massachusetts) that the man too was sentenced to wear letters. (23) We also see an increase in "the old colony['s]" magistrates' "mercy and tenderness of heart" between 1639 and 1641 (the latter being the year of Hester Prynne's trial; see below): if Mary Mendame was seen without her badge, she was to be burned; if either Thomas Bray or Anne Linceford was, they were merely to be whipped and to put it on again.

Apparently some "original," whether Willison or someone earlier, conflated the cases of Mendame and Linceford, assigning the AD of Linceford to Mendame. However, it is hard to see how this occurred: the cases are separated by two years, and they appeared in separate volumes of the court records of the Plymouth colony, both in manuscript (from 1818) and when printed. (24) There are many writers (in addition to Charvat), continuing through 2008, who cite Goodwife Mendame and her alleged AD as a possible source for Hawthorne, some going back to Warren or Willison and later writers citing the earlier. (25) One wonders whether the continued propagation of this error reflects a need among those who write about The Scarlet Letter--but are not aware of the Linceford case--to validate Hawthorne's historical knowledge by accepting without re-examination prior (although erroneous) citations of an historical source for the wearing of letters for adultery that is contemporary with the 1640s period of Hester Prynne's trial.

If, as I have demonstrated, there was no law in Plymouth at the time of the Mendame and Linceford cases that prescribed the wearing of a badge or the letters AD, then how came that to be their punishments? As George Elliott Howard wrote succinctly, "But the [Plymouth] law is not entirely clear." (26) First, the 1636 law's use of the word "lyable" in its section on capital offenses, under which adultery appears, suggests that death was a possible, but not a mandatory, punishment ("liable" meaning "legally subject or amenable to; subject to the possibility of"). This wording can be contrasted with the dictate of the adultery law of 1658, which uses the formulation "shalbee seuerly punished by Whiping ... and likewise to weare two Capitall letters." Second, alterations in and the phrasing of the 1636 law against adultery suggest that there was an especial intent not to make death mandatory for adultery: Adultery had appeared under the non-capital "offence[s] criminall," but was later stricken out; and instead of simply being listed as an "Offence Capitall," it was included there with the wording "Adultery to be punished." (27) Thus in the cases of Mendame and Linceford the magistrates were able to exercise their discretion, and imposed a lesser punishment than death. Of the 1636 laws of New Plymouth, Edgar J. McManus writes, "The magistrates retained considerable discretion in sentencing." He lists adultery as "(death penalty not mandatory)"; and in particular he describes the sentence less than death in the Mendame case. (28)

The case of Anne Linceford is clearly a more pertinent possible historical source for Hawthorne's letter A than that of Mary Mendame, although (as Newberry wrote about Mendame) we must assume either that Hawthorne was influenced by the Linceford case or that he " [took] liberties with the historical record." (29) Interestingly, Hester Prynne's trial took place probably exactly the year and perhaps even the very month Anne Linceford was tried. Since Hester was released from prison in June of 1642 and Pearl was then three months old, Pearl was born in March and conceived the previous June. (30) Hester's trial presumably took place when her pregnancy became evident to outsiders, perhaps in her fifth or sixth month; that is, around November or December, 1641. At that point Hester might have been examined by experienced women to determine if she was pregnant. (31) Anne Linceford was sentenced on December 7, 1641. (32) As John Winthrop wrote (and as Hawthorne had read), 1641 was a year when "sin abounded, and especially the sin of uncleanness" (33)--perhaps another of the reasons Hawthorne chose that year.

Just before describing the cases of Mendame and Linceford, Crawford wrote, "One does not have to look far here [in the records of the Plymouth colony] for the 'original' of Hawthorne's 'Scarlet Letter.'" Thus Crawford appears to be the earliest writer to explicitly associate the Mendame and Linceford cases with The Scarlet Letter. The only other writer I have found who connects the Linceford case with The Scarlet Letter (and she sagaciously does not even mention the letterless Mendame case) is Laura Hanft Korobkin (1997). In 1895 Andrew McFarland Davis had referred to The Scarlet Letter as attaching "some interest" to investigating "the penalty of wearing a letter," and had summarized Linceford's sentence (and Mendame's, although without naming either woman); but he did not explicitly call attention to either of these cases as a model for Hawthorne's scarlet A. (34)

In summary: "Goodwife" Mendame was not specifically sentenced to wear the letters AD, but merely a "badge," nor was she convicted of adultery. Rather, in a slightly later case, Anne Linceford was sentenced for adultery to wear an AD (as was her male partner). The 1641 Linceford case is therefore more pertinent to The Scarlet Letter than the oft- (and erroneously) cited Mendame case. And Mary Caroline Crawford, in 1920, may have been the earliest writer explicitly to connect the Mendame and Linceford cases with The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne's Liberties with Historical Facts

Michael J. Colacurcio refers to " The Scarlet Letters famous historical 'mistake,'" that of setting Richard Bellingham in the Massachusetts governor's chair in June 1642 when he had been defeated a month earlier. Charles Ryskamp discusses various "small changes" Hawthorne made to colonial history, such as altering the month of Governor Winthrop's death from March to May and making the Reverend John Wilson "seem older than he really was." (35) We can find three other "mistakes," these being about the law of and punishments for adultery--details with which Hawthorne took liberties.

First, I have already noted that for Plymouth, the "old colony," in 1636 adultery was "to be punished" (perhaps capitally, perhaps not), and in 1658 its law prescribed the wearing of the letters AD. In the "old" (the colonial) period of Massachusetts, adultery was a capital offense from its first written enactment. (36) It wasn't until the provincial period that the Massachusetts law against adultery, passed in June 1694, mandated the wearing of the letter A. That law specified (in part) that:
   the man and woman that shall be convicted ... shall be set upon the
   gallows by the space of an hour ... and in the way from thence to
   the common goal shall be severely whip'd, not exceeding forty
   stripes each. Also every person and persons so offending shall for
   ever after wear a capital A, ... cut out in cloth of a contrary
   colour to their cloaths... (37)

Thus there was no "old colony law" requiring the wearing specifically of the single letter A. The license that Hawthorne assumed here was either to transfer the "old colony" law of 1658 (which he probably knew via Baylies) or the Linceford case of 1641 from Plymouth to Massachusetts, and change AD to a; or to transfer the 1694 Massachusetts law requiring a letter A to the 1640s--or all of the above. However, as compared to the 1694 law, Hawthorne placed Hester upon the "platform of the pillory" rather than "upon the gallows," increased the time from one hour to three, and did not mention the mandatory whipping from the gallows "to the common goal." Hawthorne knew all these specifics of the 1694 law. (38)

Second, Hawthorne wrote in The Scarlet Letter as though in the Massachusetts of 1641-1642 the magistrates had the discretionary power in cases of adultery to decree either death; or branding; or standing on the pillory and thereafter wearing a mark of shame. (39)

From 1631 the death penalty was in the statute-book, enacted by the Assistants alone; but because there was doubt that this act had been properly passed and publicized (and therefore it was never invoked), in 1638 the General Court enacted a superseding capital law against adultery. By 1641, the law included the appropriate Biblical citations. (40) Adultery was a capital offense throughout the colonial period. But the death penalty was mandatory: the 1638 law said "both shalbee punished by death," so the Massachusetts magistrates had no discretion. (41)

In fact, there were only two persons ever executed for adultery in Massachusetts, in 1644 (and none in the Plymouth colony). (42) Laura Hanft Korobkin mistakenly places this case "[i]n 1642, the same year Hester received her red A," thus exaggerating its relevance to The Scarlet Letter. (43)

In the provincial period, when Britain insisted that Massachusetts laws be consistent with its own, adultery became no longer a capital crime. The penalties prescribed by the 1694 statute (quoted above) were mandatory: the law read "shall be." Once again, the magistrates had no discretion (except in the number of "stripes").

Thus we also see that in neither the colonial nor the provincial period was branding specified as a possible punishment for adultery in the Massachusetts laws. (44) Consequently, there was no time in Massachusetts when the three punishments for adultery spoken of in The Scarlet Letter were alternatives from which the magistrates could choose.

Third, in Massachusetts or Plymouth was anyone ever sentenced for adultery to wear letters or words as an "ignominious punishment"? Did any adultery sentences specify the permanent, lifetime wearing of such letters or words? Did any adultery sentences specify letters of red cloth? (45) Did Hawthorne know of any such cases? (46)

For adultery, in the colonial period there were the two cases in Plymouth, of Mary Mendame in 1639 (a badge) and Anne Linceford in 1641 (letters AD). Wearing of these "marks of shame" was for life, as long as they were in the colony. (47)

In October 1694, four months after the Province of Massachusetts passed its new law, the Superior Court of Judicature heard a case of adultery. The sentence imposed on the male defendant included that "he stand upon the pillory for the space of one full hower with Adultery in Capitall [] written upon his brest." Thus this is a case of (a male) wearing words for adultery in Massachusetts--but it is in the provincial period, not the colonial period of The Scarlet Letter, and it is not "for ever after." (48)

Howard found five convictions for adultery under the provincial Massachusetts law with the prescribed letter A, from 1707 to 1781. In all five cases, all the parties found guilty were sentenced to wear the letter forever. (49)

Davis reports the color of the mark of shame in three Massachusetts and Plymouth cases in the colonial period; in each, the badge was red, and cloth. However, none of these was a case of adultery. (50) In no other case does Davis state the color of the letters. For the provincial period in Massachusetts, when the law specified a "contrary colour," in the five cases Howard found of conviction for adultery the color of the letter A is not stated. In no other cases of wearing a mark of shame, whether for adultery or other offenses, have I found any color mentioned. Hawthorne was aware of one of the sentences to wear a letter of red, in a Massachusetts case in 1634. It was mentioned by Winthrop, who wrote "Robert Cole, having been oft punished for drunkenness, was now ordered to wear a red D about his neck for a year." (51)

To wear letters or words as a humiliation was a not-uncommon sentence in seventeenth-century Massachusetts and Plymouth, for a variety of crimes. Edwin Powers observes that "This penalty was not limited to any particular crime. Its choice probably depended largely on the imagination of the magistrate." (52) But in no cases other than those listed above was wearing of letters or words prescribed upon conviction for adultery. (However, wearing of words was prescribed in some convictions for the lesser crimes of "adulterous," "unclean," "lascivious," etc. "behavior" or "carriage.") (53)

In two 1670 cases in Essex County of abuse to women by Indians, the latter were ordered to "wear a paper ... in any (all) English town(s) or (and) plantation(s)." (54) This seems to have been a permanent badge, analogous to the sentences for Mendame and Linceford that they wear their marks while "abroad" in Plymouth. These two are the only cases I have found in colonial Massachusetts (including Maine) where the wearing of letters or words could possibly have been permanent; in all other cases the sentences were for a specific period of time. (55) (In two of the three cases of red cloth badges found by Davis, the wearing of the badge was not permanent; the third case, a permanent red b for a conviction for blasphemy in 1657, was in Plymouth.)

Davis reports a Massachusetts law of 1646 about "Christian[s] who disturbed congregational services." That law, against "open contempt of Gods word & [] thereof," specified that a second offender could be punished "to stand two houres openly ... wth a pap[er] fixed on his breast, wth this, a WANTON GOSPELLER, written in capitall lettrs." (56) Davis connects this law to Hawthorne's having included in "Endicott and the Red Cross" a man standing on the meetinghouse steps "bearing on his breast this label,--A WANTON GOSPELLER." He concludes that this "makes it certain that Hawthorne in addition to his knowledge of the law ... also possessed some information as to the contents of the Records of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, and this carries with it a presumption of knowledge of the Plymouth Records." However, Davis's inference about Hawthorne's knowledge is not warranted: Hawthorne would have read about this law elsewhere--in Joseph B. Felt's Annals of Salem, where Felt wrote "with the following inscription in capitals on his breast: A wanton Gospeller.'" (57)

In summary, in Massachusetts in the colonial period of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter no one was ever sentenced to wear a letter A, either for a limited time or permanently, whether red or not. The closest punishments similar to Hester Prynne's that have been found are: In 1641, Anne Finceford of Plymouth, as well as her companion in the crime, were sentenced to wear on their garments the capital letters AD for adultery (color unspecified) while they remained in that colony. In 1651, Mary Batchellor of Maine was sentenced to be branded with an A for adultery. In 1634, in a case known to Hawthorne, a Massachusetts man was sentenced to wear a red cloth D for drunkenness, for a year. In 1657, a Plymouth woman was sentenced to wear a red cloth B, for blasphemy, forever. And in 1707 and four additional cases through 1781, eight persons convicted of adultery under the provincial law were sentenced to wear the letter a (color unspecified) forever.

One can grant Hawthorne the request he made in his early historical sketch "Sir William Phips" (1830) regarding historical and biographical writing: "A license must be assumed in brightening the material ... fancy must throw her reviving light" (CE 23:59). As Charles Ryskamp wrote about The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's "small changes" were made "according to definite purposes--so that the plot would develop smoothly to produce the grand and simple balance of the book as we know it." (58) His giving the Massachusetts magistrates of 1641 freedom to choose Hester's punishment may have been another such change. Also, he omits the 1694 law's placement upon the gallows and whipping "from thence to the common goal." That allows him to give Hester her punishment of shaming upon the platform of the pillory after her release from prison, and just before her return to society, connecting it more closely to the succeeding events.

My corrections and additions to the historiography should help both in avoiding incorrect attributions of fallacious historical statements to Hawthorne and in reducing confusion about Hawthorne's knowledge of history and how he "brightened" it.


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Martin, John Stephen, ed. The Scarlet Letter, a Romance. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. 2nd ed. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2004.

McManus, Edgar J. Law and Liberty in Early New England: Criminal Justice and Due Process, 1620-1692. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993.

Murfin, Ross C., ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter". Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006.

Newberry, Frederick. "A Red-Hot A and a Lusting Divine: Sources for The Scarlet Letter!' Person, ed., The Scarlet Letter, 331-337. Reprinted from New England Quarterly GO (June, 1987): 256--264.

Noble, John. Criminal Trials in the Court of Assistants and Superiour Court of Judicature, 1630-1700. Cambridge, Mass.: John Wilson and Son, 1897. Reprinted from Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 3, Transactions 1895-1897 (1900): 51-66.

Ohlson, Winfield E. "Adultery: a Review." Boston University Law Review 17 (1937): 328-368, 533-622.

Orians, G. Harrison. "Hawthorne and Puritan Punishments." College English 13 (May, 1952): 424-432.

Person, Leland S., ed. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

Plymouth Court Records, 1686--1859. Vol. 1: General Sessions of the Peace, 1686--1721; The Court of Common Pleas, 1686-1702. Wilmington, Del.: M. Glazier, 1978.

Powers, Edwin. Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts, 1620-1692: A Documentary History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

Province and Court Records of Maine. 6 vols. Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1928-1975.

Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts. 8 vols. Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1911-1921.

Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. 12 vols. Nathaniel Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, eds. Boston: William White, 1855--1861.

Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay, 1630-1692. 3 vols. Boston: County of Suffolk, 1901-1928.

Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. 5 vols. Boston: William White, 1853-1854.

Records of the Suffolk County Court, 1671-1680. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 29-30 (1933), Collections. Continuously paged.

Ryskamp, Charles. "The New England Sources of The Scarlet Letter." Person, ed., The Scarlet Letter, 291--303. Reprinted from American Literature 31 (Nov., 1959): 257-272.

Smith, Joseph H., ed. Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639-1702): The Pynchon Court Record. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1961.

Smith, Page. Daughters of the Promised Land: Women in American History. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.

Stade, Nancy, ed. The Scarlet Letter. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.

Stewart, Randall, ed. The American Notebooks. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. New Haven: Yale UP, 1932.

Warren, Austin. "Introduction." The Scarlet Letter. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1947: v-x.

Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers & Their Families, with Their Friends & Foes. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945.

Winthrop, John. The History of New Englandfrom 1630 to 1649. James Savage, ed. 2 vols. Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825; Thomas B. Wait and Son, 1826.


(1) Hawthorne's notebook entry also had been quoted by Charvat (CE 1:xxviii). Earlier, in "Endicott and the Red Cross" (1838), Hawthorne had written of a beautiful woman wearing a golden-threaded scarlet A (Twice-told Tales, CE 9:435; noted in CE 8:618).

(2) Ryskamp, "Sources of The Scarlet Letter" 293-294.

(3) CE 1: for death, 63; for Scripture and statute-book, 52; for hot iron, 51; for pillory, mark of shame, and great mercy, 63. For several matronly "goodwives" resentful of this leniency, see 51-52.

(4) CE 1:xxvi n. 25 (Charvat's citation). Stewart, American Notebooks, 299 n. 214. Brigham, Laws of New Plymouth, 113.

(5) The following additional writers on Hawthorne's historical sources have relied, either directly or indirectly, on Brigham: Sculley Bradley et al. (The Scarlet Letter, 1962 and 1968 eds., 191); Frederick Newberry ("Red-Hot A," 332 n. 2), who cited Randall Stewart; John Stephen Martin (Scarlet Letter, a Romance, 353); Leland S. Person (The Scarlet Letter), who included Newberry's article (see 332 n. 2); Ross C. Murfin (Scarlet Letter, 243)--but from the wrong page: he referred to Brigham's Part II (where the law appears on 113), but cited 245-246, which are from Part III (the 1671 collection of the Plymouth laws).

(6) Except for such rearrangements, Brigham's Parts I and II correspond to Parts I and II of the manuscript of the Plymouth laws (Plymouth Colony Records, Laws; held by the Plymouth County Commissioners). Quotations from Brigham, Laws of New Plymouth, in sequence vii, viii, viii, ix, ix. Edgar J. McManus cautions users of Brigham about this selectivity (Law and Liberty, 262). John D. Cushing notes Brigham's "chronological arrangement of selected legislation" (emphasis added; Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, ix).

(7) Lathrop, Study of Hawthorne, 212 n.; noted by Davis, Law of Adultery, 5

(8) Baylies, Historical Memoir of New Plymouth, vol. 2, pt. 2, 108. Kesselring, Hawthorne's Reading, Item 34. Catalogue of the Library, 82 (author's name spelled "Bayles"). Baylies' description of the 1658 law is generally accurate (compare Records of New Plymouth, 11:95). Brigham's transcription of the Plymouth laws was not held by the Athenaeum.

(9) Records of New Plymouth, 11:95.

(10) Records of New Plymouth, 1:xi. Compare Brigham's transcription to Pulsifer's, e.g. for several pages both preceding and following the adultery law.

(11) For Pulsifer's accuracy and Brigham's fabrication, see Plymouth Colony Records, Laws, Part II, 27. Although he does not comment directly on Brigham's marginal notes, Cushing wrote that Brigham's edition "fell far short of doing justice to the eleven folio volumes of original papers." He also praises the Records of New Plymouth as "a landmark in the field of historical publications," and as "contrasting] sharply with Brigham's edition of 1836" (Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, ix).

(12) Quotation from McManus, Law and Liberty, 17. Cushing discusses the alphabetical arrangement (Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, xxi).

(13) For the 1636 law, see Records of New Plymouth, 11:12; and Brigham, Laws of New Plymouth, 43.

(14) Besides Lathrop, only one writer on Hawthorne, Laura Hanft Korobkin, gives the correct date of 1658 ("Scarlet Letter of the Law," 436). However, her sourcing is defective: she cites the opaque Brigham edition (rather than Pulsifer), and more confusingly the page from Brigham for the 1636 law (where it is an "Offence Capitall"), rather than the page for the 1658 law (where the letters AD are prescribed).

(15) Warren, "Introduction," vii.

(16) Willison, Saints and Strangers, 324.

(17) For those other writers, see note 25 below.

(18) Crawford, Pilgrim Fathers, 193-194; Records of New Plymouth, 1:132. The primary difference between Crawford and Shurtleff is their transcriptions of the special marks for abbreviations.

(19) Newberry, "Red-Hot A," 331-332. Newberry mentions the Mendame case (331) but does not comment that she faced the possibility of branding. "Red-hot iron" from CE 1:32; "faded" from 31.

(20) "Uncleanness" was a term signifying "desecration of the body" (Godbeer, Sexual Revolution, 87).

(21) Crawford, Pilgrim Fathers, 194-195. As with the Mendame case, her transcription is quite accurate (compare Records of New Plymouth, 2:28). Here adultery is explicit.

(22) Davis, Law of Adultery, 16-17; Howard, Matrimonial Institutions, 2:171-172. In 1937 Winfield E. Ohlson also reported the two cases correctly, likely having used Howard or perhaps Davis as his initial source ("Adultery: a Review," 355-356). Ohlson does not mention The Scarlet Letter. More recently, both Powers (Crime and Punishment, 199) and McManus (Law and Liberty, 165) describe the Linceford (or "Lindford") case.

(23) Cases in 1731, 1752, and 1781 (Howard, Matrimonial Institutions, 2:175-176). For 1781, although Howard does not mention it, the manuscript record he cites documents that the man also was sentenced to wear an A. In one further case, in 1694, only the man was sentenced to wear letters (the word adultery), although for only one hour; I discuss this case later.

(24) For the 1818 binding of the manuscripts, see Records of New Plymouth, 1 :x.

(25) G. Harrison Orians (1952) described Mendame as sentenced to wear an AD, but footnotes were omitted due to space limitations ("Hawthorne and Puritan Punishments," 430-431; for footnotes omitted see 424 n. 1). Charles Boewe and Murray G. Murphey (1960) quoted Willison and also cited Warren ("Hester Prynne in History," 202-203). Sculley Bradley et al. (The Scarlet Letter, 1962 and 1978 eds., 219-220) reprinted Boewe and Murphey's article. Page Smith (1970) quoted Willison (Daughters of the Promised Land, 52). Frederick Newberry (1987) cited Warren and also mentioned Boewe and Murphey as well as Willison ("Red-Hot A," 332 n. 2). Seymour Gross et al. (The Scarlet Letter, 1988 ed., 205) also reprinted Boewe and Murphey's article. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (1999) quoted a portion of Boewe and Murphey's quotation (Scarlet Letter, 65). Richard Kopley (2003) mentioned in his "Bibliographic Overview" Boewe and Murphey's statement that Mendame wore an AD (Threads o/The Scarlet Letter, 116). John Stephen Martin's edition of The Scarlet Letter (2nd ed., 2004) cited both Willison and Warren, quoting the passage once but not telling us from whom (353). Leland S. Person (The Scarlet Letter, 2005) included Newberry's article (see 332 n. 2). Ross C. Murfin's edition of The Scarlet Letter (2nd ed., 2006) cited and briefly quoted Boewe and Murphey (12-13). Jason Charles Courtmanche (2008) cited Newberry (Nathaniel Hawthorne's Narratives, 26).

Jacob Blanck called this "The Shibboleth": "the oft-repeated pronouncement" that "once given to the world it is all but deathless" ("Calendar of Bibliographical Difficulties," 8, 9). Or as Robert Hume wrote, "Once a factual error is in print, it is virtually ineradicable, for it will be picked up and repeated" (Reconstructing Contexts, 96; he is much more severe on 60).

(26) Howard, Matrimonial Institutions, 2:171 n. 2; Howard refers to Davis, Law of Adultery, 16.

(27) Records of New Plymouth, 11:12 (1636), 95 (1658). Some writers assert that adultery was never capital in Plymouth: Powers, Crime and Punishment, 300 (where he discusses the alterations to the 1636 laws), 520; Korobkin, "Scarlet Letter of the Law," 430, citing Powers; and Godbeer, Sexual Revolution, 101 n. 33. Howard writes that "in Plymouth the death penalty for adultery seems never to have been established" (MatrimonialInstitutions, 2:171). Davis writes that "some doubt existed," and supposes a sequence of initial statement of and then alteration to the law (Law of Adultery, 16).

(28) McManus, Law and Liberty, 8, 187; Mendame case on 161, 165. McManus cites the correct page of the Records of New Plymouth (1:132), but unfortunately he emulates Warren in the presumption that "[Mendame] would be branded with the letters ad (adultery) if she appeared in public without [them]" (172). For general discussion of discretionary justice in Massachusetts in the early 1630s, see Cahn, "Punishment, Discretion, and Codification," and Lee, "Discretionary Justice."

(29) Newberry, "Red-Hot A," 331. Newberry does not cite the Linceford case.

(30) CE 1:48 (June), 52 (three months old); and Ryskamp, "Sources of The Scarlet Letter," 294.

(31) There are recorded instances of similar examinations. In 1682 a Maine woman had confessed to adultery. However, the court being "not so fully satisfied with her Confession," ordered seven women "or any foure of them, according to their best skill" to examine "whither shee bee with Child or not." Four of them reported that "they judg as neare as they can" that she was "gone with Child" about four months. Province and Court Records of Maine, 3:87-88. In 1743 a woman in jail in Massachusetts for murder of her infant child claimed to be pregnant. The court "ordered that 12 experienced matrons be sworn to make a physical examination"; in a formal report signed by all twelve, her claim was "dismissed." Hearn, Legal Executions in New England, 134.

(32) Records of New Plymouth, 2:28.

(33) Winthrop, History of New England, 2:48; Kesselring, Hawthorne's Reading, Item 481.

(34) Crawford, Pilgrim Fathers, 193. Korobkin, "Scarlet Letter of the Law," 435-436. Korobkin does not acknowledge Crawford's discussion, nor Davis or Howard. Davis, Law of Adultery, 3, 16-17. For a 1657 case involving blasphemy (described later), Davis does write "here we have the red letter"--in this case, a b (21).

(35) Colacurcio, "'Woman's Own Choice,"' 108-109. Ryskamp, "Sources of The Scarlet Letter',' 291 ("small changes"), 293, 300.

(36) Records of the Governor and Company, 1:92 (1631) and 225 (1638).

(37) Acts and Resolves of Massachusetts, 1:171. Oddly, Nancy Stade claims a 1694 Plymouth statute required the letter a (Scarlet Letter, 220 [ch. 2, n. 3]), but by that date Plymouth had been incorporated into Massachusetts. She does not mention the Plymouth law of 1658 requiring an ad.

(38) Hawthorne would have known the 1694 adultery law from either of two sources, Felt (Annals of Salem, 317), or an edition of the province laws (Acts and Laws of Massachusetts, 58). He withdrew Annals of Salem in 1833, 1834, and finally 1849, just one year before The Scarlet Letter was published (Kesselring, Hawthorne's Reading, Item 166). He withdrew the Acts and Laws in 1828 (Kesselring, Item 293). For Hawthorne's description of Hester's punishment, see CE 1:55-56, 63. The pillory, in the center of town, was a more readily viewable location for shaming than the gallows, which was out on Boston Neck. In "Endicott and the Red Cross," Hawthorne had placed miscreants for other crimes on the steps of the meetinghouse and in the pillory and the stocks for only one hour (CE 9:434--435).

(39) See note 3 above.

(40) For 1631 and 1638, see note 36 above. For 1641, see Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, 701, where Leviticus and Deuteronomy are cited.

(41) Davis writes, "under the Colonial code, death was the only prescribed penalty" (Law of Adultery, 14; see also 11). The Massachusetts legislators did utilize discretionary death penalties, depending on the crime and its circumstances, as in the law against rape (Haskins, Law and Authority, 150).

(42) Records of the Assistants of Massachusetts, 2:139; Powers, Crime and Punishment, 291-292. Hawthorne knew of this case via Winthrop, who observed that "some magistrates" opposed the sentence of death (History of New England, 2:157-159, which is extensively quoted by Powers). For no other executions in Massachusetts or Plymouth, see Hearn, Legal Executions in New England, Index under "adultery."

(43) Korobkin, "Scarlet Letter of the Law," 431.

(44) In 1651, when Mary Batchellor was branded, Maine was operating under its own laws, independently of Massachusetts, laws intended to be consistent with the laws of England (Clayton, History of York County, 27; Province and Court Records of Maine, lix). Branding was a possible punishment for adultery in Connecticut in the post Revolutionary period (Acts and Laws of Connecticut, 8), and in 1786 Massachusetts newspapers reported that a man sentenced at Litchfield for adultery was to be "burnt on the forehead with the letter A" (Massachusetts Centinel, 1786 Aug. 10, p. 3, col. 1; also American Herald, 1786 Aug. 21, p. 3, col. 3).

(45) Hester's letter is described as of "red cloth" or "scarlet cloth" (CE 1:31 [twice], 32, 53, 87).

(46) I have searched all the secondary sources and the indexes of all the primary sources (published records of court cases) listed in the Bibliography. However, I have not attempted to discover cases not listed in those indexes, nor cases recorded in other primary sources (such as manuscript collections or the Massachusetts Archives) or in other secondary sources.

(47) In his (misconceived) argument for Hawthorne's "confusion" about the adultery laws of Plymouth and Massachusetts, Edwin Powers wrote, "Nor did Plymouth courts ever sentence a person to wear such a letter for life" (Crime and Punishment, 519-520). Unless by "such a letter" he meant specifically the single letter a, this is incorrect, given the Linceford case--a case he was aware of (see 199).

(48) Noble, Criminal Trials, 17; Suffolk Files Collection, vol. 35 (Oct. 1694 to May 1695), case no. 3030, Judicial Archives, Boston.

Why did the judges require wearing the word adultery rather than the letter a, and for only one hour rather than for life, when that was not in the Massachusetts laws, under either the first charter or the second? They may have thought they could not impose as severe a sentence as wearing a letter "for ever after" in a case that had been initiated before the June 1694 enactment of the new adultery law (the case file includes depositions dated March). So they used a punishment common both in old England--and thus consistent with British law--and in New England, that of wearing for a limited time a paper with words describing the crime. For wearing words in old England, see Davis, Law of Adultery, 25-26; Haskins, Law and Authority, 175, examples on 184. For New England, see below.

(49) Howard, Matrimonial Institutions, 2:175-176; Superior Court of Judicature, Record Books, Judicial Archives, Boston (for the specific years and leafs, see Howard). In two of the cases, the man was acquitted.

(50) Davis, Law of Adultery, 18, 20-21, 20.

(51) Winthrop, History of New England, 1:125; recorded in Records of the Assistants of Massachusetts, 2:41.

(52) Powers, Crime and Punishment, 199. Powers describes many cases of wearing letters or words (198-201), as does McManus (Law and Liberty, 165-166).

(53) For one example (in 1673), see Records of the Assistants of Massachusetts, 1:10; cited in Howard, Matrimonial Institutions, 2:174 n. 1.

(54) Records of the Courts of Essex County, 4:230; one verdict reads "any," the other "all."

(55) In 1639 in Massachusetts, a man convicted of theft was sentenced "to have a t set vpon his vpmost garment." For how long is not stated, but it is unlikely that for this otherwise mildly punished case it was to be "forever." Records of the Assistants of Massachusetts, 2:86.

(56) Davis, Law of Adultery, 21; Records of the Governor and Company, 2:179.

(57) "Endicott and the Red Cross," CE 9:434-435. Davis, Law of Adultery, 6. Felt, Annals of Salem, 175-176.

(58) Ryskamp, "Sources of The Scarlet Letter" 291.
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Date:Mar 22, 2013
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