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Scarlet letter

Posted by ESC on May 21, 2004

In Reply to: Scarlet letter posted by Brian from Shawnee on May 20, 2004

: : : can anyone tell me the origin and meaning of the scarlet letter "A" ? I have heard many referenceses to it, the band jethro tull has an album with this title, it seems to be a reference to public disobediance and revolt. help?

: : It is a reference to a classic -- "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's a good story. I was going to refer you to Spark Notes, a really good site online with summaries, etc., of literature. That site is down temporarily so here's some information from another site:

: : "The Narrator tells us that he found some documents telling the story of a Scarlet Letter used by a woman named Hester Prynne from Boston, Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century. He goes on to write an embellished version of the story.

: : The story begins with Hester Prynne, who has just given birth to an illegitimate daughter, leaving the prison to serve her sentence of standing in the town scaffolds for an hour with her three-month-old baby. She has also been required to wear a red letter 'A,' to stand for Adulteress, on her chest. Hester has embroidered the A with beautiful gold thread and amazing artistry..."

: :

: : One site said this was actually a practice at one time -- the scarlet A, I mean.

: In high school I was told they also used other letters such as H for Heresy and I for Incest. I wasn't able to find evidence of that during a brief Google search, but I found a site that indicates the letters B for Burglar and T for Thief were used. I've always wondered if each letter also had its own color.


Not only were convicted adulterers to be severely whipped twice, but they were to forever display the nature of their crime upon their person. Hawthorne's infamous scarlet letter was not a pure fiction. While the legislation did not specify a color for the cloth letters, at least one court case did specify that they be red.

This same site mentions a case where a woman has to wear a red B, but I don't know what it stood for:

.The case between Katheren Aines and William Paule ended with an unusual conviction. The case was first brought before the Court of Assistants on February 3, 1656 (PCR 3:110-11), but for want of more information, it was referred to the next General Court on March 5th of that year (PCR 3:111-12). The two were not clearly convicted of adultery, but they were sentenced for "vnclean and laciuiouse behauior." William was publicly whipped and, as an additional punishment, he was forced to pay the costs of his brief imprisonment. Katheren was whipped once at Plymouth and once at Taunton and forced to wear a red B on her right shoulder for the remainder of her time in the colony. However, the most unusual part of the ruling was the punishment inflicted on Alexander Aines "for his leaueing his family, and exposing his wife to such temtations, and being as baud to her therin." He was sentenced to pay the fee for his wife's imprisonment and sit in the stocks while she and William were whipped. The records do not indicate how long Aines was absent from his family, but abandonment was grounds for divorce in the colony.