"“Once in my life I met the Black Man!” said her mother. “This scarlet letter is his mark!”"

Examination of a Witch (1853)
Public DomainExamination of a Witch (1853) - Credit: Tompkins H. Matteson
This outburst is especially interesting as it identifies Dimmesdale as the devil, or at least his associate, and shatters our notions that he is a benign, albeit cowardly and ineffectual, personality. The idea that the devil puts his mark on those whom he tempts over to his side was a standard piece of witch lore. A witch’s initiation ceremony was formalized when she received his brand on her flesh, delivered either by a hot iron or by his licking or clawing her. At witch trials, inquisitors would perform a thorough and deeply intrusive search of the suspect’s body for such a mark with an ardor that led to innocent blemishes, such as moles, birthmarks and scars, being interpreted as incontrovertible proof of guilt.