Page 26. " under the hand and seal of Governor Shirley "

Portrait of William Shirley (1750)
Public DomainPortrait of William Shirley (1750) - Credit: Thomas Hudson
William Shirley (1694-1771) was the longest-serving governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, holding post from 1741-9 and then again from 1753-9.    

William Shirley's hand
Public DomainWilliam Shirley's hand - Credit: William Shirley

Page 26. " in favor of one Jonathan Pue "

Jonathan Pue became surveyor for the port of Salem in 1752. Little is known of him besides this fact.

Public Domain"Surveyor Pue and Hawthorne" - illustration from the 1920 edition - Credit: Hugh Thomson
Page 26. " I remembered to have read (probably in Felt’s Annals) a notice of the decease of Mr. Surveyor Pue "

Joseph B. Felt’s Annals of Salem (1827) was one of Hawthorne’s main sources of information about his native town. The notice of Pue’s death in 1760 is contained in an extremely succinct two lines on page 455: “March 24th. Jonathan Pue, Esq. d. suddenly. He was surveyor and searcher of this Port and Marb.” 

Page 26. " an account of the digging up of his remains in the little grave-yard of St. Peter’s Church, during the renewal of that edifice "
Saint Peter's Episcopal Church graveyard
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSaint Peter's Episcopal Church graveyard - Credit: Melissa Doroquez

Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church was established in 1733, shortly after permission to found non-Congregationalist churches had been granted. In 1833, the original wooden edifice was demolished to make way for a stone building. The new foundations came in the way of a burial ground, the digging of which unearthed the remains of former worshippers. This grisly spectacle is recounted in an article that appeared in The Salem Observer on 8th June, 1833, in which the corpse of Jonathan Pue is singled out for a detailed description. The piece, undoubtedly Hawthorne's source, can be read here





Saint Peter's Episcopal Church
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSaint Peter's Episcopal Church - Credit: Melissa Doroquez
Page 26. " a wig of majestic frizzle; which, unlike the head that it once adorned, was in very satisfactory preservation "
Illustration mocking the preposterous fashions in wigs in the mid-18th century
Public DomainIllustration mocking the preposterous fashions in wigs in the mid-18th century - Credit: William Hogarth

This detail is pulled from the article in The Salem Observer, which reported: “His wig was in a good state of preservation and his worsted sash was not entirely decayed; three silver buttons were also found in his grave.” Wigs were a standard feature of male attire during the eighteenth century in America as in Europe, and were worn by all social classes. Those in fashion when Pue was interred were voluminous spectacles of long cascading curls made of horse, goat or human hair (the latter being the most expensive). A liberal dusting of powder, used to provide the fashionable white tint, had the additional benefit of disguising unpleasant smells.

A wig of majestic frizzle
Public DomainA wig of majestic frizzle - Credit: Nicolas de Largillière
Page 26. " the article entitled “MAIN-STREET,” included in the present volume "

'Main-Street,’ a short story which weaves in many of the details of Salem’s colorful history recounted in the ‘The Custom-House,’ had been published in 1849 in Aesthetic Papers, a compilation of high-minded works edited by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (Hawthorne’s impressive sister-in-law). It was originally intended for inclusion in this volume before James T. Fields, the prospective publisher, recommended the work should stand in its current form.

Page 26. " I contemplate depositing them with the Essex Historical Society "

The Essex Historical Society was formed by Salem doctor Edward Augustus Holyoke in 1821 "for the purpose of collecting and preserving materials for the civil and natural history of the said county of Essex" (Petition for Incorporation, 1821, p. 3). In 1848 it merged with the Essex County Natural History Society to form the Essex Institute, so when Hawthorne was writing it was no longer strictly extant. The Institute joined forces with the Peabody Museum of Salem in 1992 and now exists as the Peabody Essex Museum.

Page 27. " the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads "
Young Woman Sewing (1870)
Public DomainYoung Woman Sewing (1870) - Credit: Thomas Couture

In fact, though fashions in embroidery have shifted over the centuries, the actual stitches themselves have changed very little. Hawthorne’s intention here is to root Hester in a historic past whose complexities are inextricable from her individual experiences. He also highlights the specifically feminine nature of needlework: it is at once a signifier of the lesser, domestic sphere to which women were confined and, as the only type of art afforded to them, a powerful means of personal expression, as well as a means of securing an independent income. 

Page 27. " one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of Indians "

This seems to be a reference to amulets that were intended to protect against the evil eye, rather than as a means of blinding Native Americans. The idea that certain individuals, simply through a baleful stare, are able to curse people, animals and even inanimate objects, was — and in many cases, still is — widespread across numerous cultures. To allay this threat, people wore protective talismans in a dazzling array of forms. Those resembling the eye itself are best-known, but hamsas (hand-shaped symbols), fascinums (phallic symbols), crucifixes, fish, seahorses and more have also been used. Though Puritans claimed to have purged themselves of the idolatrous superstition they attributed to the Church of England, their belief that the devil could exert his dire influence through the evil eye and witchcraft shows this was far from being the case.

Page 27. " the life and conversation of one Hester Prynne "
William Prynne in the pillory
Public DomainWilliam Prynne in the pillory - Credit: from Cassell's Illustrated History of England, vol. 3 (1865)

Hawthorne may well have chosen to name his heroine after one of the victims of his great-great-great grandfather's crusade against moral turpitude. Hester Craford, given away by her pregnancy, was found guilty of “fornication” with a Samuel Wedg in 1668. As a punishment, she was severly whipped under the oversight of William Hathorne.


Hester's surname, meanwhile, is taken from William Prynne (1600-69), an English Puritan whose angry attacks on the Anglican Church, contemporary fashion and the theater earned him a life sentence in the Tower of London. Like Hester, he was forced to stand in the pillory and was physically branded for his transgressions, having both of his ears lopped off, his nose slit and the initials SL (standing for “seditious libeler”) branded on both cheeks. He was later publically redeemed when the civil war broke out in 1642 and his support for the Parliamentarian cause won him the favor of the victorious Roundheads.

Page 28. " the dignity of one who had borne his Majesty’s commission "
George II (1744)
Public DomainGeorge II (1744) - Credit: Thomas Hudson

George II coat of arms
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeGeorge II coat of arms - Credit: Motacilla
Since Surveyor Pue took up his post at the Custom House in 1752, 31 years prior to the attainment of American independence, he would have been in the employment of the British monarchy, which was then headed by George II.

Page 28. " the hang-dog look of a republican official "

It is important here to note the small “r.” The Republican Party did not form until 1854 and Hawthorne is simply referring to officials whose fealty lay with the American government rather than the British monarchy. 

Page 30. " the three and a half hours which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life "
Hawthorne hard at work in the custom house
Public DomainHawthorne hard at work in the custom house - Credit: Hugh Thomson

Hawthorne’s working day is presumably so short because of the lack of demands on his attention rather than the government’s requirements. This was in a period before labor laws restricted the amount of time any individual could be made to work and the standard was between ten and twelve hours a day. Activists had been demanding a limit of ten, and later eight, hours be enforced since the 1790s, but it wasn’t until many decades later that they gained any success. Even when Congress passed an eight-hour-a-day law in 1868, it only applied to federal employees and was of very limited efficacy.

Cartoon of a government official having a snooze while disgruntled members of the public queue up at his desk
Public DomainCartoon of a government official having a snooze while disgruntled members of the public queue up at his desk - Credit: Bayard Taylor


Old-fashioned pocket watch
Creative Commons AttributionOld-fashioned pocket watch - Credit: Deutsches Uhrenmuseum

Page 31. " It converts them from snow-images into men and women "

This fleeting image is one that clearly resonated with Hawthorne, for he was inspired to compose the short story ‘The Snow-Image’ alongside The Scarlet Letter and published them both in the same year. This charming tale, in which the “snow-sister” of two young children comes to life, is a parable concerning the transformative capacities of the imagination (and the rather more limited ones of materialistic “common-sense”). 

Page 31. " the smouldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite "
Glowing coals
Creative Commons AttributionGlowing coals - Credit: Khalid Al-Haqqan

Anthracite is a hard, compact type of coal with a lustrous surface and reputation for high quality. It came into use in America in the 1790s and, since it doesn’t emit smoke, quickly established itself as an ideal household fuel.  

Page 31. " one of the Inspectors, whom I should be most ungrateful not to mention; since scarcely a day passed that he did not stir me to laughter and admiration by his marvelous gifts as a story-teller "

This gifted raconteur is Stephen Burchmore (1782-1850), brother to the “prompt, acute, clear-minded” Zachariah whom Hawthorne mentions earlier. A naval captain, Hawthorne describes him in his notebooks as “an unconscionable spinner of long yarns and traveller’s tales” (p. 690).

Page 32. " exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a smaller and less volatile residuum "
Patient being anesthetized with ether in 1846 (1920s)
Public DomainPatient being anesthetized with ether in 1846 (1920s) - Credit: Ernest Bord

Ether, a liquid chemical formerly used as a general anesthetic, has a boiling point of just 94°F and for this reason evaporates very easily. 

Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeEther - Credit: Brandon Martin-Anderson


Page 33. " the convulsive throes of cholera "
Cholera patient
Public DomainCholera patient - Credit: CDC

Cholera is a bacterial infection of the small intestine. It is usually transmitted through drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated by the feces of an infected person, leading to intense vomiting and diarrhea. Dehydration causes the sufferer to shed weight at a rate of as much as a liter an hour, and death can come on rapidly, attended by hallucinations and convulsions. During Hawthorne’s lifetime, there was no vaccination available to protect against it and a major pandemic claimed the lives of 150,000 Americans between 1832 and 1849. Cholera would have had a particular significance for him at this time as it was this disease that was believed to have carried off President James K. Polk in June 1849, just 103 days after he left office. 

Page 33. " go to dig gold in California "
Where the Gold comes from (1855)
Public DomainWhere the Gold comes from (1855) - Credit: Francis Samuel Marryat
James W. Marshall standing in front of Sutter's Mill (1850)
Public DomainJames W. Marshall standing in front of Sutter's Mill (1850) - Credit: R. H. Vance

When Hawthorne was writing The Scarlet Letter, the whole of America and beyond was in a frenzy over the California Gold Rush. It kicked off in 1848 when James W. Marshall, a foreman, discovered flakes of gold caught in the waterwheel of the mill he was constructing at the fork of the American River at Coloma. As the news got out, around 300,000 people flocked to the area from all over world in a bid to make their fortunes. By the early 1850s, most of the accessible gold had been claimed and the enormous number of migrants made getting to what remained almost impossible. By 1855, the fever had died down.


Page 33. " a quality of enchantment like that of the Devil’s wages "
Accepting the devil's gold
Public DomainAccepting the devil's gold - Credit: Arthur Rackham

Tales abound in folklore of hapless individuals who bargain with the devil for a sack of gold, only to find when they open it later that their riches have magically transmogrified into coal, dead leaves, scorpions, animals' paws, dung or ashes. Hawthorne’s mentor — and now his inevitable companion in any anthology of American Romantic literature — Washington Irving revived this age-old motif in ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’ (1824). Listen to a recording below. 

Page 34. " so quiet an individual as myself "
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1862)
Public DomainNathaniel Hawthorne (1862) - Credit: Emanuel Leutze

Whenever biographers or critics turn to the subject of Hawthorne’s personality, epithets such as quiet, shy and reserved always feature prominently. An 1881 article from Harper’s Magazine portrayed a man “strangely shy, so much so that he has been known to leave the highway for the fields rather than encounter a group of approaching villagers,” while more recently Clark Davis has founded his study of Hawthorne in ideas concerning the uses of shyness. Hawthorne too repeatedly highlights these qualities in himself, peppering numerous essays and prefaces with references to his “cursed habits of solitude.” Reserve, then, is paradoxically the means through which he enlists the reader's attention and sympathy.

Page 34. " the election of General Taylor to the Presidency "

Zachary Taylor became the 12th President of the United States on 4th March 1849. He was a rather unlikely figure to have done so: a career soldier who had spent 40 years in the army, he had previously had so little interest in the political process that he had never so much as voted and was, by all accounts, borderline illiterate. Though touted as a Whig, he himself identified as an independent and rebelled against the congressional powers that tried to ensure he abided by the Whiggish platform. The main issue of his day was slavery. Taylor, who came from a plantation family and was to be the last slave-owning president, nonetheless opposed the expansion of that ‘peculiar institution,’ thereby alienating both its detractors and adherents. He died before any compromise could be reached, and is generally held to have been too inexperienced to make a significant contribution to American politics.

Read Taylor's inaugural address here.

Page 34. " If the guillotine, as applied to officeholders, were a literal fact, instead of one of the most apt of metaphors "

Woodcut from the Boston Post, 14 June 1849
Public DomainWoodcut from the Boston Post, 14 June 1849 - Credit: Boston Post
Creative Commons AttributionGuillotine - Credit: en-shahdi
This metaphor received a liberal airing not only in Hawthorne’s own writings but in the press also. The Democratic papers used the guillotine’s association with the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror to figure the toppling of Polk’s administration as an act of political insurgence, with the Boston Post running a cartoon of an unfortunate official being dragged to a guillotine presided over by Zachary Taylor. Letters of reaction showed that readers associated this figure specifically with Hawthorne, with one declaring, “The head of the poet and the scholar is stricken off to gratify and reward some greedy partisan!” 

Below is an amateur video of the last public beheading, from 1939.

Page 35. " My own head was the first that fell! "

Guillotined Head (1855)
Public DomainGuillotined Head (1855) - Credit: Antoine Wiertz
Hawthorne learned that he was dismissed on 8th June, 1849.

Page 36. " the press had taken up my affair "

In a letter dated 21st June 1849, Hawthorne’s wife Sophia wrote to her mother that “the whole country is up in arms, and will not allow Mr. Hawthorne to be removed.” This was only a slight exaggeration, for not only Salem’s papers but those from outside of Massachusetts — the New York Evening Post in particular — were enraged by his treatment and used their editorials to argue against his dismissal.

Page 36. " careering through the public prints, in my decapitated state, like Irving’s Headless Horseman "


This is an allusion to Washington Irving’s short story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ which was first published in 1820 as part of the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. collection. Drawing on European folklore, it tells of a young schoolmaster whose bids to win the hand of his beloved are interrupted by a headless horseman, who pursues him in a headlong chase through the forest. (This bloodthirsty apparition may or may not be his romantic rival in disguise.) The tale has experienced enduring popularity and seen countless adaptations, including Tim Burton’s 1999 film starring Christopher Walken as the decapitated night rider.  

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858)
Public DomainThe Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) - Credit: John Quidor

Page 36. " since he has quitted the Old Manse "
Postcard of Hawthorne's home at 14 Mall Street, Salem
Creative Commons AttributionPostcard of Hawthorne's home at 14 Mall Street, Salem - Credit:

Hawthorne and Sophia left the Old Manse in October 1845 after enjoying the first three years of their marriage there. Returning to Salem, the couple at first lived at Hawthorne’s mother’s house at 12 Herbert Street, a bleak and oppressive building referred to as ‘Castle Dismal.’ They relocated numerous times after this and were, when The Scarlet Letter was published, based at 14 Mall Street, a place large enough to also accommodate Hawthorne’s ailing mother.

The study of Hawthorne's Mall Street home where he wrote The Scarlet Letter
Creative Commons AttributionThe study of Hawthorne's Mall Street home where he wrote The Scarlet Letter - Credit:


Page 37. " The Inspector,—who, by the by, I regret to say, was overthrown and killed by a horse, some time ago "
Illustration from the 1893 edition
Public DomainIllustration from the 1893 edition - Credit: Frederick C. Gordon

This is not in the least bit true. William Lee, then aged 79, not only still had over a year to live when The Scarlet Letter was published, he was also bitterly upset by Hawthorne’s portrayal of him as an unevolved gormandizer with “no power of thought, no depth of feeling, no troublesome sensibilities.” Much of Salem shared in his outrage, with a relative threatening to horsewhip Hawthorne and several angry voices registering their protest in the Salem Register. One review likened his lampooning of a genial elderly man to “the fell purpose with which old Roger Chillingsworth sets about wrecking his vengeance on Arthur Dimmesdale.” 

Page 37. " The merchants—Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton, Kimball, Bertram, Hunt "
Shipping merchants (1924)
Public DomainShipping merchants (1924) - Credit: Matthäus Schiestl

David Pingree (1795-1863) was known as “the merchant prince of Salem.” Though he made a great fortune through importing gum copal and investing in pioneering rail, banking and manufacturing projects, his luck and judgment failed him when he purchased the Maine iron works. His life followed a riches-to-rags trajectory that left him heavily indebted by the time of his death.


Stephen Clarendon Phillips
Public DomainStephen Clarendon Phillips - Credit: from D. H. Hurd's History of Essex County, Massachusetts

Stephen Clarendon Phillips (1801-57), the son of a prominent Salemite of the same name, followed in his father’s mercantile footsteps. He was also a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1825-9 and served in the State Senate until 1830.


Michael Shepard (1786-1856) was one of the first Salem merchants to establish trade links with East Africa. He was highly regarded locally for his munificence and for the fact that, despite his great wealth, he always remained a convivial man of the people.


The Uptons were another prominent local family who had long been involved in maritime trading. The most significant representative of that illustrious dynasty during Hawthorne’s time was Captain Benjamin Upton (1786-1853), who had been a naval commandeer during the War of 1812. Familiar with South America from this period, he was the first person to import pure gum rubbers from Brazil.


Edward D. Kimball (1811-67) amassed great wealth through trading in West Africa, exporting cotton and importing gum copal, animal skins and ivory. He was also the president of the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company.  


John Bertram (1795-1882) progressed over his extensive lifetime from being an impoverished immigrant to one of Salem’s most prosperous citizens. Naturally business-minded, he built up thriving trades with Zanzibar and Sumatra, as well as constructing and managing a number of railways during the expansionist era. He used the resulting wealth to provide funding for hospitals and fuel for the poor, and is today fondly remembered as a great philanthropist.


William Hunt, the last figure in this pantheon, grew wealthy through trading with China. His revenant apparently now resides at the Inn on Washington Square, a building made for him in 1842 which now runs as “the first paranormal bed 'n' breakfast on New England's North Shore.”  

Page 37. " it has been as dear an object as any, in my literary efforts, to be of some importance in their eyes "
Frontispieces from some of Hawthorne's earlier publications
Public DomainFrontispieces from some of Hawthorne's earlier publications

Until the publication of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s work was, as Edgar Allan Poe remarked, “scarcely recognized by the press or by the public, and when noticed at all, is noticed merely to be damned by faint praise.” Hawthorne’s mournful interjection about his lack of appreciation by his fellow townspeople in a piece which seems calculated to alienate a great number of them is typical of his ambivalent attitude towards the reading public. Holding no very great opinion of them, he nonetheless yearned for their acceptance and shuttled between castigating himself for a perceived lack of talent and resenting them for failing to appreciate his writing.


Page 38. " the antiquary of days to come, among the sites memorable in the town’s history, shall point out the locality of THE TOWN-PUMP! "

This is a reference to the short story ‘A Rill from the Town-Pump’ which, though one of Hawthorne’s slightest works, was perhaps the one for which he was best known prior to The Scarlet Letter. The tale takes the form of a monologue delivered by the town pump of the title and offers a light excursion through Salem’s local history and stock characters. Read it below.

Page 39. " the fore-fathers of Boston had built the first prison-house, somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill "

Boston Gaol, the first institution of its kind for the Massachusetts Bay colony, was established in 1635. It was located in the square at the center of Cornhill (present-day Washington Street), Treamont (Tremont) Street, Prison Lane (Court Street) and School Street, and played host to Quakers, witches and the usual assortment of criminals until its closure in 1822. 

Old Town Gaol, Market-Place, Boston
Public DomainOld Town Gaol, Market-Place, Boston - Credit: William Brand
Page 39. " they marked out the first burial ground, on Isaac Johnson’s lot "

Isaac Johnson (1601-30) was an early addition to Massachusetts Bay Colony, arriving along with John Winthrop on 12th June 1630. He was among the founders of the first church at Charlestown and oversaw the move to settle what would become Boston (then Shawmut). He also has the unfortunate legacy of being the colony’s earliest casualty: on 30th September, just three and a half months after planting feet on American soil, he died. He was buried in his vegetable garden, marking the beginning of what is now King’s Chapel Burying Ground, a site which for two centuries existed cheek-by-jowl with the gaol at the juncture of Tremont and School Streets.

King's Chapel Burying Ground (c.1898)
Creative Commons AttributionKing's Chapel Burying Ground (c.1898) - Credit: BPL Department
Page 39. " the old church-yard of King’s Chapel "

King's Chapel and Burying Ground (c.1907-15)
Creative Commons AttributionKing's Chapel and Burying Ground (c.1907-15) - Credit: Boston Public Library
King’s Chapel was founded by Royal Governor Edmund Andros in 1686. The first Episcopalian church in New England, its establishment was ordered by James II to ensure the Church of England had an American presence. However, because no resident would sell land to support the religion from which they had fled, the king’s representatives were forced to build the chapel on the Burying Ground. Hawthorne perhaps intends the reader to see a parallel between this instance of religious intolerance and social banishment, and that which befalls Hester. 

Page 39. " much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation "
Creative Commons AttributionBurdock - Credit: pi_mento

These aggressive weeds are a common sight on waste ground and for Hawthorne represent ruin and decay. Burdock, a type of thistle with a sprawling, unweildy habit, can grow up to seven feet and is known for the prickly burrs that are so tricky to extricate from hair and clothing. Pigweed, a red-stemmed leafy plant, is the bane of farmers and gardeners as it has a habit of springing up in freshly-turned earth and quickly taking over. Aesthetically, apple of Peru is a bewitching plant, producing huge, black, lantern-shaped seed-pods from which issue delicate purple bells. The effect, however, is marred by the fetid odor they emit as part of their defence strategy, while the fact that they germinate continuously makes them a cause of serious infestations.

Public DomainPigweed - Credit: Francisco Manuel Blanco


Apple of Peru
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeApple of Peru - Credit: Dandelion And Burdock





Page 39. " a wild rose bush, covered in this month of June, with its delicate gems "
Illustration of the prison door from the 1878 edition
Public DomainIllustration of the prison door from the 1878 edition - Credit: Mary Hallock Foote and A.V.S. Anthony

Sargent Bush argues convincingly in the New England Quarterly that Hawthorne lifted the image of the prison house wreathed in roses from a children’s story that was reprinted in the Salem Gazette. The anonymous ‘Prison Roses,’ which appeared in The Juvenile Forget Me Not for 1830, is banal enough in its own right, but its parallels with the introductory sequence of The Scarlet Letter are arresting. Both are set in prison houses whose gloom is alleviated by roses, and the flowers trigger almost identical reactions in the narrators. Moreover, roses are associated with innocence in both.





roses in bloom
Public Domainroses in bloom - Credit: Maria Oakey Dewin


Page 40. " the sainted footsteps of Ann Hutchinson "
Anne Hutchinson Preaching in her house in Boston
Public DomainAnne Hutchinson Preaching in her house in Boston - Credit: Harper's Magazine v. 102, Feb. 1901, p.356Anne Hutchinson on Trial (1901) (330 * 244)

Ann(e) Hutchinson (1591-1643) is regarded as having played a central role in the development of religious freedom in England’s American colonies. Originally a midwife from Lincolnshire in England, she was a huge admirer of preacher John Cotton and, when he was compelled to emigrate to New England in 1633, she and her family followed on a year later. However, her beliefs were very much at odds with many of her fellow settlers. The authorities, who espoused a doctrine based on the ‘covenant of works’ (which argued that salvation was to be gained through obedience to God’s law), took a dim view of her public preachings on the subject of the ‘covenant of grace,’ which emphasized redemption through faith in Christ. The clash gave rise to the Antinomian Controversy, and Anne was banished from the colony in 1638 along with many of her followers. She moved first to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and then to the New Netherland colony at what is now Pelham Bay, New York. The area was then the focal point of a huge clash between the Dutch settlers and the Native Americans and Anne, together with all but one of her children, was killed and scalped by Narragansett tribesmen during Kieft’s War.

Hawthorne wrote a brief historical sketch entitled ‘Mrs. Hutchinson’ in 1830 which emphasized the perceived incompatibility between social cohesion and tolerance of religious differences, providing a clear antecedent for The Scarlet Letter. Read it here.

This documentary recreates Anne Hutchinson's remarkable court appearances.

Page 40. " some sweet moral blossom "

In flower symbolism, the yellow rose represents infidelity, apology and undying love
Creative Commons AttributionIn flower symbolism, the yellow rose represents infidelity, apology and undying love - Credit: Koshy Koshy
This typically Hawthornian piece of self-referentiality perhaps also reminds us of ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ (1844), a short story positively overflowing with moral blossoms. Usurping the role of God, the medical researcher Rappaccini creates a subverted Eden of poisonous plants, the most beautiful and toxic of which is his own daughter. Around her, Hawthorne weaves a complex web of symbolism that juxtaposes her inner purity with the malignant properties that are an inextricable part of her being. Read the text here.

Page 41. " The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane "

Court Street (Prison Lane) as it appeared in Hawthorne's time
Public DomainCourt Street (Prison Lane) as it appeared in Hawthorne's time - Credit: Boston Public Library
Prison Lane existed under that name from the early days of the colony in 1634 until 1708, when it was renamed Queen Street. In 1788 its name changed again to Court Street, the appellation by which it is still known today. Lying at the heavily built-up heart of Boston’s financial district, it is hard to imagine a grass plot there now.

Google Map
Page 41. " corrected at the whipping-post "

From the first days of the colony, Boston boasted an impressive arsenal of public humiliations. The whipping post, to which miscreants were fastened so that they could not escape their allotted number of lashes, was located on Market Street (now State Street). Those convicted of arson, perjury and treason were punished here, along with those judged guilty of minor infractions, including sleeping too much on the Sabbath and dispensing false dinner invitations. As Hawthorne says, children were not exempt from this brutality: one Abiel Wood was whipped for drawing on his friend's back with chalk during a church service. Whipping gradually came to be seen as inhumane and Boston's post was taken down in 1813. 

Click here for more information about crime and punishment in colonial America.

The Pillory and Whipping Post (1896)
Public DomainThe Pillory and Whipping Post (1896) - Credit: Edward Lamson Henry
Page 41. " It might be, that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town "
Public DomainScourging - Credit: Peter Paul Rubens

Antinomianism holds that religious faith is the sole means of salvation. Believing that a person's conduct should be determined by the inner workings of Christ, they rejected the necessity of abiding by moral laws. As a result, they were seen as a deeply subversive force in thrall to heretical views. As we have seen, Anne Hutchinson, a key figure in the Antinomian Controversy, was banished from the colony along with her supporters. This set the stage for two centuries of rigidly enforced religious conformity that wasn’t seriously challenged until the introduction of Unitarianism in 1819.


Quaker Mary Dyer being led to the gallows (c1905)
Public DomainQuaker Mary Dyer being led to the gallows (c1905) - Credit: Howard Pyle

The mention of Quakers here is artistic license on Hawthorne’s part, since they didn’t arrive in New England until 1656. As discussed earlier, many were scourged out of town, with Ann Coleman being the most famous example. These early colonists got off lightly in comparison to later arrivals: in 1658, a law was passed which made organizing or attending a Quaker meeting a hanging offence. If execution was felt to be too severe, guilty parties could be branded with the letter H for heretic, have their ears chopped off or their tongues bored through with a hot iron.

Page 41. " an idle and vagrant Indian, whom the white man’s fire-water had made riotous about the streets "

When the Puritans first moored upon American shores, the Native Americans, seeing them as a source of trade and potential allies against enemy tribes, initially welcomed them. However, as the Puritans usurped their land and attempted to impose an alien religion upon them, relations soured considerably. In 1634, a major war broke out in Boston between the Pequot and the colonists, and more would follow in the period after the novel’s action.

c1912 caricature of Native Indians swigging firewater while the demure Puritans stick to hot dogs
Public Domainc1912 caricature of Native Indians swigging firewater while the demure Puritans stick to hot dogs - Credit: Library of Congress

Along with smallpox and the concept of land as property, Europeans also introduced the Native Americans to strong alcohol, with disastrous consequences. Unused to anything more potent than unfermented persimmon or corn wines, solemnly imbibed during ceremonies, the 80-100 per cent proof spirits introduced by traders hit them hard, and complaints abound in colonialist documents of riotously drunk Indians causing havoc. Over time, a belief developed that Native American drinking was qualitatively and quantitatively different from that of the settlers, resulting in the ingrained stereotype of ‘the drunken injun’ (a display on which can be viewed here).

Page 41. " It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows "
Execution of Ann Hibbins
Public DomainExecution of Ann Hibbins - Credit: Frank Thayer Merril

William Hibbins had been a powerful merchant who, in his role as assistant governor had decreed the execution of Margaret Jones, the first person to be killed as a witch. Two years after his death, his widow Ann was to undergo an identical fate. There is no known evidence regarding the charges made against her, and it seems that her main offence was being too quarrelsome and eccentric for her neighbors’ taste. Though the magistrates deemed her innocent, public opinion prevailed and she was executed on 19th June 1656, almost four decades before the infamous witch trials began.   

Page 41. " the wearers of petticoat and farthingale "
Susanna Temple sporting early 17th century fashion (1621)
Public DomainSusanna Temple sporting early 17th century fashion (1621) - Credit: Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeFarthingale - Credit: Kate Newton

Petticoats are underskirts designed to give fullness and body to upper layers of clothing and to create the illusion of a slender waist. Now worn as underwear, in the seventeenth century they were designed to appear through open-fronted gowns and overskirts and were often elaborately decorated. Farthingales, meanwhile, are padded hoops that were used to give a bell-shaped appearance to skirts, helping to create the voluminous silhouette that was fashionable at the time.



Early 17th century fashion
Public DomainEarly 17th century fashion - Credit: Illustration from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon
Page 42. " there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding, than in their fair descendants "
The realities of pilgrim life meant that women had to be robust
Public DomainThe realities of pilgrim life meant that women had to be robust - Credit: Joseph Andrews

Standards of femininity changed drastically between Hester Prynne’s era and Hawthorne’s. When the settlers first arrived, carrying guns and brawling with neighbors were in no way incompatible with womanhood, whilst strenuous physical labor was an absolute necessity. By the 1820s, female behavior had become circumscribed by the so-called ‘Cult of True Womanhood,’ which insisted on delicacy, domesticity, piety, thrift, submission, obedience and chastity. It is obvious from Hawthorne’s tone that he shared his contemporaries’ belief that this was a mark of progress. 

By Hawthorne's time, the ideal of womanhood was marked by gentleness and domesticity
Public DomainBy Hawthorne's time, the ideal of womanhood was marked by gentleness and domesticity - Credit: Francis Day




Page 42. " the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of her sex "

Elizabeth I reigned as Queen of England from 1558-1603. Styling herself as the Virgin Queen, she was the first – and to date, only – unmarried woman to hold the throne. She made much of this unique position in the way she represented herself to her country, and famously declared, “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”

Queen Elizabeth I
Public DomainQueen Elizabeth I - Credit: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger


Page 42. " What think ye, gossips? "

Illustration from the 1920 edition (detail)
Public DomainIllustration from the 1920 edition (detail) - Credit: Hugh Thomson
The Oxford English Dictionary records that “gossip” originally derived from “godsibb” — literally, god-related — and was applied to “one who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism.” From this developed a looser usage simply meaning “friend.” Hawthorne is punning on this archaic sense and the now-prevalent one describing a person given to intrusive tittle-tattle.

Page 42. " they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead "
Burning letter A
Creative Commons AttributionBurning letter A - Credit: Paulg7
Branding iron
Creative Commons AttributionBranding iron - Credit: SearchNetMedia

Hawthorne is not embellishing the past here: such cruel punishments were indeed meted out to adulterers. He may be thinking particularly of Mary Batchellor, the wife of an octogenarian minister from whom she had separated. When Mary became pregnant with the child of one George Rogers in 1650, both parties were sentenced to 39 lashes of the whip (the maximum number, since 40 were deemed to be fatal) and Mary was branded with the letter A. The scant details of the case are recorded here.


Page 42. " a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment "
Young woman wearing a heathenish brooch
Public DomainYoung woman wearing a heathenish brooch - Credit: Joseph Karl Stieler
Ruby brooch
Creative Commons AttributionRuby brooch - Credit: Glitz UK

Theoretically, Puritans were governed by strict sumptuary laws that forbade extravagance of dress. Their new society, however, retained the social distinctions of England, and a small amount of jewelry worn by those of superior standing was tolerated as a means of giving visible form to this hierarchy. As an outcast, any adornment worn by Hester would automatically be more heathenish than if it embellished the garments of her pious critics.

Page 43. " both in the Scripture and the statute-book "
Mars and Venus Surprised by the Gods (c.1606-10)
Public DomainMars and Venus Surprised by the Gods (c.1606-10) - Credit: Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael

Leviticus 20:10 declares, “And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” Body of Liberties, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s statute book of 1641, affirmed this in near-identical language. Adultery was one of 12 crimes punishable by death, the others being worshipping other gods, witchcraft, blasphemy, murder, manslaughter, poisoning, bestiality, sodomy, kidnapping into slavery, bearing false witness in capital cases and insurrection. All these were supported by relevant biblical passages. 


Le supplice des adultères (1875)
Public DomainLe supplice des adultères (1875) - Credit: Jules Arsène Garnier
Page 43. " on the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A "
A is for Adultery
Public DomainA is for Adultery - Credit: Andrzej Kwietniewski
Punishment of a Drunkard (1890)
Public DomainPunishment of a Drunkard (1890) - Credit: William Andrews

Though the Puritans believed execution was divinely justified in cases of adultery, they rarely resorted to it, preferring instead heavy fines and whipping. Public humiliation was often used to underscore these punishments, though not — as in Hester’s case — to replace them. Branding wrong-doers with letters indicating their specific crime or forcing them to wear them on their clothes was common.


A scarlet letter
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA scarlet letter - Credit: Monceau

Though the letter A clearly stands for adultery (a word never actually used in the novel), it comes to represent many other things. It corresponds to the Greek alpha, a synonyn for “beginning” in English and, as the first letter of the alphabet, betokens the source of language. Affording all the possibilities entailed in literary creation and transformation, the novel's A is a potent symbol of authorship and art.

Page 44. " a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony "
Puritan Maiden a.1905
Public DomainPuritan Maiden a.1905 - Credit: George Henry Boughton

According to these regulations, clothing was not to step beyond its basic purposes of keeping out the cold and covering up the body, “because there is an ignominious shame, not only on some parts, but over the whole body.” Any show of ostentation was frowned upon and following fashion was deemed blasphemous, for “the first and principal care, ought to be for the adorning of the soul with grace.” To read more about the codes governing puritan dress, click here.

A modestly dressed puritan maiden
Public DomainA modestly dressed puritan maiden - Credit: Thomas Hicks
Page 44. " that SCARLET LETTER, So fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom "
Scarlet woman
Creative Commons AttributionScarlet woman - Credit: Chiaralily

The significance of the color scarlet goes back to the Bible. In Revelation (17:1-5), the Whore of Babylon — “the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” — is dressed in robes of scarlet and purple and sits on the back of a seven-headed scarlet beast. It is from here that the expression “scarlet woman” derives, a term formerly used to describe adulteresses as well as prostitutes.



Page 45. " a sort of scaffold, at the western extremity of the market-place "

The type of scaffold used for executions
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe type of scaffold used for executions - Credit: Okinawa Soba
Early Boston’s scaffold sat alongside the whipping post on Market Street (now State Street), just in front of the present-day Old State House. This was the raised platform on which criminals were executed — public humiliations didn’t figure in its operations.
Hester on the scaffold in the 1926 silent film version of The Scarlet Letter
Public DomainHester on the scaffold in the 1926 silent film version of The Scarlet Letter - Credit: Victor Seastrom

Page 45. " It stood nearly beneath the eaves of Boston’s earliest church "

Boston’s first church was founded in 1630 by the original wave of Puritan settlers. From 1632, its members congregated in the meeting house near present-day State Street, a modest building with wattle-and-daub-covered stone walls and a thatched roof. It has been demolished, reconstructed and moved many times over the centuries and now stands on 66 Marlborough Street, a good deal grander than in its original form. You can visit its website here and read about its history here.

Page 45. " the guillotine among the terrorists of France "
The Radical's Arms, a caricature satirizing the excesses of the Reign of Terror
Public DomainThe Radical's Arms, a caricature satirizing the excesses of the Reign of Terror - Credit: George Cruikshank

Hawthorne is referring to the Reign of Terror that occurred at the height of the French Revolution (1789-99). Against a background of growing resentment among the lower and newly-formed middle classes at being made to bear the brunt of harsh taxation without proper political representation, a violent backlash against the ruling elite erupted. In 1789, they stormed the Bastille and declared they would not rest until a new constitution was formed. However, this solidarity could not last: the middle class Girdonists felt the Revolution was spiraling out of control, which the more radical Jacobins interpreted as sympathy with the oppressor. In an atmosphere of increasing paranoia, the latter embarked upon the campaign of purgation that aimed to rid France of anyone they suspected of being anti-Revolutionary. From September 1793-4, as many as 25,000 people were executed. 16,594 of these met their deaths at the guillotine, with Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI being the most famous casualties. As a result, the ‘National Razor’ became a potent symbol of the revolutionary cause.    

Execution of Marie Antoinette (1793)
Public DomainExecution of Marie Antoinette (1793) - Credit: Amadeo Gabrielli
Page 46. " that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze "
An eroticized image of a pilloried girl
Public DomainAn eroticized image of a pilloried girl - Credit: John Willie

This instrument is of course the pillory, a hinged wooden contraption mounted on a post with holes into which a person’s head and sometimes hands were locked. Unlike the stocks, the pillory required the miscreant to remain standing. It was designed to humiliate, and townspeople would enthusiastically join in, throwing offal, rotten food, excrement and bricks. Captive sinners were also subject to rapes and cruel beatings, which were sometimes fatal. As the centuries progressed, so too did conceptions of criminal justice, and the pillory came to be seen as a form of cruel and unusual punishment. It was abolished by an Act of Congress in 1839.

Creative Commons AttributionPillories - Credit: Pinch of salt
Page 46. " Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans "

Catholics, or Papists as they were derogatorily known, had arrived on American shores before the Puritans had ever formed, and had had some small success in converting Native Americans to their religion. This instilled horror in the hearts of the Puritan settlers, who had fled England to remove themselves from what they saw as the idolatrous heathenry of Catholic influence. They were determined to prevent this pernicious disease from spreading into the as-yet-uncontaminated area of Massachusetts Bay, and in 1647 passed a law preventing any Catholic from entering the colony upon pain of death. Though this occurred five years on from the narrative present, it is unlikely that they would have received a much warmer welcome during Hester’s time.


Shrine to the Virgin Mary
Creative Commons AttributionShrine to the Virgin Mary - Credit: Lawrence OP

Hawthorne goes on to specify that Hester’s resemblance to “the image of Divine Maternity” would have been discernible only to Catholic eyes. The position of the Virgin Mary was one of many points on which Catholics and the Protestant Puritans diverged. Though early Protestants felt that, as the mother of Christ, she should be revered, the groups that formed later — including the Puritans — felt that Catholics had elevated her to the status of a god herself, and that worship of her verged on heresy.  

Page 46. " the image of Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent "
Madonna and Child (c.1503)
Public DomainMadonna and Child (c.1503) - Credit: Raphael

Hawthorne’s likening of Hester, pinned with a letter that allies her with the Whore of Babylon, to the Virgin Mary sets the stage for a complicated exploration of what “illicit” female sexuality means. In Puritan society, as in so many other cultures, there were only two possible roles for women: chaste or defiled. Hawthorne, a master of equivocation and ambiguity, uses the character of Hester to alternately undermine and give credence to this reductive binary opposition, and to explore ideas of sin and redemption.

This 1861 painting of Hester and Pearl draws strongly on Virgin and Child iconography
Public DomainThis 1861 painting of Hester and Pearl draws strongly on Virgin and Child iconography - Credit: Hugues Merle















As Hawthorne says, the iconography of the Virgin and Child has provided a fertile source of inspiration for generations of artists. The earliest surviving examples are in the Catacombs of Rome, and masters including Raphael, Botticelli and Lucas Cranach the Elder have all dedicated canvases to the holy pair. View a selection of especially famous examples here.

Page 47. " on the edge of the Western wilderness "
This painting contrasts the majestic expanse of the wilderness with the comparative insignificance of the colonists
Public DomainThis painting contrasts the majestic expanse of the wilderness with the comparative insignificance of the colonists - Credit: James Peale

Though the Great Migration of 1630-40 had seen some 20,000 people join the original Puritan settlers, in 1642 they remained very much confined to their colonies. The surrounding land remained an impassable wilderness. It wasn’t until the following century, when the colonists became convinced of their Manifest Destiny to settle the entire continent, that attempts to tame these solitudes were made. 

The First Harvest in the Wilderness
Public DomainThe First Harvest in the Wilderness - Credit: Asher Brown Durand
Page 48. " the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff "
A spectacular Elizabethan ruff
Public DomainA spectacular Elizabethan ruff - Credit: Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt
A ruff
Creative Commons AttributionA ruff - Credit: Ana Pérez Valdés

The ruff was a removable piece of lace-lined fabric, folded into rococo frills, that adorned the neck of the fashionable Elizabethan. They gained popularity in the mid sixteenth century amongst men, women and children alike, and at the height of the trend could be over a foot wide. A century later, the craze had died down and the ruff was replaced with less constrictive wing collars and bands.

Page 48. " a Continental city, where a new life had awaited her "

This city is later specified as Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands. Amsterdam had, as result of the autonomy it gained after its war with religiously-restrictive Spain, defined itself as a place where people were free to worship as they pleased. As a result, it attracted Puritans fleeing England to escape the authority of the bishops during 1608. These renegades would ultimately leave Europe altogether to set up new religious colonies in America.

Amsterdam is renowned for its canal system
Public DomainAmsterdam is renowned for its canal system - Credit: Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde

Google Map



Page 49. " An Indian, in his native garb, was standing there "
Native American leggings and moccasins
GNU Free Documentation LicenseNative American leggings and moccasins - Credit: Dellex
Ceremonial buckskin shirt
Public DomainCeremonial buckskin shirt - Credit: Nez Perce National Historical Park

When the Puritan settlers first arrived, the Massachusetts Bay area was the home of Algonquian tribal groups the Wompanoag, Massachusett and Nauset. Details of dress varied but, broadly speaking, the Algonquian men favored breechcloths made from cured animal hides that were worn around the waist. Buckskin leggings provided additional cover in colder weather, as did mantles made from raccoon, otter or beaver fur. Women wore wrap-around skirts, ponchos and fur mantles. Outfits were adorned with woven or painted belts, dyed porcupine quills and shells, and footwear took the form of moccasins. Needless to say, this was about as far removed from the modest clothes of the Puritans as it was possible to get, and confirmed to the settlers that the Native Americans were savage heathens in need of civilizing.

Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees (1821)
Public DomainYoung Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees (1821) - Credit: Charles Bird King
Page 50. " among the heathen folk, to the southward "
Algonquian tribes to the south of New England
Public DomainAlgonquian tribes to the south of New England - Credit: Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

We never learn prcisely which Native Amnerican tribe has held Roger Chillingworth captive, but this map of Algonquian peoples living to the south of the New England colonies offers some possibilities. Click here to see a full map of the tribes and linguistic groups inhabiting the east of America prior to European contact. 


Five Native Americans take a white woman hostage
Public DomainFive Native Americans take a white woman hostage - Credit: Karl Ferdinand Wimar