I've heard someone say something like:

It's not a scarlet letter, it's not a mark on your forehead you keep for life.

Obviously this was said in terms of permanency of a badge of shame, or redemption.

The Scarlet Letter was a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne published in 1850. Two of the definitions I found seem to give this novel as the origin of the term:

a scarlet letter “A,” formerly worn by one convicted of adultery.
[1850, Amer.]
Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary

a scarlet A worn as a punitive mark of adultery
History and Etymology for scarlet letter
from such a letter in the novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

This one however marks the term as being a historical one:

(Historical Terms) (esp among US Puritans) a scarlet letter A formerly worn by a person convicted of adultery
Collins English Dictionary

The novel The Scarlet Letter is set between the years 1642 to 1649 in the predominantly Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. The story focuses on a married woman who gives birth to a daughter by another man through a love affair. She is condemned to wear a scarlet letter 'A' as a mark of shame for being an adulteress:

She is required to wear a scarlet "A" on her dress when she is in front of the townspeople to shame her. The letter "A" stands for adulteress, although this is never said explicitly in the novel. Her sentence required her to stand on the scaffold for three hours, exposed to public humiliation, and to wear the scarlet "A" for the rest of her life.
The Scarlet Letter, Wikipedia

I'm wondering if this is historically accurate, whether a woman was forced to wear this mark or something like it to shame her in such cases.

Also, in any case, I take it that the expression derives from the novel from 1850? What I mean is that even if this scarlet letter was a real thing I'm guessing it entered our language through the popularization of the novel.

1 Answer 1


tl; dr

  • There were certainly laws requiring that adulterers had to wear the letter 'A' stitched upon their garments in the late seventeenth century.
  • The letter was not required to be scarlet - just a different colour from the clothes themselves, so it would stand out.
  • The law also applied to both men and women.

However, during the time in which Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter is (1642 to 1649), the penalty for adultery in Massachusetts was death.

Wearing the letter 'A'

By the late seventeenth century in Massachusetts there were certainly laws requiring that convicted adulterers be whipped and then have to wear the letter 'A' stitched upon their garments for the rest of their lives. There was no requirement for the letter 'A' to be scarlet. It simply had to be a different colour from the clothes themselves, so that it would stand out.

The law applied to both men and women.

For example, a 1694 "Act against Adultery and Polygamie", passed in Massachusetts stated that:

1694 Act against Adultery and Polygamie

And if any man shall commit Adultery, the Man and Woman that shall be Convicted of such Crime before Their Majesties Justices of Assize and general Goal delivery, shall be set upon the Gallows by the space of an Hour, with a Rope about their Neck, and the other end cast over the Gallows : And in the way from thence to the Common Goal, shall be Severely every Whip't, not exceeding Forty Stripes each: Also every Person and Persons so Offending, shall for ever after wear a Capital A of two Inches long and proportionable bigness, cut out in Cloath of a contrary Colour to their Cloaths, and Sewed upon their upper Garments, on the out-side of their Arm, or on their Back, in open view. And if any Person or Persons, having been Convicted and Sentenced for such Offence, shall at any time be found without their Letter so worn, during their abode in this Province; they shall by Warrant from a Justice of Peace, be forthwith apprehended and ordered to be Publickly Whip'd, not exceeding Fifteen Stripes; and so from time to time toties quoties.

  • (my emphasis)

["toties quoties" is a Latin phrase meaning 'as often as the occasion arises']

The punishment for adultery in the time The Scarlet Letter was set

However, as you note, the book, The Scarlet Letter is set rather earlier - between the years 1642 to 1649. At that time, the laws in Massachusetts were not nearly so lenient as to allow offenders to get away with a simple whipping and then wearing a letter stitched to their clothing as a badge of shame.

Adultery was a capital crime.

The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 was,

"... the first legal code established by European colonists in New England."

It declared adultery to be a capital offence, in accordance with the biblical law of Leviticus:

1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties article

"If any person committeth Adultery with a maried or espoused wife, the Adulterer and Adulteresse shall surely be put to death."

(As you can see, the relevant passages from Leviticus and Deuteronomy are also cited in the text)

Adultery persisted as a Capital Crime at least as late as 1660 where it again appears in the Colonial laws of Massachusetts:

Colonial laws of Massachusetts article

If any person commit ADULTERY with a married or espoused wife, the Adulterer and Adulteresie shall surely be putt to death. Levit. 20.19. & 18.20. Deut. 22. 23.27

If you are interested, a recent (2013) article titled On the Trail of the Scarlet AD, by Joel S. Berson, published in the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review (Vol. 39, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 133-154, Penn State University Press) presents the results of Berson's fascinating investigation into the colonial laws and legal references that served as source material for The Scarlet Letter.

I haven't been able to find an online copy that isn't behind a paywall, but you may be able to get a copy through a local library.

  • 4
    That’s rather an interesting wording in the 1641 and 1660 laws. It would seem to imply that if a married man commits adultery with an unmarried (and unengaged) woman, then that is either not considered adultery or not punishable by death. I can’t see which it is from that page; do you happen to know? (Also, mid-17th century Massachusetts was clearly not a good place to be a teen – if a 16-year-old boy won’t listen to his parents, kill him? It’s a wonder they didn’t all die out!) Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 19:34
  • 11
    Adultery was defined as sexual relations between a man and a married woman (as per the Old Testament). It was a very one-sided law! (Also, 'Honour thy father and thy mother', being one of the Ten Commandments, was a big deal to the Puritans. I'm not at all sure that I would have survived to adulthood!) Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 19:54
  • 3
    I don't entirely understand your first quotation. I would expect "gallows" and "a Rope about their Neck" to refer to execution by hanging; but if they were to be taken from there to jail, and forced ever after to wear the letter 'A', then that implies that they were expected to survive the experience. How did that work?
    – ruakh
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 23:22
  • 11
    @ruakh It was public shaming. A kind of 'ritual hanging' without the actual hanging part. The loose end of the rope was placed over the gallows so that it would appear as if they were being hanged, without actually suspending them from the gallows. Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 23:24
  • 6
    @JanusBahsJacquet The laws against adultery were not aimed at promoting chastity or suppressing promiscuity in general, they were very specifically about ensuring certainty of paternity within a marriage. That's why the man is also punished even if he is single and therefore hasn't broken his own marriage vows. It's also why the word is related to "adulterate" as in "pollute".
    – Ben
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 10:39

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