She was a beautiful, young Irish maid, working in a wealthy English household. Her employer’s oldest son fell in love with her. When he announced intentions to marry her, his parents said they would disown him. He married her anyway. Then, bride and groom ran away to live happily ever after. “Her name was Mary Cordial,” my maternal grandmother Marilyn Matilda Dietz told me, that distinct glimmer of pleasure in her eyes—the one she always had when she retold this story. “And you are her legacy.”

This blog is a resource for those who want to--have to--find out more about who they came from.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Scarlet Letter

Make some room there, Hester Prynne! One of the other discoveries I made while doing family research was that another Puritan ancestor, Robert Coles, was sentenced to wear a scarlet letter for public insobriety in 1633 Massachusetts:


Cover image: Penguin Classics
For those struggling to remember what they read back in high school, here's the plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, per Wikipedia: "Set in 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, during the years 1642 to 1649, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity."

Not explicit in the above summary is that Hester is made to wear a red letter A, which presumably represents the word adulterer, on her own "outward garment," identifying herself as a sinner to anyone she meets, prolonging her public shame. The father of her child, whose identity she refuses to expose, suffers overwhelming guilt as Hester pays for the sin they both committed. That much having been said, I'm an English professor so I choose to stop here; if you want to know how the story turns out, you'll have to read Hawthorne's master work for yourself. I don't advise taking the easy way around and watching the 1995 movie, as that version takes liberties, adding story elements not present in the novel. (From what I've heard, the book is a better time anyway).

Image courtesy of Pinterest
But back now to my ancestor, Robert Coles. A couple of thoughts about his situation and sentencing occur.

First, it's a safe assumption that the D stands for drunkard, so I'm sure he was not happy about having to wear this for a full year "and not to leave it off at any tyme" lest he pay up for going around without it, although who knows--perhaps he felt lucky to escape the stocks (see right). The Puritans were a serious bunch, with their witch trials, hangings as public entertainment, and banishments to the wilderness for crimes such as smiling in church (a story I'll save for my next post). Having to wear a scarlet letter may have been preferable.  

Second, I'm interested in how public shaming is still "a thing" 385 years later, albeit in updated venues such as social media (which is a sort of global town square, when one thinks about it). I'd guess that its perseverance attests to its effectiveness in controlling aberrant behavior... and yet there are so many who still refuse to be embarrassed and controlled. (You can fill in the "so many" blanks there as you see fit.)

Finally, I wonder what life is like after one stops wearing a scarlet letter. Did the Puritans have a "he did his time, paid his debt to society" attitude and forget easily, or did that letter remain, invisible yet fixed, after it was physically removed from the outer garment? If anyone knows, I'd be happy to hear about it in the comments below.

In case you have something else to say, please note well: All of my above musings are intentionally flippant. If you're the humorless historian type, please save us both the time and displeasure of sanctimonious commentary that I'd just roll my eyes at before deleting rather than posting (yes, comment moderation is enabled). Thanks in advance for your cooperation there.

Next time I post--which I sincerely hope will be during this decade--I'll talk about another surprising ancestor: a Puritan who was whipped for speaking truth to power and shipped back to England, only to return later with some serious attitude. Stay tuned.

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