When it came to marital infidelity and the Puritan woman, there were no blurred lines. Puritans were known for their strict standards of morality regarding all affairs of life, but especially in the realm of sexuality. Any woman who cheated on her husband would be punished by the community; the punishment would be swift, harsh and sometimes deadly.
The best-known story of harsh Puritan morality is the American classic, "The Scarlet Letter," by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this novel, the main character, Hester Prynne, is a married woman whose husband had been missing for some time when, to the shock of the community, she became pregnant. Prynne is imprisoned and gives birth to her child in jail. After she is released, Prynne is publicly shamed and forced to wear a red letter "A" for "adulteress" on her clothing from that point on. She was treated as an outcast for the rest of her life.
Truth is Stranger than Fiction
Many real-life Puritan women who were convicted of adultery suffered far worse fates than Hester Prynne. The most commonly prosecuted crimes in New England during the Puritan area were sex crimes, according to Gettysburg College. Any sexual activity besides that of a husband and wife was considered criminal behavior, and for adultery, the punishment was usually a whipping and a fine. That was the case for Anne Linceford, who in 1641 confessed to committing adultery and was punished by "an immediate severe whipping at the public post in Plymouth [and] a second whipping at the public post in Yarmouth [where the act was committed]," according to "Sexual Misconduct in Plymouth Colony." She also had to wear the letters "AD" on her clothing from that point on. In 1639 Mary Mendame was found guilty of committing adultery with an Indian man; she was whipped at a cart's tail, which meant she received a whipping while the cart was being drawn through town.
Also, men could divorce their wives for committing adultery. For women, divorce resulted in severe financial loss and often losing custody of the children.
A Puritan woman could also pay the ultimate price for adultery. The Massachusetts Bay General Court declared adultery a capital crime in 1631, meaning it was a crime punishable by death. Mary Latham was executed for adultery, according to EyewitnessToHistory.com. Mary was convicted for committing adultery with one man and then confessed to having sex with 12 others. She went willingly to her execution, viewing it as a fair punishment for her sins.
While men were also punished for this crime, adultery was considered a more serious offense for women, who were often viewed as temptresses. In the 1639 case of Mary Mendame, her lover was "only" whipped at the post, a lesser punishment than the whipping she received at the cart's tail, because the judges said she had enticed him. Married men who had sex with a single woman were charged with fornication, while married women who had sex with a single man were charged with the more serious crime of adultery.
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