In "Crime and Punishment" (71), Johnson shows the Puritan children "in imitation of their elders" pretending to scalp Indians. She looks at the horrific torture instrument, the scaffold, used in the first scene of the novel. The Puritans are "inhumane" in their punishments.
"Drawing from history, The Scarlet Letter mentions an array
excessive and violent punishments: little Puritan children, in imitation of
their elders, play at common punishments like 'scourging Quakers' or 'taking
scalps in a sham fight with Indians.' The 'whipping post' was standard equipment
for punishment by law, not to mention the gallows for public hangings, and the
pillory, which the narrator describes as being similar in nature to the French
In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of 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. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron.... In Hester Prynne's instance, however, as not unfrequently in other cases, her sentence bore, that she should stand a certain time upon the platform but without undergoing that gripe about the neck and confinement of the head, the proness to which was the most devilish characteristic of this ugly engine. (63)
The coarse women in the opening scene want Hester to go through another frequent mode of punishment-branding.
Again, these details in the novel are drawn from history. Punishments for crimes were actually what we would classify as inhumane. Public beatings were frequent. In extreme cases, victims (both male and female) would be stripped to the waist, dragged through the streets behind a cart, and whipped, a horror described by Hawthorne in 'Main Street.'"