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Tarring and feathering


Tarring and feathering

Tarring and feathering victim front.
Tarring and feathering victim back as a form of humiliation
John Meints was tarred and feathered in Minnesota during World War I (c. 1917–18) for not supporting war bond drives.[1]

Tarring and feathering is a form of public humiliation, used to enforce unofficial justice or revenge. It was used in feudal Europe and its colonies in the early modern period, as well as the early American frontier, mostly as a type of mob vengeance (compare Lynch law).

In a typical tar-and-feathers attack, the mob's victim was stripped to their waist. Liquid tar was either poured or painted onto the person while they were immobilized. Then the victim either had feathers thrown on them or was rolled around on a pile of feathers so they stuck to the tar. Often the victim was then paraded around town on a cart or wooden rail. The aim was to inflict enough miserable pain and humiliation on a person to make them either conform their behavior to the mob's demands or be driven from town.

The image of the tarred-and-feathered outlaw remains a metaphor for public humiliation. "To tar and feather someone" can mean "to punish or severely criticize that person".[2][3]


  • Hypothetical comparison of tarring materials 1
    • Petroleum tar 1.1
    • Pine tar 1.2
  • History 2
    • Coming of the American Revolution 2.1
    • 19th century 2.2
  • Pop culture 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Sources and external links 6

Hypothetical comparison of tarring materials

Tarring and feathering was often presented in literature humorously as a punishment inflicting public humiliation and discomfort, but not serious injury. This would be hard to understand if the tar used were the material now most commonly referred to as "tar", which has a high melting point and would cause serious burns to the skin. However, the "tar" used then was pine tar, a completely different substance, with a much lower melting point. Some varieties were liquid at room temperature.

Petroleum tar

Historically, petroleum tar was not used in the application of tarring and feathering for a variety of reasons. Modern tar, also called bitumen or asphalt, is produced from either petroleum or coal. Typically used for tarring roads and roofs, the material must be semi-solid in normal weather under the hot sun, so tar, which is a mixture of a large number of different complex hydrocarbons and doesn’t have a single melting point, must have a high "softening point," the temperature at which the material becomes too soft to do its job. (It becomes more and more liquid as temperature rises above that.) For example, one modern brand of roofing asphalt has a softening point of 100 °C (212 °F) but is applied at 190 °C (380 °F).[4] At the latter temperature it is a liquid that can be sloshed around. This kind of petroleum-based hot tar would burn any skin it came into contact with. Paving materials, both coal and petroleum-based, are mixed at somewhat lower temperatures (105 °C (221 °F) for coal tar, 150–180 °C (302–356 °F) for bitumen),[5] but even then liquid would still be hot enough to cause severe injuries.

Pine tar

Pine tar is extracted from pine trees. It was used for waterproofing wooden ships and for weatherproofing rope. Melville, in Moby Dick, mentions "putting your hand in the tar-pot" as one of the undignified things sailors were expected to do. It was not a punishment, just a chore, like sweeping down the deck.[6]

Clearly, this would not have been possible with asphalt. But rope, unlike roads, must remain flexible, so the tar used had to be softer (closer to liquid) at lower temperatures. The melting point of pine tar is 55 to 60 °C (130 to 140 °F).[7] Pine tar’s boiling point is listed at 337 °C (639 °F).[7]

Since each of these materials – bitumen, coal tar, pine tar, pitch – is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, its viscosity/temperature characteristics can vary greatly, depending on how it was made and treated, though pitch is by definition darker and thicker than tar. Somewhat like molasses, which comes in different grades apparently, some pine tars were like golden syrup at room temperature, others much blacker and more viscous. The latter had to be heated to a higher temperature to use, and so was called "hot tar."[8] Therefore, it is difficult to know, in any particular instance, just what the material might have been that someone was tarred and feathered with. Unless the tar was boiling, it was not necessarily a brutal procedure. Often it seems to have been more a matter of humiliation than torture.


The earliest mention of the punishment appears in orders that Richard I of England issued to his navy on starting for the Holy Land in 1189. "Concerning the lawes and ordinances appointed by King Richard for his navie the forme thereof was this ... item, a thiefe or felon that hath stolen, being lawfully convicted, shal have his head shorne, and boyling pitch poured upon his head, and feathers or downe strawed upon the same whereby he may be knowen, and so at the first landing-place they shall come to, there to be cast up" (transcript of original statute in Hakluyt's Voyages, ii. 21).[9]

A later instance of this penalty appears in Notes and Queries (series 4, vol. v), which quotes James Howell, writing in Madrid in 1623, of the "boisterous Bishop of Halberstadt," who, "having taken a place where there were two monasteries of nuns and friars, he caused divers feather beds to be ripped, and all the feathers thrown into a great hall, whither the nuns and friars were thrust naked with their bodies oiled and pitched and to tumble among these feathers, which makes them here (Madrid) presage him an ill-death."

In 1696 a London bailiff, who attempted to serve process on a debtor who had taken refuge within the precincts of the Savoy, was tarred and feathered and taken in a wheelbarrow to the Strand, where he was tied to a maypole that stood by what is now Somerset House, as an improvised pillory.

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print that depicts the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm. This was the second time Malcolm had been tarred and feathered.

Coming of the American Revolution

One incident in America occurred in 1766: Captain William Smith was tarred, feathered, and dumped into the harbor of Norfolk, Virginia, by a mob that included the town's mayor. A vessel picked him out of the water just as his strength was giving out. He survived, and was later quoted as saying that "... [they] dawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers on me." As with most other tar-and-feathers victims in the following decade, Smith was suspected of informing on smugglers to the British customs agents.[10]

The practice appeared in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1767, when mobs attacked low-level employees of the customs service with tar and feathers. In October 1769, a mob in Boston attacked a customs service sailor the same way, and a few similar attacks followed through 1774 (the tarring and feathering of customs worker John Malcolm received particular attention in 1774). Such acts associated the punishment with the Patriot side of the American Revolution. An exception was when, in March 1775, a British regiment inflicted the same treatment on Thomas Ditson, a Billerica, Massachusetts man who attempted to buy a musket from one of the regiment's soldiers. There is no known case of a person dying from being tarred and feathered in this period. During the Whiskey Rebellion, local farmers inflicted the punishment on federal tax agents.[11]

19th century

During the night of March 24, 1832, Joseph Smith – founder of the Latter Day Saint movement – was dragged from his home by a group of men who stripped and beat him before tarring and feathering him. His wife and his infant child, who was knocked from his bed by the attackers, were forced from the home and threatened (the infant died several days later from exposure). Smith was left for dead, but limped back to the home of friends. They spent much of the night scraping the tar from his body, leaving his skin raw and bloody. The following day, Smith spoke at a church devotional meeting and was reported to have been covered with raw wounds and still weak from the attack.[12]

In 1851 a Know-Nothing mob in Ellsworth, Maine, US, tarred and feathered a Swiss-born Jesuit priest, Father John Bapst, in the midst of a local controversy over religious education in grammar schools. Bapst fled Ellsworth to settle in nearby Bangor, Maine, where there was a large Irish-Catholic community, and a local high school there is named for him.[13]

Image accompanying story of "Female Whitecaps Chastise Woman" from Ada Evening News November 27, 1906. The article describes an incident in East Sandy, Pennsylvania where four married women tarred and feathered Mrs. Hattie Lowry.

Tarring and feathering was not just something males did. The November 27, 1906 Ada, Oklahoma Evening News reports that a vigilance committee consisting of four young married women from East Sandy, Pennsylvania, forceful and determined, stirred that community to enthusiastic admiration by correcting, in whitecap style, the alleged evil conduct of Mrs. Hattie Lowry, a neighbor, also the possessor of a husband. One of the women was a sister-in-law of the victim. The women appeared at Mrs. Lowry's home in open day and announced she had not heeded the spokeswoman and leader. The group then took from a package a box of stove polish and a dauber. While two women held Mrs. Lowry to the floor, the other two smeared her face with stove polish until it was completely covered. They then poured thick molasses upon the victim's head and emptied the contents of a feather pillow over the molasses. The women then marched the victim, tied by the wrists, to a railroad camp, where two hundred workmen ceased operations to watch the spectacle. After parading Mrs. Lowry through the camp, the women tied her to a large box, where she remained until a man released her.

In 1917, during an incident known as the Tulsa Outrage, a group of black-robed Knights of Liberty tarred and feathered seventeen members of the Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma.[14]

In the 1920s, vigilantes opposed to San Pedro, kidnapped at least one organizer, subjected him to tarring and feathering, and left him in a remote location.

The Wednesday, May 28, 1930, edition of the Miami Daily News-Record contains on its front page the arrests of five brothers from Louisiana, accused of tarring and feathering Dr. S. L. Newsome. who was a prominent dentist. This was in retaliation of the dentist having an affair with one of the brother's wives.

This was a relatively rare form of mob punishment for Republican African-Americans in the post-bellum U.S. South, as its goal was typically pain and humiliation rather than death (as in the more common lynching and burning alive).[15] There were several examples of tarring and feathering of African-Americans in the lead-up to World War I in Vicksburg, Mississippi.[15]

Similar tactics were also used by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the early years of The Troubles. Many of the victims were women accused of sexual relationships with policemen or British soldiers.[16]

In August 2007, loyalist groups in Northern Ireland were linked to the tarring and feathering of an individual accused of drug-dealing.[17]

Pop culture

A fictional depiction of this practice in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Dauphin and the Duke are tarred, feathered, and ridden on a rail in Pikesville after performing the Royal Nonesuch to a crowd that Jim had forewarned about the rapscallions.
  • Edgar Allan Poe's humorous short story, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether," features the staff of an insane asylum being tarred and feathered. A song based on the story, "(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether" is on the Tales of Mystery and Imagination album by the Alan Parsons Project.
  • In his 1982 Los Angeles Exhibition, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibited the paintings Black Tar and Feathers, and Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers), the later a painting which scholar Richard Hoffman interprets as containing "young black heroic figures" and speaking of "a rising above the pain, suffering and degradation associated with the act of being “tarred and feathered.”"
  • The lead singer of rock band King Curt was tarred and feathered during their performance of the hit song "Destination Zululand" on Top Of The Pops in 1983.
  • Tar and feathering is mentioned in the chorus of the song "To Kingdom Come", from The Band's album Music from Big Pink.
  • The 2002 PBS animated series Liberty's Kids showed characters James and Sarah witnessing a British sailor being tarred and feathered by a Philadelphia mob. Sarah is shocked, but James finds the sight of it funny, thinking the sailor is only being humiliated. Later James's mentor Moses takes James to interview the sailor, only to find him in an 18th-Century doctor's care. There he finds out the mob used boiling hot tar and the sailor suffered severe skin burns, made even worse by a looming infection. Seeing the victim moaning in bed and bandaged all over, James is horrified.
  • Jimmy Carter's 2003 novel Hornet's Nest describes the tarring and feathering of a Tory by members of the Sons of Liberty.
  • In the HBO Series "Carnivale", Season 2 the episode "Lincoln Highway" set in 1930's midwest America, one of the carnival workers is kidnapped and has what appears to be bituminous tar applied to him as torture for the accidental death of a "townie" at the carnival's previous venue followed by covering with feathers from a pillow.
  • Tarring and feathering is a common punishment for low-lifes and unfortunate citizens (and often the Dalton brothers as well) in the Franco-Belgian comic Lucky Luke, mostly for comedy purposes.
  • The avant-garde electronic music artist Fad Gadget often performed on stage while tarred and feathered. He was photographed in tar and feathers for the cover of his album Gag.
  • The episode "Complications", the fifth episode of the second season of Deadwood, Samuel Fields, the "Nigger General", is tarred at scalding temperature on the shoulder by a lynch mob leader, before the procedure is interrupted by sheriff Seth Bullock. The tar is then painstakingly but painfully stripped off his shoulder by Calamity Jane.
  • The season 1 episode "God of Chaos" of the AMC TV series Hell on Wheels depicts a character, The Swede, getting tarred and feathered before getting run out of town.
  • The EastEnders character Chrissie, mentions that all she needs is tar and feathers and she'd drag Kate, who was having an affair with her husband, through the streets.
  • In the film Little Big Man, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) and his con-artist employer, Merriweather (Martin Balsam), were tarred and feathered for having sold "miracle elixirs" that made several townsfolk seriously ill.
  • In the events depicted in the motion picture Revenge of the Nerds, nerds Lewis Skolnick and Gilbert Lowe are tarred and feathered by the Alpha Betas in response to their attempt to seek admittance to the fraternity.
  • In 2012 film Lawless a bootlegger is shown being tarred and feathered and left as a warning to others.
  • In Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens, Mr Chollop, an American advocate of Lynch law, and slavery, recommended both in print and speech, the 'tarring and feathering' of any unpopular person who differed from himself. He called this 'planting the standard of civilisation in the wilder gardens of 'My country' and was much esteemed for his devotion to rational Liberty. He was usually described by his friends, in the South and West, as 'a splendid sample of our na-tive raw material, sir'. He introduces himself to young Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley when Martin was taken ill as a result of falling naive victim of fraudulent land dealing of Eden, which is deceptively sold as "a thriving city" with promising business prospect but turns out to be nothing but an abandoned marsh field, for their architects and survey business, called Martin Chuzzlewit Co.
  • Before The Simpsons are exiled from Springfield in the episode At Long Last Leave, Homer is tarred, feathered and paraded through town.
  • In Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America, the 8-year-old protagonist has a daydreaming fear of himself and his family being tarred and feathered.
  • The particularly brutal 'tarring and feathering' of a British customs official is shown in Part I of HBO's "John Adams (miniseries)".
  • In American Horror Story, Season 4 Episode 8 "Blood Bath", The Lizard Girl's father is tarred and feathered in retaliation for his role in his daughter's intentional disfigurement.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^
  9. ^ Tha Avalon Project documents Accessed on 23rd June 2015
  10. ^
  11. ^ Benjamin H. Irvin, "Tar, feathers, and the enemies of American liberties, 1768-1776." New England Quarterly (2003): 197-238. in JSTOR
  12. ^ See Life of Joseph Smith from 1831 to 1834#Life in Kirtland, Ohio
  13. ^  
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b Harris, William J. "Etiquette, Lynching, and Racial Boundaries in Southern History: A Mississippi Example." The American Historical Review. Vol. 100, No. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 387–410
  16. ^
  17. ^

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