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The practice of tarring and feathering is a venerable and ancient form of punishment, the basic mechanics of which, having first secured your alleged miscreant, appear to have been as follows;

- first shave their head, then
- pour hot tar over them, and finally
- apply a liberal coating of feathers.

It does not appear as if the intention was to necessarily kill the victim, but rather to disable and more importantly, humiliate the victim. Although the application of boiling hot tar to naked skin is obviously both painful and potentially disfiguring, a great deal depended on the extent to which the victim had been stripped of their clothing prior to its application. A 'genteel' tarring and feathering would be applied over the victim's clothing and therefore cause the minimum of damage.

The first recorded reference to the practice is from a short enactment by Richard I dating from around the year 1189 regarding the punishment of Crusaders en route to the Holy Land which states that;

A robber, moreover, convicted of theft, shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a cushion shall be shaken out over his head,- so that he may be publicly known; and at the first land where the ships put in he shall be cast on shore. 1

It is very likely that this legislation merely recognised an existing method of punishment and that tarring and feathering had already been established as the standard British Naval punishment for theft. It seems to have been a rudimentary form of popular justice in which a punishment was exacted using the materials that were readily at hand - tar being a commodity that was widely used on board ship for the purposes of waterproofing fabric and rigging, and feathers were of course a common bedding material.

As one can see from the reference to being 'cast on shore', the victim was expected to survive the ordeal.

It is certainly worth mentioning the activities of the boisterous Bishop of Halverstadt who it is said, during a visit to Madrid;

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 presage him an ill-death 2
This it seems, was a punishment for 'incontinence' amongst the aforementioned nuns and friars

Tarring and Feathering and the American Revolution

Whilst tarring and feathering may have been invented by the British and adopted by the odd eccentric German bishop it does not appear to have been widely applied in Europe and we have to go to America to see the practice become truly popular.

Early in the year 1766 a certain Captain William Smith was suspected of passing information to the British authorities regarding the smuggling activities of a number of Norfolk merchants. They accordingly laid hold of him and in the words of William Smith himself, "dawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers on me." After which he was paraded "through every street in town", before being thrown into the sea. (From which he was rescued by a passing boat just as he was on the verge of drowning.)3

This appears to be the first recorded instance of tarring and feathering in the American Colonies, a practice that then seems to have been adopted with enthusiasm by American patriots who used it as a method of intimidating British tax collectors charged with levying the hated Townsend Duties imposed by the Revenue Act of 1767.

And it was not only people who were targeted in this manner, a number of houses were also tarred and feathered as indeed, on one notable occasion, was a horse. The British authorities of course, viewed such activities with disdain and regarded it as clear evidence of the degeneracy of Americans in general;

Americans were a strange sett of people, and that it was in vain to expect any degree of reasoning from them; that instead of making their claim by argument, they always chose to decide the matter by tarring and feathering. 4

As the dispute between the British and American colonists became more heated, the Americans moved away from merely targeting customs officials and informers and began using tarring and feathering to intimidate anyone who held, or was suspected of holding loyalist views. Various secret committees were formed for the specific purpose of applying the punishment against suspect individuals.

There was, for example, a Philadelphia Committee for Tarring and Feathering which issued the following warning to those who would break the self-imposed embargo on the importation of tea,

What think you of a Halter around your neck, then gallons of liquid tar decanted on your pate, with the feathers of a dozen live geese laid over that to enliven your appearance? 5

Naturally, at times things got out of hand, as the exuberance of the mob, inflamed against those failing to show sufficient enthusiasm for the cause of American liberty, failed to find a mere tarring and feathering sufficient, and would go to further lengths to satisfy their hunger.

In 1775, a doctor by the name of Abner Beebe was tarred and feathered and also suffered the indignity of being thrown into a pig sty, thoroughly covered in pig excrement and with a quantity of it rammed down his throat for good measure. A year later a minister named John Roberts after being subjected to the normal tarring and feathering, was hoisted up on a hastily constructed scaffold and hung. Then just to make sure he was dead, a bonfire was made and John Roberts, scaffold and all burnt to the ground.

After the Revolution

Once American Independence had been achieved tarring and feathering did not disappear. It had now become ingrained in the American consciousness as a method of expressing popular anger. In Maryland for example it proved necessary to provide for a specific legal penalty to apply against the use of the practice;

Every person, his or her aiders and abettors, who shall be duly convicted of the crime of mayhem, or of tarring and feathering, shall be sentenced to undergo a confinement in the said penitentiary house for a space of time not more than ten years, to be treated as herein directed 6

Naturally this type of legislative prohibition didn't automatically bring the practice to and end. Where once the targets had been informers and British loyalists, now they became those that held similarly unpopular 'minority' views. In the south, these were the opponents of slavery and those who sought to undermine its efficacy as an institution.

In 1850 a couple involved in the Underground Railroad in the Baltimore area found themselves tarred and feathered and the early Ku Klux Klan also used tarring and feathering in the 1860s and 1870s as part of their general campaign of secretive violence and intimidation.

In the north, it was naturally the other way round, as in 1861 when a group of Massachusetts residents became suspicious that the editor of their local newspaper was guilty of pro-Confederate sympathies and promptly had him tarred and feathered in order to persuade him of the error of his ways.

Its use seems to have now died out and Americans seem to have adopted other methods of settling their differences.

The most recent example of tarring and feathering comes from South Africa from as recently as March 1979. Here the pro-apartheid and nationalist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging or AWB became annoyed with the opinions of a certain academic who had been voicing his criticisms of the traditional nationalist interpretation of the holiday known as the Day of the Covenant. This academic by the name of Professor Floors Van Jaarsveld was in the middle of giving a lecture in Pretoria when the AWB stormed in and dumped a bucket of municipal tar and a sack of feathers over the astonished professor's head. 7


1 Laws of Richard I Concerning Crusaders Who Were to Go by Sea
Henderson, Ernest F. Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London : George Bell and Sons, 1896.) see www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/medieval/richard.htm

2 This is from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for tarring and feathering referring to its source as one James Howell writing in Notes and Queries (series 4, vol. v.). at 32.1911encyclopedia.org/T/TA/ TARRING_AND_FEATHERING.htm

3 From Benjamin H. Irvin Tar and Feathers in Revolutionary America http://revolution.h-net.msu.edu/essays/irvin.feathers.html quoting William and Mary Quarterly, 1st Ser., XXI (1913), p. 167

4 From Benjamin H. Irvin etc quoting the Pennsylvania Gazette, June 29, 1774.

5 From Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (7th draft 4/1/90) fromhttp://www.ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/EoL/chp7.html
See also the Philadelphia Handbills at http://www.carleton.ca/~pking/docs/docs73.htm

6 From the Laws of Maryland 1809 at http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/megafile/msa/speccol/sc2900/sc2908/000001/000141/html/am141--574.html

7 See Victory or Violence: The Story of the AWB which was at www4.stormfront.org/whitehistory/awb/ still cached by Google

Other sources consulted;
www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/chronicle/ stampactriots-tar.html
E. Cobham Brewer Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) at http://www.bartleby.com/81/16273.html
Merriam Webster Word for the Wise Script for August 19, 2002 at http://www.m-w.com/wftw/02aug/081902.htm

Various contemporary images of tarring and feathering at

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