The practice of tarring and feathering as punishment began in the 1100s when Richard the Lionheart began using it to punish thieves. It consists of removing a person's clothing, pouring hot tar on them and then covered with feathers that would stick to the tar. As you can imagine, the hot tar caused severe blistering and was incredibly painful to remove. The feathers made this even more difficult.
Why tar and feathers?
This form of intimidation and punishment was used extensively during the American Colonial Period, especially the 1760s when Patriots used it against Loyalists and British officials. Tar could easily be found in shipyards. Pine tar was applied between the boards in ships to make them water-proof. Most pillows of the time were stuffed with feathers, so they, also, were easy to obtain.
Tarring and Feathering was not usually fatal. The tar was painful and the feathers were intended to make the person appear comical. It was designed to embarrass and humiliate the victim. Sometimes, a person's clothing was left on when they were tarred and feathered as a lesser punishment or warning. Because the tar was heated to make it spreadable, it often caused blistering when applied to bare skin. When a victim tried to remove the tar, their blistered skin was also removed. This was, of course, incredibly painful, but the beatings and other tortures that frequently went along with tarring and feathering were often more life-threatening.
Did it work?
Tarring and feathering was successful. Tax collectors were often threatened. Though there are no records of a stamp commissioner being tarred and feathered, the threats were enough that when the Stamp Act tax went into effect in 1765, there were no stamp commissioners left in the colonies to collect it.
It was also successful in protesting the Townshend Duties which included the tea tax that led to the Boston Tea Party.
Other materials were used to exact the same punishment such as syrup instead of tar or cattails instead of feathers. John Robert Shaw described a tarring and feathering in his autobiography:
in this excursion, among other plunder, we took a store of molasses, the hogshead being rolled out and their heads knocked in, a soldier’s wife was stooping to fill her kettle, a soldier slipped behind her and threw her into the hogshead ; when she was hauled out, a bystander then threw a parcel of feathers on her, which adhering to the molasses made her appear frightful enough;–This little circumstance afforded us a good deal of amusement.
“ A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practised at Boston in North America.” Wikimedia Commons, British Museum, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_New_Method_of_Macarony_Making,_as_practised_at_Boston_in_North_America_(BM_J,5.67).jpg. Accessed 11 Jan. 2023.
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https://web.archive.org/web/20190309190342/http://www.historywiz.com/didyouknow/tarringandfeathering.htmBurns, Janet. “A Brief, Sticky History of Tarring and Feathering.” Mental Floss, Mental Floss, 6 Aug. 2015, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/66830/brief-sticky-history-tarring-and-feathering.
“John Meintz, Punished during World War I.” Wikimedia Commons, U.S. District Court for the Second (Mankato) Division of the District of Minnesota, 2016, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Meintz,_punished_during_World_War_I_-_NARA_-_283633_-_restored.jpg. Accessed 11 Jan. 2023.
Leslie, Frank. “1862 Kimball of Essex Democrat Haverhill from FrankLeslies.” Wikimedia Commons, Frank Leslie's Pictorial History of the American Civil War, 2012, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1862_Kimball_of_Essex_Democrat_Haverhill_from_FrankLeslies.jpeg. Accessed 11 Jan. 2023.
“Liberty! . The Stamp Act Riots & Tar and Feathering.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/popup_stampact.html.
Seaver, Carl. “The Strange History behind Tarring and Feathering.” History Defined -, 22 July 2022, https://www.historydefined.net/tarring-and-feathering/.
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