On Tarring And Feathering
It turns out that it is not so violent and destructive an act as we’ve been lead to think.
I came across a very interesting article recently in the Journal Of The American Revolution by J.L. Bell, proprietor of the wonderful blog Boston 1775, wherein he dispels five myths about the practice.
The key is this one:
Tarring and feathering could be fatal.
The notion that hot tar caused severe, sometimes fatal burns is based on the assumption that “tar” meant the asphalt we use on roads, which is typically stored in liquid state at about 300°F (150°C). But in the eighteenth century “tar” meant pine tar, used for several purposes in building and maintaining ships. As any baseball fan knows, pine tar doesn’t have to be very hot to be sticky. Shipyards did warm that tar to make it flow more easily, but pine tar starts to melt at about 140°F (60°C). That’s well above the ideal for bathwater, but far from the temperature of hot asphalt.
Pine tar could be hot enough to injure someone. The Loyalist judge Peter Oliver complained that when a mob attacked Dr. Abner Beebe of Connecticut, “hot Pitch was poured upon him, which blistered his Skin.”[i] But other victims of tarring and feathering didn’t mention severe or lasting burns among their injuries. Rioters probably applied the tar with a mop or brush, lowering its temperature. Sometimes they tarred people more gently over their clothing.
The most vicious tar-and-feathers attack in Revolutionary America was carried out on a Comptroller for the Customs Service named John Malcolm in Boston on 25 January 1774. Malcolm was not only stripped and covered with tar and feathers but, a Customs Commissioner wrote, he was also “punched wth. a long pole, beaten with Clubs, led to liberty tree, there whipt with Cords, and tho’ a very cold night, led on to the Gallows, then whipt again.”[ii] That official’s sister added, “They say his flesh comes off his back in Stakes.”[iii] As proof of his suffering Malcolm sailed for London with scraps of skin that had fallen off his body, some with tar and feathers still attached. It’s notable, however, that Malcolm made that voyage because he didn’t die. The victim of America’s worst pre-Revolutionary assault with tar and feathers lived for another fourteen years in England.[iv]
Tarring and feathering undoubtedly caused pain and a lot of discomfort and inconvenience. But above all it was supposed to be embarrassing for the victim. Mobs performed the act in public as a humiliation and a warning — to the victim and anyone else — not to arouse the community again. There are no examples of people in Revolutionary America dying from being tarred and feathered.
In the past, I have been against the resumption of the practice of Tarring And Feathering, but, in light of this rather conclusive evidence, perhaps it is time to consider it’s utility in these Tyrannical times?
[i] Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American
Rebellion: A Tory View, Douglass Adair and John A.
Schutz, editors (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library,
[ii] Henry Hulton, “Some Account of the Proceedings of
the People in New England; from the Establishment of
a Board of Customs in America, to the breaking out of
the Rebellion in 1775,” André deCoppet Manuscript
Collection, Firestone Library, Princeton University, 224.
[iii] Ann Hulton, Letters of a Loyalist Lady (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927), 71.
[iv] Frank W. C. Hersey, “Tar and Feathers: The
Adventures of Captain John Malcolm,” Colonial Society
of Massachusetts Publications, 34 (1941), 429-73. Walter
Kendall Watkins, “Tarring and Feathering in Boston in
1770,” Old-Time New England, 20 (1929), 30-43. Audit
Office Files, AO 13/75, 42, National Archives, United