Tar and feathering is a form of public humiliation and punishment that has been used at various times throughout history. The practice involves covering a person in hot tar and then coating them with feathers. The tar adheres to the person’s skin, causing intense discomfort and humiliation. Feathers stick to the tar, creating a grotesque and degrading appearance.
Tar and feathering has been documented in various cultures and historical periods. It gained prominence as a form of vigilante justice, often used by mobs or groups of people seeking to punish individuals they perceived as wrongdoers or enemies. The reasons for tar and feathering varied widely.
It was often employed against individuals accused of crimes, perceived moral transgressions, or political offenses. Accusations of theft, adultery, and treason were common triggers for this form of punishment. While not exactly tar and feathering, similar methods of public humiliation and punishment were employed in medieval Europe. Offenders might be covered in various substances, such as hot pitch, to mark them as criminals or wrongdoers.
It was first used as a punishment for theft in the English navy, recorded in the Ordinance of Richard I in 1189, and by the mid-1700s had become mob practice. The figurative usage dates from the mid-1800s.
There are reports of tar and feathering being used in Scotland during the 16th century. It was a method of punishing women accused of witchcraft. The tar and feathers were applied to the accused as a way to publicly shame them. Tar and feathering became more widely known during the American colonial period, particularly leading up to and during the American Revolution. The practice was used in protest against the Stamp Act in the American colonies, targeting tax collectors and other officials seen as loyal to the British Crown. The Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, a series of measures imposed by the British Parliament,
ignited widespread discontent among American colonists due to its imposition of taxes on various imported goods without colonial representation. This act, named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, led to heightened tensions and resistance, with colonists vehemently opposing what they perceived as unjust taxation.
The discontent fueled a series of protests and acts of defiance, including the infamous practice of tar and feathering. Tar and feathering became a form of vigilante justice employed by colonists against individuals deemed loyalists or enforcers of the Townshend Acts, symbolizing the depth of colonial frustration.
Notably, the act of tar and feathering was witnessed during the Stamp Act protests and intensified during the Townshend period as a means of expressing discontent with British rule. The Townshend Revenue Act and its repercussions played a pivotal role in the lead-up to the American Revolution, underscoring the growing discord between the American colonies and the British Crown.
Following the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, anti-British sentiment in Boston escalated, culminating in a notorious incident on March 18, 1770. On this evening, a hostile crowd targeted British customs official John Malcolm, accusing him of complicity in the massacre and engaging in oppressive acts. The enraged mob seized Malcolm, dragged him through the streets, and subjected him to the humiliating punishment of tar and feathering.
This brutal act, involving the application of hot tar and feathers, was intended not only to cause physical pain but also to publicly shame and stigmatize Malcolm. The incident symbolized the colonists’ profound resentment toward British authority, serving as a visceral expression of their anger. The event is emblematic of the mounting tensions that contributed to the outbreak of the American Revolution.
Tar and feathering was used as a form of protest and punishment against perceived loyalists or Tories who supported British rule during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During the Whiskey Rebellion (1794) in the United States, which was a protest against a federal excise tax on distilled spirits, there were instances of tar and feathering as a means of punishing those who cooperated with the government. Tar and feathering continued to be sporadically employed in the United States during the 19th century, often in the context of social or political disputes. With the development of more formal legal systems and the establishment of a stronger rule of law,
tar and feathering declined significantly in the 20th century. The use of such methods became widely seen as incompatible with a civilized society. It’s important to note that while tar and feathering is historically associated with the United States, similar forms of public humiliation and punishment have been recorded in other parts of the world throughout history. The practice, in various forms, has been a reflection of societal norms and attitudes toward justice, often evolving as legal systems became more established and codified.
- “A Brief, Sticky History of Tarring and Feathering” (Aug 6, 2015) https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/66830/brief-sticky-history-tarring-and-feathering
- “Tarring and feathering” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarring_and_feathering
- Breen, T. H. (2004). The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. Oxford University Press.
- Middlekauff, R. (2005). The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. Oxford University Press.
- “John Malcolm (Loyalist)” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Malcolm_%28Loyalist%29
- “The Epic Tarring and Feathering of John Malcom” (JANUARY 18, 2017) https://emergingrevolutionarywar.org/2017/01/18/the-epic-tarring-and-feathering-of-john-malcom/
- Fischer, D. H. (2004). Paul Revere’s Ride. Oxford University Press.
- Wood, G. S. (2003). The American Revolution: A History. Modern Library.
- “Tarring and feathering – a brief history of brutal revenge” (Wed 29 Aug 2007) https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/aug/30/northernireland.humanrights
- “Tar and Feathers in Revolutionary America” https://revolution.h-net.msu.edu/essays/irvin.feathers.html