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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 his waist. Hot tar was either poured or painted onto the person while he was immobilized. Then the victim either had feathers thrown on him 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 him either conform his behavior to the mob's demands or be driven from town.
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.
Modern tar, also called bitumen or asphalt, is produced from either petroleum or coal. (Americans, at least colloquially, call all these materials tar.) 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 220 °F (104 °C), but is applied at 380 °F (193 °C). 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 (221 °F (105 °C) for coal tar, 302–357 °F (150–180 °C) for bitumen), but even then liquid would still be hot enough to cause severe injuries.
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.
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 130–140 °F (55–60 °C). Pine tar’s boiling point is listed at 637 °F (337 °C).
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, some pine tars were like golden syrup at room temperature, others much blacker and thicker. The latter had to be heated to a higher temperature to use, and so was called "hot tar." 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.
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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).
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 first recorded incident in America occurred in 1766: Captain William Smith (not to be confused with the mariner who discovered the South Shetland Islands some time later) 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 service.
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.
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.
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.
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 Lowery, 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.
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 Negroes 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). There were several examples of tarring and feathering of Negroes in the lead-up to World War I in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Following the Liberation of France in World War II, there were instances of alleged German collaborators being tarred and feathered by street mobs. Most of the victims of this practice were women accused of a collaboration horizontale, or a sexual relationship with German soldiers.
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.
The image of the tarred-and-feathered outlaw remains a metaphor for public humiliation many years after the practice became uncommon. To tar and feather someone can mean to punish or severely criticize that person.
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