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Tarring and feathering

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print referring to the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The men also shove tea down Malcolm's throat.

Tarring and Feathering was a typical punishment used to enforce justice on the early American frontier. Both tar used in construction and feathers from food sources (e.g. chicken) were plentiful in the middle and western United States where the practice primarily flourished. The idea was to hurt and humiliate a person enough so they would leave town and cause no more mischief. Hot tar was either poured or painted on to a criminal while he (rarely she) was immobilized.

Then the person either had feathers thrown on him from buckets or barrels or else he was thrown into a pile of them and rolled around. Then the victim was taken to the edge of town and set free in the hopes he would not return. The feathers would stick to the tar for days making the person's sentence clear to the public. While this pratice was extremely cruel it was usually an effective manner of exile. It was eventually abandoned because it did nothing to rehabilitate its victims of the criminal behavior for which they were sentenced.

The image of the tarred-and-feathered outlaw is so vivid that the expression remains a metaphor for a humiliating public castigation, many years after the practice disappeared.


The earliest mention of the punishment occurs in the orders of Richard I of England, issued to his navy on starting for the Holy Land in 1191. "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" (trans. of original statute in Hakluyt's Voyages, ii. 21).

A later instance of this penalty being inflicted is given in Notes and Queries (series 4, vol. v.), which quotes one James Howell writing from Madrid, in 1623, of the "boisterous Bishop of Halverstadt," 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 the maypole which stood by what is now Somerset House.