Back in the eighteenth-century, posters depicting a tarring-and-feathering appear almost comical in nature. Take this picture, for example, titled, “A new method of macaroni making as practiced in Boston in North America.” It shows one man, already covered in tar and feathers, on a knee between two others; all three blushing mightily, as if out of embarrassment. And, this symbolism of tarring-and-feathering as a not-so-violent means to make a mockery of a wrong-doer, has carried down through the centuries, with most people not realizing that, just like this picture, a darker reality hides beneath.
Let’s examine the picture again. If you look closely, you’ll see the man who’s been tar-and-feathered has a rope around his neck; and following the rope to its end we find it rests in the hand of the man on the right. The man on the left holds down the victim, a teapot in his hand as if he’s about to administer his century’s version of waterboarding. And, behind the trio, the rest of the rope dangles from a wooden frame, clear evidence that the tar-and-feathered man had just hung from his neck.
While this image, and many like it, was created in England, and thus held a lot of anti-Boston Tea Party sentiment, there’s a lot of truth to the brutality described in its brush strokes. Though there’s no recorded deaths by tar-and-feathering during the era of the American Revolution, this version of charivari could indeed prove tortuous. The tar used to tar-and-feather someone was pine tar, an adhesive used in ship-building. To make pine tar into a liquid that’s able to be smeared or poured over someone, it must be heated to 140°F (60°C)1. Just imagine having 140° liquid of any kind come in contact with your skin, let alone one that, if allowed to cool, hardens. This was, undoubtedly, a painful process. The potential violence of a tar-and-feathering comes through in stark reality in a letter written by a Boston woman, Ann Hulton, in late January of 1774:
“But the most shocking cruelty was exercised a few nights ago, upon a poor old man a tidesman one Malcolm he is reckond creasy, a quarrel was pickd with him, he was afterward taken, & tard, & featherd. Theres no law that knows a punishment for the greatest crimes beyond what this is, of cruel torture. And this instance exceed any other before it, he was stript stark naked, one of the severest cold nights this winter, his body coverd all over with tar, then with feathers, his arm dislocated in tearing off his cloaths, he dragged in a cart with thousands attending, some beating him with clubs & knocking him out of the cart, then in again. They gave him several severe whipings, at different parts of the town. This spectacle of horror & sportive curelty was exhibited for about five hours.”2
While this may seem bad enough, once the tar cooled a whole new ordeal began. Not only did the hot tar leave behind burns and welts, but as the hardened tar was removed, often with turpentine (which, itself, burned the skin upon contact), body hair was torn from its roots and layers of skin came off with the tar.2In her letter regarding the tar-and-feathering of John Malcom, Ann Hulton reported, “they say his flesh comes off his back in steaks.”3
Though Malcom’s experience was worse than most other known cases of tarring-and-feathering from this time, his trials highlight the mob violence inherent in revolution, and unearth a fact not often discussed in the American ethos — our ancestors didn’t always have the moral high-ground when it came to their dealings with the British in the Revolution, at times torturing the low man on the totem pole just for doing his job, collecting taxes.
- Ricahrd Hofstadter, American Violence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).
- Hofstadter, American Violence.