The Strange History Behind Tarring and Feathering

Last updated on July 22nd, 2022 at 09:53 pm

Tarring and feathering is a brutal form of punishment used in the past to discipline people who had done something wrong. This practice has a strange and dark history, and it’s still not entirely clear why people used it in the first place.

In this blog post, we will explore the origins of tarring and feathering and discuss some of the reasons why people used it historically. Keep reading for more information on the subject.

A man being tarred and feathered during the American Revolution – East India Blogging Co.

What Was Tarring And Feathering?

History regards the act as torture and humiliation used to punish people for various offenses. The medieval process involves covering a person in hot tar and then feathers, which can cause extreme pain and suffering.

Usually, the offender was stripped from the waist up, tar was applied to their body, and then they were covered in feathers.

While the goal was to intimidate and humiliate, victims often endured great physical pain. Depending on the crowd’s mood, tarring and feathering could also be a precursor to further violence.

Such violence may have included public whipping, branding, or even lynching. The practice was never an official punishment, but public figures like Richard I of England used the sentence on those convicted of theft on the voyage to the Holy Land.

Tarring and feathering were used in America and Europe, although more common in the colonies. Throughout the remainder of history, to the early 1980s, tarring and feathering were used as a form of unofficial justice. During the 1760s, punishment was used frequently by the colonists. 

Contrary to popular opinion, tarring and feathering were rarely fatal, but removing them was excruciating. Often, victims would see significant burns on their skin, and removing the tar would pull out hair and pieces of skin, exposing them to potential infections.

Historical Roots Of Tarring And Feathering

Tarring and feathering is a punishment dating back to European history’s early days. The first recorded instance of tarring and feathering occurred in 1189 at the hands of Richard I, when he ordered a group of thieves tarred and feathered as punishment for their crimes.

Tarring and feathering continued to be used sporadically throughout history to humiliate and degrade offenders. However, the practice reached its peak in the 18th century when it was used frequently by the colonists in America.

Old Cartoon Depicting Tarring and Feathering

Traditionally, the practice required Pine Tar and Feathers (which filled most pillows at the time). At the time, American colonists would use whatever materials they could to punish those they thought deserved it. For example, colonists would use syrup and cattails when they couldn’t find the conventional materials.

While the origins of tarring and feathering are relatively straightforward, the reasons behind their use are still somewhat of a mystery. Some historians believe that the act was meant to humiliate offenders in front of their community and intimidate them. In contrast, others believe it was simply a way to inflict pain and suffering.

Notable Examples of Tarring and Feathering

While there were countless examples of colonists tarring and feathering their fellow Americans, some notable cases stand out.

In 1773, John Malcom a well-known British Loyalist, and Comptroller for the Customs Service, had the unfortunate experience of being tarred and feathered twice.

His first incident occurred in Maine, and his second occurred in Boston in 1774. His second occurrence was most severe, causing bits of skin on his knees to be painfully removed.

Another well-known example of this humiliating practice was a religious leader named Joseph Smith. In March of 1832, the unfortunate soul was dragged from his bed, tarred, and feathered by a mob that didn’t appreciate his plan to take their land and control it.

However, this may have only been a cover for the real reason he was tarred and feathered. The real reason is likely because he was intimate with a younger girl from his community. During his ordeal, the kidnappers badly beat him before covering him in tar and feathers.

No matter who you were, if you deserved to be humiliated, this includes clergy members. Historically, the community held them in high regard and expected a certain caliber of behavior from them. So if they behaved outside their routine, let’s say, participating in public drunkenness, they were covered in pitch and feathers and sent on their way.

Why Was Tarring And Feathering Used?

While tarring and feathering have largely fallen out of use in recent years, there are still some instances of it occurring. For example, in the 1900s, there were instances of tarring and feathering that still persevered as a form of “mob justice” with no official law around to punish offenders.

There are a few theories on why tarring and feathering became a form of punishment. One view is that it was a deterrent for others who might be thinking about committing a crime. If they saw what happened to the offenders, they would be less likely to commit a crime themselves.

A German American farmer tarred and feathered during WWI

Another theory is that it was simply a way to inflict pain and suffering on the offender. This was especially true in cases where the offender had already been tarred and feathered once before. The second time around, the experience would be even more painful and degrading.

The last theory is people used that tarring and feathering to destroy the offender’s reputation in front of their community. It was influential in small towns where everyone knew each other. By humiliating the offender, they were also shaming their family and friends.

Whatever the reasons behind its use, tarring and feathering is a brutal act that has a dark and strange history. While communities worldwide may not use it as frequently as it once was, it is a cruel form of torture. Moreover, it embarrasses African Americans and civil rights activists peacefully protesting.

The History of Tarring and Feathering

Tarring and feathering is a relic of the past, but it’s a fascinating example of how creative people can be when they want to send a message. This severe form of public humiliation was once used to punish everything from political dissenters to petty criminals. 

Thankfully, it’s no longer in practice today. But it’s still interesting to think about how such a strange and seemingly barbaric practice could have ever been considered acceptable. Hopefully, we can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors and avoid such cruel and unusual punishments in the future.

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