5 Myths of Tarring and Feathering

Prewar Conflict (<1775)

December 13, 2013
by J. L. Bell Also by this Author


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Philip Dawe's "The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering" (31 October 1774). Source: Library of Congress
Philip Dawe’s “The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering” (31 October 1774). Source: Library of Congress

1. Myth:

Tarring and feathering could be fatal.


The notion that hot tar caused severe, sometimes fatal burns is based on the assumption that “tar” meant the asphalt we use on roads, which is typically stored in liquid state at about 300°F (150°C). But in the eighteenth century “tar” meant pine tar, used for several purposes in building and maintaining ships. As any baseball fan knows, pine tar doesn’t have to be very hot to be sticky. Shipyards did warm that tar to make it flow more easily, but pine tar starts to melt at about 140°F (60°C). That’s well above the ideal for bathwater, but far from the temperature of hot asphalt.

Pine tar could be hot enough to injure someone. The Loyalist judge Peter Oliver complained that when a mob attacked Dr. Abner Beebe of Connecticut, “hot Pitch was poured upon him, which blistered his Skin.”[i] But other victims of tarring and feathering didn’t mention severe or lasting burns among their injuries. Rioters probably applied the tar with a mop or brush, lowering its temperature. Sometimes they tarred people more gently over their clothing.

The most vicious tar-and-feathers attack in Revolutionary America was carried out on a Comptroller for the Customs Service named John Malcolm in Boston on 25 January 1774. Malcolm was not only stripped and covered with tar and feathers but, a Customs Commissioner wrote, he was also “punched wth. a long pole, beaten with Clubs, led to liberty tree, there whipt with Cords, and tho’ a very cold night, led on to the Gallows, then whipt again.”[ii] That official’s sister added, “They say his flesh comes off his back in Stakes.”[iii] As proof of his suffering Malcolm sailed for London with scraps of skin that had fallen off his body, some with tar and feathers still attached. It’s notable, however, that Malcolm made that voyage because he didn’t die. The victim of America’s worst pre-Revolutionary assault with tar and feathers lived for another fourteen years in England.[iv]

Tarring and feathering undoubtedly caused pain and a lot of discomfort and inconvenience. But above all it was supposed to be embarrassing for the victim. Mobs performed the act in public as a humiliation and a warning—to the victim and anyone else—not to arouse the community again. There are no examples of people in Revolutionary America dying from being tarred and feathered.

"A New Method of Macarony Making, as practised at Boston in North America." Source: British Library
“A New Method of Macarony Making, as practised at Boston in North America.” Source: British Library

2. Myth:

Rebellious Bostonians invented the tars-and-feathers treatment.


Some incidents of tar and feathers in pre-Revolutionary Boston became notorious emblems of American violence. That assault on John Malcolm inspired the British artist Philip Dawe to create a print titled “The Bostonian’s Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering.”[v]

But the first example of such an assault in pre-Revolutionary America took place in the port of Norfolk, Virginia, in March 1766. A sea captain named William Smith wrote that seven men, including the mayor, had “bedawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers upon me.” Those merchants and mariners also threw rotten eggs and stones at the captain, carted him “through every street in the town” with “two drums beating,” and finally tossed him off a wharf. The rioters had accused Smith of informing a royal official about a smuggler, though he denied that.[vi]

As the historian Ben Irvin found in a thorough survey of Revolutionary tarring and feathering,[vii] the next documented examples occurred in Salem and Newburyport, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1768. That’s why Peter Oliver, who had little good to say about Bostonians, wrote sarcastically, “The Town of Salem, about twenty miles from Boston, hath the Honor of this Invention.”[viii] In the fall of 1769 the practice popped up in New Haven, New York, and Philadelphia. Newspapers reporting these incidents described the process of tarring and feathering in detail, indicating that readers were not yet familiar with it.

When the punishment came to Boston, it appears that the first instigators were mariners from out of town. On 28 October 1769 a mob grabbed the sailor George Gailer, who had recently worked on the Customs patrol ship Liberty (confiscated the year before from John Hancock). According to the sailor, that crowd stripped him naked, tarred and feathered his skin, and paraded him around Boston in a cart for three hours, striking him with clubs, stones, and “a hand saw.” Gailer recognized some of his assailants and sued. The first three defendants were from Newport, Rhode Island, followed by three local men and a minor.[ix] In May 1770 another crowd in Boston tarred and feathered the Customs tide-waiter Owen Richards for seizing a ship from New London, Connecticut.[x]

A clear pattern emerges in reports of those early attacks: waterfront crowds tarred and feathered men who had busted smuggling operations. The punishment appears to have been a traditional form of maritime mobbing. There are scattered examples earlier in English law and history going back centuries. Once the Townshend duties of 1767 made smuggling and anti-smuggling the focus of the dispute between colonists and the London government, that gave tar and feathers political meaning.

Starting in January 1774, Boston’s Whig newspapers began to run advertisements signed “Joyce, Jun’r, Chairman of the Committee for Tarring and Feathering.” The historian Al Young interpreted those public notices as a way for the town’s political leadership to rein in spontaneous mobs and keep demonstrations under their control. “Joyce, Jun’r” actually repudiated the attack on John Malcolm, stating, “We reserve that Method for bringing Villains of greater Consequence to a Sense of Guilt and Infamy.”[xi] Indeed, the only tar-and-feathers assault in Boston after that date was carried out by the British 47th Regiment on a farmer they suspected had tried to lure soldiers into selling their guns.

3. Myth:

Pre-war mobs attacked high-class royal officials with tar and feathers.


In 1767 the London government appointed five Commissioners of the Customs for North America and put their headquarters in Boston. From the start those men were the focus of mariners’ resentment and criticism. At different times mobs surrounded their houses or chased them across the countryside. But none of those men were ever tarred and feathered. Nor were their high-level deputies, such as the collectors and inspectors. Nor were other royal appointees like governors, judges, sheriffs, or justices of the peace.

Instead, pre-Revolutionary crowds reserved tar and feathers mainly for working-class Customs employees and other common men: tide-waiters and land-waiters, sailors on Customs ships, informers, and laborers who supported the Crown. British colonists lived in a deferential society in which everyone expected gentlemen to receive gentler treatment than the mass of ordinary men. Sometimes people would stick tar and feathers on a wealthy merchant’s shop or, as in rural Marlborough, Massachusetts, in June 1770, on a gentleman’s horse, but they did not attack those men themselves.

The closest a Boston mob came to tarring and feathering a gentleman occurred on 19 June 1770 when people seized Patrick McMaster, a Scottish-born merchant who was defying the town’s “non-importation” boycott on goods from Britain. Men placed him in a cart beside a barrel of tar. But with McMaster “fainting away from apprehension of what was to befall him,” a royal official wrote, the crowd “spared him this ignimony [sic], and contented themselves with leading him thro’ the town in the Cart to Roxbury, where they turned him out, spiting upon him.”[xii] The crowd showed less mercy to working-class men like George Gailer and Owen Richards.

In fact, it appears that tarring and feathering someone was a way to communicate that he wasn’t a gentleman, just as clubbing or horsewhipping a man was a way to signal that he wasn’t genteel enough to challenge to a duel. We see this in the exchange that led up to the attack on John Malcolm in January 1774. The little shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes criticized the Customs man for threatening a boy. Malcolm called Hewes “a vagabond,” and said “he should not speak to a gentleman in the street.” Soon Hewes replied, “be that as it will, I was never tarred nor feathered any how”—reminding Malcolm of an earlier incident in New Hampshire and hinting that he wasn’t a real gentleman at all. And then Malcolm clubbed Hewes on the head.[xiii]

As the Revolutionary War drew closer, class deference crumbled a little. In September 1774 a crowd in East Haddam, Connecticut, tarred and otherwise abused the physician and mill owner Abner Beebe.[xiv] Soon after the war began, in the summer of 1775, there was an explosion of tarring and feathering across many colonies, from Savannah to Litchfield. Among the targets was James Smith, a judge in Dutchess County, New York, who had tried to prevent a local committee from disarming “Tories.”[xv] Still, such attacks on upper-class men remained exceptions to the general pattern.

4. Myth:

Towns displayed tar barrels and bags of feathers on Liberty Poles.


Liberty Poles were flagpoles displaying the British Union flag. In 1769 a contingent of soldiers stationed in New York pulled down such a flagpole outside a tavern popular with local Whigs, evidently angered by their claim to superior patriotism. The locals erected a taller pole. When soldiers toppled that, too, the New Yorkers put up an even stronger one and called it a “Liberty Pole.” That tussle, reported in the newspapers, made Liberty Poles into a symbol of patriotic stubbornness. (The two sides also brawled, of course.) As America’s political conflict heated up in the early 1770s, towns vied to erect the tallest Liberty Pole around. But those poles displayed flags, not tar and feathers.[xvi]

A tar barrel did appear beside a pole in Williamsburg, Virginia, in November 1774. A Loyalist merchant named James Parker told a friend, “At Wmsbg there was a Pole erected by Order of Col. Archd. Cary, a strong Patriot, opposite the Raleigh tavern upon which was hung a large mop & a bag of feathers, under it a bbl [barrel] of tar.”[xvii] Neither Parker nor another witness called that pole a “Liberty Pole,” and neither reported a flag as part of this threatening display.

Inspired by that report, in early 1775 Philip Dawe the printmaker published a political cartoon titled “The Alternative of Williams-Burg.” In the background of that picture stands a pole in the unmistakable shape of a gallows. Instead of leaving the heavy tar barrel on the ground, as Parker’s description suggested, the cartoon showed it hanging on the gallows alongside the bag of feathers. Colonial Williamsburg has modeled its depiction of a Liberty Pole bearing a barrel and feathers on this cartoon even though the London artist didn’t draw that scene from life and shaped his imagery to make a political point.[xviii]

5. Myth:

Tarring and feathering ended with the Revolution.


American culture came to associate tar and feathers with the Revolutionary period, but that simply lent the violent punishment a patriotic cachet when crowds revived it during other conflicts. And they did.

In ante-bellum America, mobs tarred and feathered several people who spoke against slavery and threatened prominent abolitionists with the same treatment.[xix] Other crowds used tar and feathers on leaders of religious minorities: the Mormon leader Joseph Smith in 1832 and the Catholic priest John Bapst in 1851.

When the U.S. entered the First World War, crowds attacked some citizens who refused to cooperate with the war effort. Those riots spilled over into assaults on labor organizers, especially the anti-war Industrial Workers of the World, and on civil-rights activists.[xx] One victim, John Meints of Luverne, Minnesota, documented his injuries with photographs.[xxi]

More recent examples of tarring and feathering are rare and no longer seem to involve stripping off the victim’s clothing. In 1971 a branch of the K.K.K. tarred a Michigan school principal for advocating a celebration of the late Rev. Martin Luther King.[xxii] In Northern Ireland in 2007, two men thought to be in the I.R.A. carried out the ritual assault on a man they accused of dealing drugs.[xxiii] Tarring and feathering remains a powerful way to intimidate and humiliate perceived enemies outside the law.


[i] Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View, Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz, editors (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1961), 157.

[ii] Henry Hulton, “Some Account of the Proceedings of the People in New England; from the Establishment of a Board of Customs in America, to the breaking out of the Rebellion in 1775,” André deCoppet Manuscript Collection, Firestone Library, Princeton University, 224.

[iii] Ann Hulton, Letters of a Loyalist Lady (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927), 71.

[iv] Frank W. C. Hersey, “Tar and Feathers: The Adventures of Captain John Malcolm,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts Publications, 34 (1941), 429-73. Walter Kendall Watkins, “Tarring and Feathering in Boston in 1770,” Old-Time New England, 20 (1929), 30-43. Audit Office Files, AO 13/75, 42, National Archives, United Kingdom.

[v] Dawe also drew on John Malcolm’s experience for “A New Method of Macarony Making, as practised at Boston.” R. T. H. Halsey, n Dawes (New York: Grolier Club, 1904).

[vi] William Smith to Jeremiah Morgan, 3 Apr 1766, in “Letters of Governor Francis Fauquier,” William and Mary Quarterly, 1st series, 21 (1913), 167-8.

[vii] Benjamin H. Irvin, “Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768-1776,” New England Quarterly, 76 (2003), 197-238.

[viii] Peter Olivers Origin, 93-4.

[ix] Legal Papers of John Adams, L. Kinvin Roth and Hiller B. Zobel, editors (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), 1:41-2.

[x] Audit Office Files, AO 13/75, 350. Treasury Files, T1 476/58, 60-2, 64-5, National Archives, United Kingdom.

[xi] Albert Matthews, “Joyce Junior,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts Publications, 8 (1902-04), 89-104. Alfred F. Young, “Tar and Feathers and the Ghost of Oliver Cromwell: English Plebeian Culture and American Radicalism,” in Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 144-79. Philadelphia was the first American city to putatively have a Committee for Tarring and Feathering, which in November 1773 warned river pilots not to steer in a ship carrying tea; “To the Delaware Pilots” broadside, 27 Nov 1773, Library of Congress.

[xii] Hulton, “Some Account,” 166-7. Colin Nicolson, “A Plan ‘to banish all the Scotchmen’: Victimization and Political Mobilization in Pre-Revolutionary Boston,” Massachusetts Historical Review, 9 (2007), 55-102.

[xiii] Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 48.

[xiv] Joseph Spencer to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, 14 Sept 1774, in Peter Force, editor, American Archives, 4th series, 1:787.

[xv] Constitutional Gazette (New York), 27 Sept 1775.

[xvi] Young, Liberty Tree, 346-54, 384. David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 37-49.

[xvii] A. Francis Steuart, “Letters from Virginia, 1774-1781,” Magazine of History with Notes and Queries, 3 (1906), 156.

[xviii] Robert Doares, “The Alternative of Williams-Burg,” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 2006, 20-5.

[xix] <http://www.sethkaller.com/item/551-Threatening-to-Tar-and-Feather-an-Abolitionist-in-Boston>.

[xx] National Civil Liberties Bureau, “War-Time Prosecutions and Mob Violence,” July 1918 and March 1919. Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 31.

[xxi] <http://www.historybyzim.com/2012/06/john-meints-wwi-anti-german-sentiment/>.

[xxii] <http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2013/01/21/mlk-mark-sagor>.

[xxiii] <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/6966493.stm>.


  • Interesting subject matter, these tales of tar and feathers. The actions in Summer of 1775 seem to be almost coordinated. At least in the southern states. As the Committees of Safety (and the Secret Committee) took control of the civil governments in the South Carolina and Georgia, the Loyalist response was, quite naturally, to organize their own form of resistance. The Patriots stopped their actions quickly and firmly by providing examples of Tar and Feathers in Charleston, Savannah, and then Augusta. Chased a couple of other Loyalists back to England with threats of the same treatment. These three occurrences were right around the end of July 1775. Do you know of any concerted plan throughout the colonies at that time to dress a few Tories in tar and feathers in each place just as an example?

    How many people were actually tarred and feathered in the colonies in the revolution?

    1. I know of no evidence for a concerted plan across multiple colonies to tar and feather Loyalists in the summer of 1775, and the one authority that was trying to coordinate efforts—the Continental Congress—was also trying to tamp down riots and present the most respectable face to the world.

      But there didn’t have to be a concerted plan. The publicity of previous tar-and-feather attacks, particularly on John Malcolm in January 1774 and Thomas Ditson (the farmer tarred by British troops) in March 1775, had established the ritual in people’s minds. Groups could decide individually whether to do it. And when any group feels under attack and in need of cohesion, as when a war has begun, they start to demand conformity from dissenters.

      1. Not to be offensive, or anything… but there ARE accounts of violent, angry mobs tarring and feathering victims with pitch or even tar, that was in fact, *boiled*. Isn’t it somewhat reckless to say “busted” to an event that can have wild variables as to the mood and violence of the people performing it, and to the possible range of preparation of the substances used?

    2. I completely agree with J. L. Bell about publicity feeding ideas and ritual to other colonies. The same thing happened a decade earlier with the widespread news of Stamp Act riots and stamp officer intimidation, which seemed to take on similar traits in towns up and down the continent. In my research for Reporting the Revolutionary War, I often thought newspapers served as the inter-colonial instruction manuals for Revolution.

  • An enjoyable, interesting and informative article. It’s interesting to note that tar and feathers were reserved for the common man, an obvious holdover from the British class system that also believed it was undignified to shoot at an officer. Fortunately, that protocol didn’t last too long.

  • Fascinating and a needed correction. I just read a popular history book that myth #1 to be true, and I pictured in my mind black hot tar being poured on the bodies. Makes me wonder sometimes how much serious research is done for some of these books.

    Thanks for the great information

  • My favorite euphemism for tarring and feathering comes from Arthur Middleton, at the time a member of the Council of Safety in South Carolina (later a delegate to Congress and signer of the Declaration). When George Walker, a gunner at Fort Johnson near Charleston was tarred and feathered, Middleton reported on it to William Henry Drayton (who was on his tour through the backcountry at the time) that Walker was given “a new suit of Cloathes…without the assistance of a single Taylor”

  • I wonder if the author of this article would volunteer himself to be tared and feathered? Since it is so benign.

    I think that it is difficult to see the history truthfully when I am not able to see acts of our forefathers as mob terrorism versus persecuted patriots. Should this be called historical bias?

    1. I do not believe that the author’s intent is to paint the practice as benign. Indeed, he describes in great detail injuries suffered by some of the most documented cases.

      The reason you may find “it is difficult to see the history truthfully.” is due to the common error of judging Historical actions and motivations based upon current standards.

      History has to be understood as it was. Not in terms of what we believe now to be right, wrong, or improper.

      And, in the interest of understanding how it was, one must understand this was the first time a society underwent such a change. Mao and others have issued well developed playbooks for Revolution since then, but these people had to do it on the fly, from scratch. With only the ideas of Natural Rights, and without a long history (other than from the colonial frontier) of exercising them, more developed in the personal application than the group. And, I might add, emerging with considerably less carnage than those others.

      The British were quite as responsible for generating anti-Loyalist sentiment as the most vociferous rebel ever was.

      Do not forget the harshness by which they were treated in comparison by the British Army, Navy, and Partisans. Some 11,000 prisoners died from disease and starvation aboard British prison ships over the course of the Revolution. Many, including women were exchanged for British soldiers & Loyalists, and their poor condition could be witnessed by all. British & Partisan forces burned and took for plunder the crops, livestock, provisions & possessions of those they labeled Rebels. Before there were grocery stores on every corner, that was not just a threat to one’s life.

      I am a descendant from two distinctly different types of Colonials in the Carolinas at the time. One firmly supported and fought with distinction from the beginning. The other branch were pacifists, determined to stay out of fighting. That is until the British let them know that any claiming neutral status were in fact to be treated as rebels. Then they started burning their barns and homes.

      In the end, any revolution is a mob action.

    2. I am the author of this article, and it doesn’t portray tarring and feathering as “benign” or anything like that. It uses words like “pain,” “discomfort,” “humiliation,” and “punishment.”

  • There has been much discussion about the method of tarring and feathering with the release of the miniseries John Adams by HBO.

    I read somewhere that people were stripped down to their waist yet HBO showed them stripping the victim completely naked.

    Was this just HBO doing their normal female chauvinistic degradation of men by showing their genitals or was this truly done nude?

    HBO is now selling the miniseries to our schools so our children will be seeing it. Many people were complaining that the nudity was unnecessary and made the series historically incorrect. Knowing about their resident female chauvinist in charge, Sheila Nevins, it would not surprise me with HBO.

    1. This is a silly misogynistic grumble from someone obsessed with Sheila Nevins. (Though we can be glad Ian Jameson didn’t call her a sow, as in this comment.)

      Nevins is in charge of HBO Documentary Films. She was not in charge of the John Adams miniseries or marketing it.

      As for HBO’s “normal female chauvinistic degradation of men,” that reminds me of all those Sopranos episodes with male strippers gyrating in the background. Except there weren’t any. There were lots of female strippers instead.

      Again, this does not appear to be a sincere historical question. It appears to be an expression of loose anger that’s fastened onto a particular television executive.

  • Interesting comment so far removed from the release of “John Adams”.

    Tarring and feathering was not invented in America. According to Yale Law School, the earliest “tar and feather” recordation was in the “Laws of Richard I (Coeur de Lion) Concerning Crusaders Who Were to Go by Sea. 1189 A.D.” (see http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/richard.asp , access verified today), which read: “…A robber, moreover, convicted of theft, shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a cushion shall be shaken out over his head,-so that he may be publicly known;…”. Inclusion in Richards law for crusaders strongly indicates the humiliating punishment was already in practice in England (and bear in mind that at that time robbery was otherwise a capital offense).

    In our adaptation to modern thinking, we’ve lost the context of “tar” and its employ in colonial time. When tarring rope or caulking ships, a sailor was expected to reach into the pine-pitch tar-pot with a bare hand to saturate caulking cotton with tar or to extract the hot substance for working into lines with bare hands. And although we’ve focused on “tar” as the medium by which feathers were attached to victims, molasses was an equally sticky substance which could be used to the same effect, and much more simply as it did not require much heating, if any.

    The scene in “Adams” is meant to represent a vicious tar and feathering inflicted by out-of-control mob action, and it has a place within the story line. As JL Bell noted in the article, after this incident Boston behind-the-scenes organizers created a shadow entity purporting to be a committee for tar and feathering in order to reign in such gross injustices – and also to be able to publicly threaten specific targets, of types of targets, to coerce behavior. JL also wrote that the primary purpose of tar and feathering was imposed humiliation, not physical injury.

    “Nakedness” and “Nudity” in the colonial era were slightly different concepts than now. Puritan-descended dress code asserted that a “man in his shirtsleeves is only half dressed”. “Underwear” was not yet invented, so a man’s first layer of clothing was a voluminous overshirt tucked into a pair of breeches. Over that went a “waistcoat”, and over that a coat, at the minimum (potentially adding an overcoat and cape, climate and weather dependent). Even in private people rarely removed all clothing; they slept in their large shirts and considered themselves “naked” when in their night clothes. A man could be seriously considered “naked” if viewed without either his breeches or shirt, although the absence of either would not necessarily expose genitalia. In and of itself, “nakedness” was a gross and withering humiliation. Although many tar and feather accounts state the victim was “naked”, because of the different standards of the time it’s difficult to deduce if or whether the victim was at least partially clothed. When John Malcom was tar and feathered the first time, just a few months previously (October 1773, by Maine sailors), it had been over top of his clothes. But Malcom had gone over the edge on 25 Jan 1774 by threatening a small boy and then nearly killing George Hewes, the man who intervened and who also happened to be one of the most respected Sons of Liberty in the city, and one of the group dressed as “red faced Indians” who had dumped tea into Boston harbor a little more than a month previously. The combination of Malcom’s arrogance and brutality led to a vicious tar and feathering conducted by an out of control mob. JL provided several citations which include multiple eye-witness descriptions that indicate he was stripped; almost certainly deprived of all clothing. We should all consider mob justice disturbing; as did the people of 1774. George Hewes, the man whom Malcom almost killed, was treated by Dr. Joseph Warren and recovered sufficiently to witness the later stages of Malcom’s abuse and covered Malcom with his own coat (see “The worst parade to ever hit the streets of Boston”, Nathaniel Philbrick, as excerpted in “Smithsonian Magazine” 31 March 2013, accessible at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-worst-parade-to-ever-hit-the-streets-of-boston-12934258/?page=1 , access confirmed today).

    Based on the eyewitness accounts, nudity in the HBO “Adams” scene is most likely factual.

  • As Jim Gallagher wrote, it’s sometimes hard to tell what colonial Americans meant by “naked.” In the John Malcolm incident, the Loyalist Ann Hulton wrote that he was “stript Stark naked.” But a Whig newspaper account of that attack said Malcolm was stripped to “buff and breeches.” Was one of those more accurate than the other?

    Thomas Ditson, a Billerica farmer tarred and feathered by a British army regiment in 1775, helpfully stated, “I was then made to strip which I did to my Breeches, they then tarred & feather’d me, and while he was doing it an Officer which stood at the Door said tar his Breeches which they accordingly did, and I was then tarred & feather’d from Head to Foot.” So we know he was still wearing breeches. But most victims and witnesses weren’t that specific.

    The John Adams incident was, I believe, a composite of historical events designed for dramatic effect, and as such was subject to the distortions of the myths about tarring and feathering. I don’t think John Adams ever mentioned observing such an event, much less seeing his cousin Samuel Adams approve of it.

  • I found your site to be a help to understanding the practice of tarring and feathering. I appreciate all the research and the effort made to provide this information to all.
    I would, however, I ask that you would change one of your dates here of Joseph Smith’s tarring and feathering from 1832 to 1834.
    (Other crowds used tar and feathers on leaders of religious minorities: the Mormon leader Joseph Smith in 1832 and the Catholic priest John Bapst in 1851.)
    Again, I say thank you for all that you have done to allow me a better understanding of this practice and how it came about.

  • I owe you an apology in regards to my request of changing the date of Joseph Smith’s tarring and feathering. I was reading and researching the event and had several dates of events in his life in my head.
    I failed to validate MY supposed “authority” before I asked of you for the change. I pray you will forgive me for my arrogance in asking for the change. I have been “put in check” by the right.
    Again…………thank you.

  • Myths are more than errors to be busted. They often exist and existed for more than mere ignorance. In this case, the English in the 1770s widely believed many of the myths above, as study of English newspapers shows. Malcolm, though not a gent, was feted by Lord North and the English establishment held the myth that tar and feathering was an American invention and called it the American suit. George III upon meeting Thomas Hutchinson discussed how he avoided getting pitched by the American crowds. For a discussion of these realities and more, Barry Levy, “Tar and Feathers, ” Journal of the Historical Society, Volume 11, issue 1, March 2011, 85-110.

    1. Thanks, Barry Levy, for adding this article about Londoner’s attitudes toward this violent protest. For folks without access to that journal, an article that draws on Levy‘s work and others is Amy Torbert’s “Impressions of Tar and Feathers,” readable here.

  • The irony here is that the so-called myth was never that death or injury resulted from the temperature of the tar, but the slow absorption of the tar by the skin, as victims were often then run out of town, and would have been shunned by anyone in neighboring towns or the countryside, thereby being unable to get help washing off the tar, and dying a horrible, painful death from the absorbtion of the tar. So although this article was a great idea, since the author got the myth (?) wrong we’re still in the dark on this one as far as whether or not being tarred and feathered was potentially fatal.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Can you provide some examples of people who died “a horrible, painful death from the absorbtion of the tar” as described? Can you share some medical literature about pine tar being fatally absorbed into the skin? The article and the sources it points to name a lot of Revolutionary tar-and-feather victims, and we know they all survived.

      1. Thank you for your response, J.L. Bell. Please excuse me for having strayed from the topic; you’re right, there is no doubt that zero deaths resulted from tarring and feathering during the Revolutionary War, as they were being covered in pine sap. But the myth/confusion may have arisen due to actual (non-heated) liquid coal tar having been used as an alternative, such as when in Madrid in 1623 the Bishop of Halberstadt ordered that two monasteries full of nuns and monks be coal-tarred and feathered, which, “makes them here (Madrid) presage him an ill-death.” The National Library of Medicine HSDB Database reports the high level of toxicity of petroleum tar with prolonged contact with skin and eyes.

        1. Yes, the confusion of pine tar and petroleum tar is a problem for us looking back since we think of “tar” as asphalt and pine tar as a minor problem when climbing trees or a minor advantage when swinging a baseball bat.

          The incident in 1623 is based on the letter reprinted in this 18th-century edition. That says the nuns’ and friars’ bodies were “oiled and pitched,” meaning a pine derivative. The earliest reference to tar derived from coal (similar to petroleum tar) is a British patent from 1681. Also, the phrase “makes them here presage him an ill Death” appears to mean that the people of Madrid are hoping for the death of the boisterous bishop, not that his treatment of the nuns and friars would lead to some of them dying.

        2. Hi Brian,
          Modern-day coal tar is derived from the destructive distillation of coal, which is used to produce coke for making steel. It is not, therefore a petroleum product. If the material used in 1623 was in fact coal tar (which seems doubtful), then putting it on the skin would produce terrible pain, as it contains many aromatic compounds that are highly irritating to the skin. However, Wikipedia claims that coal tar was discovered in 1665. Therefore I am unclear as to what kind of tar was used in 1623.

  • Joseph Smith was not tar and feathered by people who were bigoted against the Mormon faith. He was actually tar and feathered by fellow Mormons who were angry about allegations of him marrying other men’s wives, and accusations that he was stealing from the Mormon community. Allegations that are almost certainly true.

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