Grab the Tar and Feathers


Retribution; – tarring and feathering; – or – the patriots revenge by James Gillray

Recently I watched the mini-series John Adams.  I was enthralled with seeing the locations and people that have become so important in my life.  (Yes, I know these were not the “real” people.  But that didn’t change my reaction to seeing them.)

One of the most dramatic moments in this series included Sam Adams and John Adams watching as a Loyalist was tarred and feathered.  In the scene, Sam was almost jubilant while John was aghast at the violence of the torture.  Quite frankly, I was shocked to see them strip the man naked before the crowd and pour burning, black tar down his body.  The man screamed in agony.  Then, they emptied bags of feathers all over him and rode him on a rail.  It was horrible to watch.

But, was it accurate?  Or was it just a bit of propaganda?  (I’m always leery seeing how Hollywood portrays History.)

Well, apparently it wasn’t altogether accurate.  I have since learned that our modern tar – what they use on the roads – black and blistering hot – was not the same tar they used for this punishment.  The tar they used was pine tar.  Though it was hot enough to burn, it rarely did enough damage to mention.  It was mostly hot and sticky.  Perfect for sticking the feathers to.  Often, they didn’t even strip the offender before putting the tar on him; they just put it over his cloths.  And most often, they applied it with a mop, further cooling it before it hit skin.

There are a few historical accounts in which the tar left marks.  But those were the exception rather than the rule.  This “torture” was done more for humiliation than for inflicting pain.  Here’s a link to more information.

An now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story.