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What is Tarring and Feathering?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Tarring and feathering is a form of punishment which was developed in 12th century England. It spread across feudal Europe, and was also practiced in many European colonies, once Europeans began exploring and colonizing the globe. In this punishment, the victim was stripped, painted with hot tar, and then covered in feathers which stuck to the tar. The primarily goal was physical intimidation and humiliation, with people being tarred and feathered in an attempt to run them out of town. The term “tarred with the same brush” in reference to guilt by association appears to be derived from this practice.

This practice appears to have been practiced primarily among mobs and vigilantes, rather than being an officially sanctioned form of punishment. Depending on the temperature of the tar and the attitude of the crowd, it could sometimes become quite violent and rather dangerous. Hot tar could cause significant burns, and removing the tar would pull out hair and pieces of skin, potentially putting the victim at risk of infection. Theoretically, covering the skin in tar would also prevent it from breathing, potentially causing death.

However, the goal of tarring and feathering was humiliation, not death, and not many deaths as a result of this practice have been recorded. More commonly, people were scarred for life by the hot tar and resulting injuries from removal, marking them to other members of the community as victims. People also died as a result of lynchings, in which they were tarred and feathered, marched around town, and then hung.

Several variations on tarring and feathering have been recorded. In the British military, for example, people once practiced pitchcapping, in which a soldier's head would be covered with hot tar. Removing the tar involved being willing to lose much of your hair and scalp along with the tar, leaving ugly scars. Sometimes the bodies of people who had been hung or beheaded were also tarred and feathered, to add humiliation, and to hold the bodies together when they were hung on the gibbet as a warning for other citizens.

Many people associate tarring and feathering with the American West, where the practice endured until a surprisingly late date, with recorded instances dating to the 1900s. In fact, people were tarred and feathered recently enough for there to be photographic examples of tarring and feathering, in which streaks of tar and feathers can be clearly seen, suggesting that the practice involved less of a careful painting of the body, and more of a streaking with lines of hot tar.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By amypollick — On Jul 04, 2011

It's not always spurred by intolerance. About 35 years ago, in a neighboring county, a woman and her sister-in-law kidnapped a woman the first woman suspected of having an affair with her husband. They took her out into the woods, stripped her to her waist, shaved her head, covered her in molasses and feathered her. It was all over the news.

Turns out, the husband was a known womanizer and had a string of wives and girlfriends left behind in other towns. The perpetrators went to jail for several years for assault. So, definitely, vigilante tactics.

By anon193128 — On Jul 04, 2011

Tarring and feathering was a practice the Provisional Irish Republican Army introduced in Northern Ireland in the 1970s when they caught young ladies "fraternising" with soldiers or policemen.

The Loyalist groups also took to doing the same for people they caught, or suspected of, dealing drugs. Their most recent victim was in 2007.

By anon129134 — On Nov 22, 2010

Having read this, I recalled reading how during the 'Great War' of the early 1900's (Later referred to as the 1st World War) religious conscientious objectors were termed as pacifists and this form of intimidation became a tool in the hands of mobs.

As mentioned, photographic evidence (in places like Quebec) sadly reveals that often clergyman who were supposed to practice and propagate self sacrificing love like that of their master and leader Jesus Christ, took an active lead in this type of intimidation, taking our minds back to the Dark Ages of the past.

It is indeed a shame the religious bigotry caused edified people to act like animals, all because they deferred in thought with their fellow beings. Such intolerance continues to raise its ugly head not only in the west but even in eastern lands where the philosophy of 'maithriya' abounds. --Lina SL

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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