Tarring and feathering is a physical punishment, used to enforce unofficial justice. It was used in feudal Europe and its colonies in the early modern period, as well as the early American frontier, mostly as a type of mob vengeance (compare Lynch law). Today the act is considered a barbaric form of punishment.
In a typical tar-and-feathers attack, the subject of a crowd's anger would be stripped to his waist. Hot tar was either poured or painted onto the person while he was immobilized. Then the victim either had feathers thrown on him or was rolled around on a pile of feathers so that they stuck to the tar. Often the victim was then paraded around town on a cart or a rail. The aim was to inflict enough pain and humiliation on a person to cause him to either reform his behavior or leave town.
The practice was never an official punishment in the United States, but rather a form of vigilante justice. It was eventually abandoned as society moved away from public, physical punishment and toward capital punishment and the rehabilitation of criminals.
A more brutal derivation, called pitchcapping, was used by British forces against Irish rebels during the period of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Sometimes only the head was shaven, tarred and feathered; other times, a match was held to the feathers to light them on fire (as well as the tar) to inflict pain.
The earliest mention of the punishment occurs in the orders of Richard I of England, issued to his navy on starting for the Holy Land in 1189. "Concerning the lawes and ordinances appointed by King Richard for his navie the forme thereof was this... item, a thiefe or felon that hath stolen, being lawfully convicted, shal have his head shorne, and boyling pitch poured upon his head, and feathers or downe strawed upon the same whereby he may be knowen, and so at the first landing-place they shall come to, there to be cast up" (transcript of original statute in Hakluyt's Voyages, ii. 21).
A later instance of this penalty being inflicted is given in Notes and Queries (series 4, vol. v), which quotes one James Howell writing from Madrid, in 1623, of the "boisterous Bishop of Halberstadt", who, "having taken a place where there were two monasteries of nuns and friars, he caused divers feather beds to be ripped, and all the feathers thrown into a great hall, whither the nuns and friars were thrust naked with their bodies oiled and pitched and to tumble among these feathers, which makes them here (Madrid) presage him an ill-death."
In 1696 a London bailiff, who attempted to serve process on a debtor who had taken refuge within the precincts of the Savoy, was tarred and feathered and taken in a wheelbarrow to the Strand, where he was tied to the maypole which stood by what is now Somerset House, as an improvised pillory.
The first recorded incident in America was in 1766: Captain William Smith was tarred, feathered, and dumped into the harbor of Norfolk, Virginia, by a mob that included the town's Mayor. He was picked up by a vessel just as his strength was giving out. He survived, and was later quoted as saying that "...[they] dawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers on me." As with most other tar-and-feathers victims in the following decade, Smith was suspected of informing on smugglers to the British Customs service.
The torture appeared in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1767, when mobs attacked low-level employees of the Customs service with tar and feathers. In October 1769, a mob in Boston attacked a Customs service sailor the same way, and a few similar attacks followed through 1774 (the tarring and feathering of customs worker John Malcolm received particular attention in 1774). Such acts associated the punishment with the Patriot side of the American Revolution. The exception was when, in March 1775, a British regiment inflicted the same treatment on Thomas Ditson, a Billerica, Massachusetts man that attempted to buy a musket from one of the regiment's soldiers. There is no case of a person dying from being tarred and feathered in this period. During the Whiskey Rebellion, the punishment was inflicted on Federal tax agents by local farmers.
During the night of March 24, 1832, Joseph Smith, Jr.—leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—was dragged from his home by a group of men who proceeded to strip and beat him before tarring and feathering him. His wife and infant child, who was knocked from his bed by the attackers, were forced from the home and threatened (the infant died several days later from exposure). Smith was left for dead, but he limped back to the home of friends who spent much of the night scraping the tar from his body, leaving his skin raw and bloody. The following day, Smith spoke at a Church devotional meeting and was noted to have been covered with raw wounds and still weak from the attack.
In 1851 a Know-Nothing mob in Ellsworth, Maine, USA, tarred and feathered a Swiss-born Jesuit priest, Father John Bapst, in the midst of a local controversy over religious education in grammar schools. Bapst fled Ellsworth to settle in nearby Bangor, Maine, where there was a large Irish-Catholic community, and a local high school there is named for him.
This was a relatively rare form of mob punishment for Republican African Americans in the post-bellum U.S. South as its goal is typically pain and humiliation rather than death (as in the more common lynching and burning alive). There were several examples of tarring and feathering of African Americans in the lead-up to World War I in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Following the Liberation of France in World War II there were instances of alleged German collaborators being tarred and feathered by street mobs. Most of the victims of this practice were women accused of a Collaboration horizontale, i.e., sexual relations with German soldiers.
Similar tactics were also used by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the early years of The Troubles. Many of the victims were women who had been in sexual relationships with policemen or British soldiers.
- On the Spanish game show el gran juego de la oca the contestant who lands on space 58 received this punishment, the contestant was tarred fully clothed and then they pour feathers on her/him.
- In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Dauphin and the Duke are tarred, feathered, and ridden on a rail in Pikesville after performing the Royal Nonesuch to a crowd whom Jim had previously forewarned about the rapscallions.
- Edgar Allan Poe's humorous short story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" features the staff of an insane asylum being tarred and feathered.
- "What Happened To Charles," one of James Thurber's Fables For Our Time, has the duck Eva, who eavesdrops on every conversation she hears but never gets anything quite right, tarred and UN-feathered after, having mistaken "shod" (having shoes put on one's feet) for "shot" (having a ranged projectile physically fired into one) and spread the (false!) word that the horse Charles has been killed, he turns up very much alive and wearing new horseshoes.
- Jimmy Carter's 2003 novel Hornet's Nest describes the tarring and feathering of a Tory by members of the Sons of Liberty. The man suffered severe burns on both feet as the tar filled his boots and had toes amputated as a result.
- Characters are frequently shown tarred and feathered in the comic series Lucky Luke, set in the American Old West.
- In the film Little Big Man, the title character (whose real name is Jack Crabbe and was played by Dustin Hoffman) is shown being tarred and feathered for selling a phoney medicinal elixir. When he reveals his name to the leader of the mob, it turns out that she is his long lost sister, at which point she exclaims "I just tarred and feathered my own brother!"
- In the 1972 John Waters film Pink Flamingos, Connie and Raymond Marbles (played by Mink Stole and David Lochary), are tarred and feathered as retribution for a series of misdeeds against the film's protagonist, Babs Johnson (Divine).
- In the video game Curse of Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood is tarred and feathered by monkey crew members of a pirate ship. He later uses this to pose as El Pollo Diablo, a giant chicken who has terrorised the area.
- Broken Lizard's film, Beerfest, includes a scene in which Cloris Leachman's character and her son are tarred and feathered in turn of the century Germany.
- In Daniel Knauf's Carnivàle in an episode named Lincoln Highway, Clayton "Jonesy" Jones, the crippled co-manager, is almost lethally tarred and feathered.
- In "The Simpsons" episode "Treehouse of Horror XVIII", one of Marge Simpson's sisters appears to have been tarred and feathered from a Halloween prank.
- In "The Simpsons" episode "Bart of Darkness", Bart gets Grandpa Simpson tarred and feathered.
- The avant-garde electronic music artist Fad Gadget often performed on stage while tarred and feathered. He was photographed in tar and feathers for the cover of his album Gag.
- In an episode of Jackass, Ryan Dunn was tarred and feathered by Bam Margera.
- The 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams featured a fictional scene of Adams witnessing tax officer John Malcolm being tarred and feathered by an angry Boston mob.
- In the television series It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia Mac and Dennis, while dressed as British nobles, are tarred and feathered by colonial Americans.
- In the 1988 film "Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark", Elvira is tarred (covered in black paint) and feathered in a spoof of the movie "Flashdance".
- In Seamus Heaney's poem 'Punishment', the tarring and feathering of Catholic women who fraternized with British soldiers during the troubles in the 1970s is made reference to. Heaney juxtaposes this with the punishment of Iron Age bog body the Windeby Girl (revealed in recent times to be a man) who was at the time thought to have been punished for infidelity, suggesting that the punishment meted to women in Northern Ireland is very much rooted in ancient tribal traditions.
- The 2010 EP from The Hives is called "Tarred and Feathered".
The image of the tarred-and-feathered outlaw is so vivid that the expression remains a metaphor for public humiliation, many years after the practice disappeared. To tar and feather someone can mean to punish or severely criticize that person. This example comes from Dark Summer by Iris Johansen: "But you'd tar and feather me if I made the wrong decision for these guys."
- See Life of Joseph Smith, Jr. from 1831 to 1834#Life in Kirtland, Ohio
- Harris, William J. "Etiquette, Lynching, and Racial Boundaries in Southern History: A Mississippi Example." The American Historical Review. Vol. 100, No. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 387–410
- "Belfast man tarred and feathered". BBC News Online (London). August 28, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/6966493.stm. Retrieved August 28, 2007.
- "Tar and Feather." The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Houghton Mifflin Company.
- "Tars." The Free Online Dictionary.
- Text of law of Richard I http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/medieval/richard.htm
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- "Has anyone actually ever been tarred and feathered?" at Straight Dope
- Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling., Alfred Knopf, 2005, ISBN 1-4000-4270-4