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Tarring and feathering is a physical punishment, used to enforce formal justice in feudal Europe and informal justice in 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).


In a typical tar-and-feathers attack, the subject of a crowd's anger would be stripped to the waist. Hot tar was either poured or painted onto the person while he or she was immobilized. Then the victim either had feathers thrown on him or her 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 hurt and humiliate a person enough to leave town and not cause any more mischief.

The practice was never an official punishment in the United Statesmarker, but rather a form of vigilante justice. It was eventually abandoned as society moved away from public, corporal punishment and toward capital punishment and rehabilitation of criminals.

  • A more brutal derivation called pitchcapping, designed to badly damage skin and flesh on the head, was used by British soldiers against suspected rebels during the period of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
  • Sometimes only the head was shaven, tarred and feathered.


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 1191. "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 Strandmarker, where he was tied to the maypole which stood by what is now Somerset Housemarker, 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, Virginiamarker, 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 punishment appeared in Salemmarker, Massachusettsmarker, in 1767, when mobs avenged themselves on 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. In March 1775, a British regiment inflicted the same treatment on a Massachusetts man they suspected of trying to buy their muskets. 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.

In 1851 a Know-Nothing mob in Ellsworth, Mainemarker 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, Mainemarker, where there was a large Irish-Catholic community, and a local high school there is named for him.

In the 1920s, vigilantes opposed to IWW organizers at California's harbor of San Pedro, kidnapped at least one organizer, subjected him to tarring and feathering, and left him in a remote location.

Also during the 19th and 20th centuries, many African Americans were subjected to this treatment as a form of punishment or harassment.

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 The Troubles. Many of the victims were women who had been in sexual relationships with policemen or British soldiers.

In August 2007, loyalist groups in Northern Ireland were linked to the tarring and feathering of an individual accused of drug-dealing.

Pop culture

  • 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.

  • "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.

  • 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.

  • The 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams featured a fictional scene of Adams witnessing a British tax collector being tarred and feathered by an angry Bostonmarker mob.

  • In the 1988 film "Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark", Elvira is tarred and feathered in a spoof of the movie "Flashdance"..

Metaphorical uses

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."


  1. 28/Aug/2007 BBC News "Belfast man tarred and feathered" Retrieved on 28 August 2007
  2. "Tar and Feather." The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  3. "Tars." The Free Online Dictionary.

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