A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Has anyone actually ever been tarred and feathered?

April 29, 1988

Dear Cecil:

Has anyone ever actually been tarred and feathered, or is this just some kind of bizarro fable? Who engaged in this practice and against whom? Wouldn't being covered with boiling tar usually prove fatal? How would you get the tar and feathers off, if in fact you ever could? The topic is neglected in "Hints from Heloise."

Cecil replies:

Tarring and feathering may have been bizarro, Sherm, but it's no fable. One of the stranger manifestations of the American propensity for mob violence, the practice dates back to at least 1740 and didn't die out until after World War I — possibly because of receding ignorance, but perhaps just because of reduced availability of tar and feathers. It was especially popular just prior to the Revolutionary War, when many customs officials and British sympathizers got daubed. Moonshiners later tarred and feathered revenooers, and during World War I the same fate befell those thought to be insufficiently patriotic.

Unlike its close cousin lynching, tarring and feathering usually wasn't fatal. One historian says it was employed chiefly when a mob was feeling "playful." But the victim usually had a lot less fun than his tormentors. A Tory assaulted by a mob in 1775 was stripped naked and daubed with hot pitch, blistering his skin, then covered with hog dung. In 1912 Ben Reitman, companion of the radical agitator Emma Goldman, was beaten by a mob in San Diego, then tarred and covered with sagebrush. Afterward he spent two hours cleaning off the worst of the gunk with turpentine and tar soap — just the kind of helpful hint we at the Straight Dope pride ourselves in providing. Hope you don't have occasion to use it.

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