Weird History The Brutal History Behind Tarring And Feathering  

Rachel Souerbry
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Throughout history, there have been many stories of individuals who have been tarred and feathered as a method of punishment and humiliation. They go as far back as the 1100s, with the most recent having happened in 1981. It's an act that many associate with the era of the Revolutionary War, and it's seen as a form of not just punishment, but protest.

There have been a wide variety of incidents where people have been tarred and feathered around the world, with the most bizarre coming from the island of Dominica (now the Dominican Republic) – in 1789, a British soldier was caught in an act of bestiality with a turkey and was made to "wear the bird's feathers" in his beard and around his neck. Others include drunken nuns and priests, British officers in the American colonies, and African American victims of the KKK in the past century. 

So what does it mean to be tarred and feathered? The goal was almost always to punish, not kill (the tar and feather survival rate was actually very high) – but what a punishment it was, considering the slow torture and humiliation it entailed. 

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Richard The Lionheart Was The First To Use Tarring And Feathering To Punish Theives


King Richard I of England was a legendary ruler also known as Richard the Lionheart. He was considered a "chivalrous" King, well-liked by his kingdom. He was also the first person to ever be documented as having someone tarred and feathered as a punishment in 1189.

On the subject of thieves being discovered on his ships, he declared that "[he] shall be first shaved, then boiling pitch shall be poured upon his head, and a cushion of feathers shook over it so that he may be publicly known; and at the first land where the ships put in he shall be cast on shore."

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The Items Needed For Tarring And Feathering Could Be Easily Found Either At Home Or Nearby


Back in colonial times, the average American had feathers in their pillows. Tar was also readily available, since pine tar was used as a common sealant in most shipyards. With the materials needed easily available to the average citizen, tarring and feathering quickly gained popularity among the colonists as a method of punishment and humiliation. This was especially true after the passing of the Stamp Act, when colonists turned their outrage (and feathers) on British officials regularly. 

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They Didn't Use What We Know Today As Tar; They Used Pine Tar


Today, when you hear "tar," you probably think of asphalt. But in the times of the colonists (and earlier), tar meant pine tar, or resin. It was also known as "pitch." Pine tar is what you get when you heat pine wood to incredibly high temperatures in a low-oxygen environment. It turns into a carbonized and incredibly sticky substance.

It was very widely used on wooden sailing ships as a sealant and way to preserve the wood. Today, it is used in things like shampoo and, somewhat ironically, skin treatments. 

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In The United States, The Trend Shifted To Using Syrup And Cattails


Although the most common materials used around the world for tarring and feathering were, in fact, pine tar and feathers, Americans got creative. When tar and feathers were in shorter supply, they began to use other materials that they had readily on hand. One of the common substitutes in the 1800s seemed to be syrup and cattails, which are both food products instead of building materials and stuffing.