Unspeakable Crimes The Brutal History Behind Tarring And Feathering  

Rachel Souerbry
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Throughout history, many societies have used tarring and feathering as both punishment and humiliation. The practice reaches as far back as the 12th century, and the last instance occurred as recently as 1981, despite most people associating the ritual with the late 18th century. Traditionally, the practice of tarring and feathering is seen as a form of protest as well as punishment.

Although instances of tarring and feathering have occurred globally throughout history, one of the most bizarre comes from the island of Dominica (now the Dominican Republic): in 1789, a British soldier was caught engaging in sexual an acts with a turkey and was made to "wear the bird's feathers" in his beard and around his neck. Other victims of the punishment include drunken nuns and priests, British officers in the American colonies, and, in the last century, African-Americans at the hands of racially intolerant groups. 

Contrary to popular belief, tarring and feathering was not fatal – the survival rate was actually very high – but the punishment itself was slow, brutal, and purposefully humiliating.

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Photo: Merry-Joseph Blondel/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Richard The Lionheart Was The First To Use Tarring And Feathering

King Richard I of England was a legendary ruler also known as Richard the Lionheart. He was considered a "chivalrous" King and was 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 in 1189 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 Necessary Items Could Be Found In Or Near The Home

Back in colonial times, the average American pillow was filled with feathers. Tar was also readily available, since pine tar was used as a common sealant in most shipyards. As the necessary materials were 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 on British officials regularly. 

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Photo: Maksim/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Tar Was Originally From Pine Trees

Today, when you hear "tar," you probably think of asphalt. But in the times of the colonists, tar referred to pine tar, or resin. This glue-like material was also known as "pitch." Pine tar can be procured when pine wood is heated to extremely high temperatures in a low-oxygen environment. This process turns the resin into a carbonized and incredibly sticky substance.

Pine tar was widely used on wooden sailing ships as a sealant and wood preservative. Today, it's used in things like shampoo and, somewhat ironically, skin treatments

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Photo:  John Carter Brown Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In The United States, Syrup And Cattails Were Used

The most common materials used globally for tarring and feathering were, in fact, pine tar and feathers; however, when the eponymous ingredients were in short supply, Americans began to use other materials they had readily on hand.

Some common substitutes in the 1800s were syrup and cattails, which are both food products as opposed to building materials and stuffing.