The main purpose of tar and feathering, the stories of which are so commonplace that the expression has developed an idiomatic life of its own today, was humiliation in a somewhat humorous vein. Hard to believe, I know. In my research for The Loyalist’s Wife, which takes place from 1778 to 1780, I ran across many factual accounts of tar and feathers being used. Of course, I thought of the tar of today which must be heated very hot before it liquefies, and, therefore, these stories were particularly horrifying. The tar would have been boiling.
Imagine being chased by a crowd, finally caught, stripped to the waist and painted with boiling tar and doused in the nearest pile of feathers. (From your own pillow, no doubt, the making of which represented hours of work to create in the first place.) Boiling tar? How could a person survive that?
As is so often the case, the actual practice was not quite so cruel as its reputation. Tar was much more viscous in that time period because it was used for keeping ropes on ships pliable (among other things) and needed to be easily applied by sailors’ bare hands. Obviously, it was not the boiling tar we are used to picturing, but still fairly warm. So. What was the point?
In the Boston of tea-party fame, Loyalists were discouraged from supporting the king by a little ‘friendly’ tar and feather party. This was usually done by vigilante groups and not officially sanctioned. Those who did this began to take the whole thing too far, actually injuring more than their victims’ pride. Excessive heating of the tar could seriously blister the skin and lead to devastating burns. By the time matters had progressed this far, the Patriot leaders began to discourage tar and feathering as its practice was giving them a very bad reputation.
Still, the practice was used off and on over hundreds of years and may even happen now and again today. Of course those foam pillows just would not work. Maybe we should be a little kinder to their inventors.
Do you know of any such practices from days gone by? What is the best fact you’ve found in your research? Did you use it in your book?