George H. Smith

My Cato Essays

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So if they’d kept the tax on paint, instead of on tea, what would have happened? Instead of tar and feathers, maybe they would have dunked the tax collectors in embarrassing colors of paint, like pink and fuchsia.

BTW, isn’t this scene awfully inauthentic? They didn’t strip people naked and the tar was never hot enough to send you to the burn unit.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFWZ925zK0A

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So if they’d kept the tax on paint, instead of on tea, what would have happened? Instead of tar and feathers, maybe they would have dunked the tax collectors in embarrassing colors of paint, like pink and fuchsia.

BTW, isn’t this scene awfully inauthentic? They didn’t strip people naked and the tar was never hot enough to send you to the burn unit.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFWZ925zK0A

To strip a person naked was the recommended preliminary for tarring and feathering. As for how hot the tar was, here is a passage from a Cato Essay (#13) that has not been posted yet.

Technically, this writer was correct; Congress had only prescribed nonviolent sanctions against violators of the Association. In practice, however, violence was often used against Americans who refused to support the resistance movement. Tarring and feathering was the preferred treatment for recalcitrants, as indicated by this how-to article that appeared in a newspaper:

"The following is the recipe for an effectual operation. First, strip a person naked, then heat the tar until it is thin, and pour it upon the naked flesh, or rub it over with a tar brush. After which, sprinkle decently upon the tar, whilst it is yet warm, as many feathers as will stick to it. Then hold a lighted candle to the feathers, and try to set it all on fire; if it will burn so much the better. But as the experiment is often made in cold weather, it will not then succeed – take also an halter and put it around the person’s neck, and then cart him the rounds."

So how hot does tar need to be in order to make it thin enough to pour easily? I don't know. In any case, this cruel and painful punishment could cause massive infections and even death.

Ghs

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In any case, this cruel and painful punishment could cause massive infections and even death.

The Wiki page on it says there were no reported deaths from T&F in the Revolutionary period, and generally contradicts the how-to article you're citing. Perhaps the article was a deliberate exaggeration, meant to scare off potential targets?

http://en.wikipedia....Tar_and_feather

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Apparently Pine Tar was used at about 77 degrees and not the modern tar for roads which is 225 degrees.

Pine Tar

However, historically, the most common tar was another material altogether, which had different properties and completely different uses. This was pine tar. It was used for waterproofing wooden ships and for weatherproofing rope. Melville, in Moby Dick, mentions “putting your hand in the tar-pot” as one of the undignified things sailors were expected to do. It was not a punishment, just a duty, like sweeping down the deck.[4]

Clearly this would not have been possible with asphalt. But rope, unlike roads, must remain flexible, so the tar used had to be softer (closer to liquid) at lower temperatures. According to ScienceLab.com, a purveyor of chemicals and lab equipment, the melting point of its pine tar is 77⁰F (25⁰C).[5] That is a comfortable room temperature. It is lower than the melting point of butter. Pine tar’s boiling point is listed at 235⁰F (113⁰C). This leaves a wide range of temperatures (77-235⁰F) at which pine tar might have been used on a targeted person, from roughly the temperature of dipping butter, or even room temperature, to something truly scalding.

A further note: since each of these materials – bitumen, coal tar, pine tar, pitch – is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, its viscosity/temperature characteristics can vary greatly, depending on how it was made and treated, though pitch is by definition darker and thicker than tar. Somewhat like molasses, which comes in different grades, some pine tars were like golden syrup at room temperature, others much blacker and thicker. The latter had to be heated to a higher temperature to use, and so was called “hot tar.” Therefore it is difficult to know, in a particular instance, just what the material might have been that someone was tarred and feathered with. Unless the tar was boiling, it was not necessarily a brutal procedure. Often it seems to have been more a matter of humiliation than torture.

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In any case, this cruel and painful punishment could cause massive infections and even death.

The Wiki page on it says there were no reported deaths from T&F in the Revolutionary period, and generally contradicts the how-to article you're citing. Perhaps the article was a deliberate exaggeration, meant to scare off potential targets?

http://en.wikipedia....Tar_and_feather

I don't trust that Wiki article, for several reasons. From my reading of American history, this account from the U.S. History website seems more reliable.

http://www.u-s-histo...pages/h569.html

Colonial America

The practice of applying hot tar and a coating of feathers to one's opponents was largely an American practice. The intent was clearly to intimidate. Dabbing hot tar on bare skin could cause painful blistering and efforts to remove it usually resulted in pulling out hairs. The use of solvents to loosen the tar was also unpleasant in the extreme, especially when a substance like turpentine came in contact with burned skin. Application of the tar over the rival's clothing was rightly deemed a lesser punishment than placing it on bare skin.

Just a few instances of this practice were recorded in the 1760s, but the passage of the Townshend Acts provoked a sharp increase in its usage. It usually required the abuse of only one tax collector in an area for word to spread quickly. Another spate of incidents occurred around the Tea Act in 1773. During the War for Independence, the tarring of Tories happened with greater regularity and ferocity, resulting in the deaths of several victims.

Tarring and feathering was a barbaric practice and, sadly, an effective one.

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So if they’d kept the tax on paint, instead of on tea, what would have happened? Instead of tar and feathers, maybe they would have dunked the tax collectors in embarrassing colors of paint, like pink and fuchsia.

BTW, isn’t this scene awfully inauthentic? They didn’t strip people naked and the tar was never hot enough to send you to the burn unit.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFWZ925zK0A

To strip a person naked was the recommended preliminary for tarring and feathering. As for how hot the tar was, here is a passage from a Cato Essay (#13) that has not been posted yet.

Technically, this writer was correct; Congress had only prescribed nonviolent sanctions against violators of the Association. In practice, however, violence was often used against Americans who refused to support the resistance movement. Tarring and feathering was the preferred treatment for recalcitrants, as indicated by this how-to article that appeared in a newspaper:

"The following is the recipe for an effectual operation. First, strip a person naked, then heat the tar until it is thin, and pour it upon the naked flesh, or rub it over with a tar brush. After which, sprinkle decently upon the tar, whilst it is yet warm, as many feathers as will stick to it. Then hold a lighted candle to the feathers, and try to set it all on fire; if it will burn so much the better. But as the experiment is often made in cold weather, it will not then succeed – take also an halter and put it around the person’s neck, and then cart him the rounds."

So how hot does tar need to be in order to make it thin enough to pour easily? I don't know. In any case, this cruel and painful punishment could cause massive infections and even death.

Ghs

It didn't take much to cause "massive infections and even death" before antibiotics. George is wrong in his implicit claim that it took a massive insult to cause a massive infection. Our world would probably be much different today if Calvin Coolidge's son hadn't gotten an infection playing tennis that killed him. Thus dispirited, Calvin retired and Hoover came in. If infection resulted from tar and feathering it would have resulted from the trauma of the event or the trauma of having the crap removed--or both, but I doubt if there are any or ever had been any statistics. So many people used to die of infections, especially babies and children, that the single greatest advance ever in medicine was the germ theory of disease and general public sanitation. Nothing else has come close, billions of dolars and scores of years--nothing, not even antibiotics, which play to the same theme.

--Brant

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So how hot does tar need to be in order to make it thin enough to pour easily? I don't know. In any case, this cruel and painful punishment could cause massive infections and even death.

Ghs

It didn't take much to cause "massive infections and even death" before antibiotics. George is wrong in his implicit claim that it took a massive insult to cause a massive infection. Our world would probably be much different today if Calvin Coolidge's son hadn't gotten an infection playing tennis that killed him. Thus dispirited, Calvin retired and Hoover came in. If infection resulted from tar and feathering it would have resulted from the trauma of the event or the trauma of having the crap removed--or both, but I doubt if there are any or ever had been any statistics. So many people used to die of infections, especially babies and children, that the single greatest advance ever in medicine was the germ theory of disease and general public sanitation. Nothing else has come close, billions of dolars and scores of years--nothing, not even antibiotics, which play to the same theme.

--Brant

I'm afraid I don't understand your point. I described tarring and feathering as "cruel and painful." And it was, as explained in my last post.

Ghs

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So how hot does tar need to be in order to make it thin enough to pour easily? I don't know. In any case, this cruel and painful punishment could cause massive infections and even death.

Ghs

It didn't take much to cause "massive infections and even death" before antibiotics. George is wrong in his implicit claim that it took a massive insult to cause a massive infection. Our world would probably be much different today if Calvin Coolidge's son hadn't gotten an infection playing tennis that killed him. Thus dispirited, Calvin retired and Hoover came in. If infection resulted from tar and feathering it would have resulted from the trauma of the event or the trauma of having the crap removed--or both, but I doubt if there are any or ever had been any statistics. So many people used to die of infections, especially babies and children, that the single greatest advance ever in medicine was the germ theory of disease and general public sanitation. Nothing else has come close, billions of dolars and scores of years--nothing, not even antibiotics, which play to the same theme.

--Brant

I'm afraid I don't understand your point. I described tarring and feathering as "cruel and painful." And it was, as explained in my last post.

Ghs

No argument from me. I was just doing one of my morph posts.

--Brant

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No argument from me. I was just doing one of my morph posts.

--Brant

What is a "morph post"?

Ba'al Chatzaf

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I don't trust that Wiki article, for several reasons. From my reading of American history, this account from the U.S. History website seems more reliable.

http://www.u-s-histo...pages/h569.html

This article claims there were several deaths from T&F in the “Colonial” period, the Wiki article specifically says there were none. Someone’s wrong. The 3 references offered there are dead links. Names and dates would settle it easily enough.

If there were no deaths from it, I don’t see how there could have been burns involved. Being burned over half the body is life threatening even today.

No doubt T&F was worse than a fraternity hazing, but it must have been closer to that category than something out of the medieval inquisitor’s playbook. John Malcolm remained defiant until threatened with having his ears cut off, though maybe he was just extraordinarily tough.

http://en.wikipedia...._%28Loyalist%29

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> The Wiki page on it says there were no reported deaths from T&F in the Revolutionary period [ND]

Not reported doesn't mean non-existent. Why should deaths have been immediate and who would they have reported them -to-? No central government or dense web of reporters or tracking mechanisms, travel and information exchange often easier with England than up and down the colonial coast before paved roads/infrastructure.

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Here’s an article that looks pretty authoritative. I suggest cutting and pasting the text to Word, it’s pretty painful to read with the background and text color as it is.

http://revolution.h-...n.feathers.html

I think it’s safe to say the practice wasn’t standardized at all, with one case of a victim suffering burns (though not fatal), while another has molasses being substituted for tar. One person died from hanging, after being tarred and feathered first. I don’t see any reference to an event like what was portrayed in the clip from John Adams: attack done spontaneously during daylight, burning hot tar, victim stripped naked, witnesses everywhere, perpetrators easily identifiable (e.g. John Hancock).

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> The Wiki page on it says there were no reported deaths from T&F in the Revolutionary period [ND]

Not reported doesn't mean non-existent. Why should deaths have been immediate and who would they have reported them -to-? No central government or dense web of reporters or tracking mechanisms, travel and information exchange often easier with England than up and down the colonial coast before paved roads/infrastructure.

Oh dear. Somewhere I’ve heard a phrase before, ah yes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Profound stuff. Thanks Phil.

And how many tax collectors and loyalists just went missing during the period? Any unexplained disappearances? Maybe the rebel-sympathising coroners systematically falsified the cause of death for the countless victims. And maybe there's a celestial teapot...

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6386647549_8cdcf08f0e_m.jpg

Is this one of the Borg?

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Yes, it's Björn Borg. Are you not a fan of tennis, Bob?

J

Not a bit.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Here’s an article that looks pretty authoritative. I suggest cutting and pasting the text to Word, it’s pretty painful to read with the background and text color as it is.

http://revolution.h-...n.feathers.html

I think it’s safe to say the practice wasn’t standardized at all, with one case of a victim suffering burns (though not fatal), while another has molasses being substituted for tar. One person died from hanging, after being tarred and feathered first. I don’t see any reference to an event like what was portrayed in the clip from John Adams: attack done spontaneously during daylight, burning hot tar, victim stripped naked, witnesses everywhere, perpetrators easily identifiable (e.g. John Hancock).

This is a very useful account. Thanks.

I agree with you that the kind of incident portrayed in the John Adams movie was very unlikely to have occurred. For one thing, mob violence was almost always planned in advance and was typically well organized. For another, if someone of the stature of Hancock had been around, he almost certainly would have stopped it.

Some of my recent Cato Essays are based on extensive research and writing that I did during the 1980s, especially for my Knowledge Products manuscripts on the American Revolution and my lectures for Cato Summer Seminars. I recall that my original comments about tarring and feathering during the revolutionary era were based on at least three sources: Merrill Jensen's excellent book on the American Revolution (which is were I got the info about infections and death); Peter Oliver's contemporary account in Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion (which is cited in the article you linked); and various acounts in Peter Force's American Archives -- a massive collection of original documents that is still used by historians.

You are right in saying that the practice was not standardized. In some cases the victim was allowed to keep his clothes on, and I've read stories of where the perpetrators helped to remove the tar before it had a chance to cool. Moreover, tarring and feathering was sometimes accompanied by beatings, and those would cause injuries.

Nevertheless, as the Wiki article indicates in the case of Joseph Smith, Jr. (1832), tarring and feathering could prove very painful, primarily from removing the tar.

They spent much of the night scraping the tar from his body, leaving his skin raw and bloody. The following day, Smith spoke at a church devotional meeting and was reported to have been covered with raw wounds and still weak from the attack.

An interesting account can be found in Lord Mahon's account of the American Revolution, published in 1851.

This process was to strip the patient naked, bedaub his body with tar, and roll him round in feathers, and then turn him out into the streets. Such a process may be treated as a jest, and indeed was sometimes talked of as such in England; but attended as it was too commonly with blows, it put victims to considerable suffering as well as to shame.

Tarring and feathering although the most effectual were not the only methods by which the good men of Massacusetts manifested their displeasure. Another favorite device with any obnoxious person was to smear over his whole house with pitch or filth, so as to render it for a time almost uninhabitable.

To smear excrement over the walls of the houses of tax collectors and other government officials -- hmmm, I doubt if that tactic would be well received today. But it does exhibit a certain symbolic value. 8-)

Mahon's remarks about tarring and feathering support your claim about variations in the procedure. It could be relatively harmless or serious, depending on how it was done. I know that blacks were sometimes tarred and feathered by racists during the 19th century, and in such cases I suspect the perpetrators did so with more than humiliation in mind.

In her book on American Loyalists (The British Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774-1789), Mary Beth Norton claims that the use of tarring and feathering during the revolutionary era "has been greatly exaggerated." She says that "a few men were tarred and feathered" but that mere threats were usually sufficient to get the job done.

As I noted before, the article you linked cites the loyalist Peter Oliver several times. It should be noted that Oliver, former Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts and a key member of the Hutchinson Junto, was one of the most hated men in the colonies. Having been a victim himself of the Sons of Liberty during the Stamp Act Crisis, he had a score to settle, so his account should be read with caution.

Ghs

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No argument from me. I was just doing one of my morph posts.

--Brant

What is a "morph post"?

Ba'al Chatzaf

I use a post to comment on another post then use that platform to go to a different subject out of facts and logic. Or, in this case, tar and feathering to public sanitation.

--Brant

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