Tarring and Feathering Attacks in America

Although the phrase tarring and feathering appears to have originated just prior to the American Revolution, the practice was much older having first happened in Europe. One of the earliest reports of it occurring was in 1189 during the time of the English King Richard the Lion-Hearted. Laws and regulations had been drawn up in Latin regarding the practice. Translated these laws stated:

“A thief or felon that hath stolen, being lawfully convicted shall have his head shorn, and boiling pitch poured upon his head, and feathers or down strew upon the same, whereby he may be known, and so at the first landing place they shall come to, there to be cast up.”[1]  

King Richard the Lion-Hearted. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Richard the Lion-Hearted’s tarring and feathering was limited to the head, tarring and feathering attacks in America could involve the whole body. In the 1700s and 1800s, just like in the 1100s, tarring and feathering was used to punish, embarrass, or warn people to behave. In addition, after a tarring and feathering attack the victim was often paraded through the streets in a nude or semi-nude state and because it was difficult to remove the tar and feathers scarring often occurred, which thereby served as a reminder to victims not to arouse community ire.

The type of tar usually used was readily available and used for maintaining and building ships. It was called pine tar and was considered ideal because it only needed to be heated to about 140°F to melt (thus it was hotter than perfect bath water but also not as hot as the type of tar used to produce asphalt roads). However, hot pine tar could still injure someone and that meant the most frequent injuries to victims were burns or blisters.

Although tarring and feathering attacks were not necessarily fatal, they could get out of hand and sometimes people died. One such case came to light in 1873 when a corpse was found floating near Oyster Bay on the North Shore of Long Island in Nassau County in the state of New York. The remains were identified as belonging to Charles G. Kelsey, a poet and Huntington Sunday school teacher.

It seems that Kelsey became enamored with Julia Smith, a woman who was above his station. He pursued her in the hopes of making her his own but unfortunately, she became engaged to Royal Sammis. Her engagement did not deter Kelsey from his pursuit, so several friendly warnings were given to him to stay away.

Julia also rebuffed him telling him she was not interested in him. Kelsey still would not listen. He continued to declare his love for her and even tried to woo her at her window. Eventually, her family, friends, and fiancée were fed up. They wanted Kelsey to stop and decided the best way to accomplish that was to teach him a less by tarring and feathering him.

Kelsey was known to have long hair that fell over his shoulders and the attack began with his long locks being cut off. Unfortunately, in the process his scalp was “jagged” by the shears. This resulted in his head being covered with blood before the tar and feathers were applied. Moreover, during the attack, a raucous fight ensued. Kelsey was desperate to escape and tore the masks off some of his assailants. Knowing for sure who was involved meant that he could have the perpetrators arrested and jailed.

Upset over being discovered, the perpetrators then went further. Kelsey was “mutilated inhumanly” and died within a few hours of the attack. To dispose of his dead body iron pieces were then attached to his waist and ankles and his body sunk in Oyster Bay. When his corpse was later found the Evening Star reported:

“[T]he young man [Kelsey] was tarred and feathered at Huntington on the night of November 4, 1872, and had never since been seen until these fragmentary parts of his body were discovered.”[2]

Prior to the discovery of his body, Kelsey’s murder was whispered about in Huntington. It seemed everyone generally knew who had been involved and what had been done to him. With the discovery of his body, the murder became known outside of the area as the “Kelsey Outrage” and it appeared as if the perpetrators would face justice. Unfortunately, although some people were outraged over Kelsey’s murder, no one was ever punished for the crime. That was because the perpetrators were highly regarded people of important social standing within Huntington. Therefore, the community was hesitant to do anything probably believing that Kelsey got what he deserved.

Although Kelsey’s tarring and feathering happened in the 1870s, tarring and feathering of individuals began years earlier in the American colonies. Resentful feelings towards the British increased prior to the American Revolution and these angry feelings then turned into tarring and feathering attacks.

One of the first attacks took place in 1766. It involved a Norfolk ship owner and captain named William Smith. He was tarred and feathered after being suspected of having informed British custom agents about smuggling operations in the area. After the attack Smith was dumped into Norfolk, Virginia harbor and would have died if sailors had not plucked him from the cold waters. Smith survived the ordeal and was later quoted as saying that the smugglers “dawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers on me.”[3]

Another incidence in pre-Revolutionary America happened in 1773. John Malcomb, a revenue officer at Boston, was tarred and feathered by sailors because of his “severity” in administering excise taxes. According to a Customs Commissioner, Malcomb was “punched wth. A long pole beaten with Clubs, led to liberty tree, there whipt with Cords, and tho’ a very cold night, led on to the Gallows, then whipt again.[4]

tarring and feathering - 1774 British print

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or, Tarring & Feathering, a 1774 British print, attributed to Philip Dawe, combines assault on Malcolm with earlier Boston Tea Party in background. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Malcomb apparently didn’t learn his lesson. Three months after the first attack, on 25 January 1774, vigilantes decided to administer justice to him once again. The Age reported on this second tarring and feathering stating:

“[H]e was bullying a small boy in Fore street, Boston, when a gentleman named Hughes remonstrated with him; high words arose, they called each other rascals … Malcomb struck him a blow on the forehead, which stretched him on the ground. … A mob assembled … seized him, put him in a cart, and ‘stripping him to buff and breeches, gave him a modern jacket;’ they then proposed an oath to him, whereby he was to swear to renounce his commission, and never to hold another inconsistent with the liberties of his country; and, on his obstinately refusing, they carted him to the gallows, passed a rope round his neck and threw the other end over the beam, as if they intended to hang him … [they then] forced him to comply with their demand. The mob destroyed his house and furniture, but he escaped on board the Active, a British man-of-war.”[5]

The incidence resulted in Malcomb returning to England. When he boarded the ship it was reported that his tarred and feather skin was falling off in pieces. He must have suffered greatly, but fortunately didn’t die from the ordeal because he survived and lived quietly for another 14 years in England.

In 1791, the same year as Marie Antoinette’s unsuccessful flight to Varennes and the Princesse de Lamballe’s successful escape to Aix-la-Chapelle, the eighth amendment passed in the United States on 5 December. It banned cruel and unusual punishments and after its passage, tarring and feathering attacks became a less popular way to ensure compliance and good behavior by community members. However, that didn’t mean the practice stopped and moreover, political reasons were not the only motives Americans used to tar and feather people.

Controversy over religious beliefs and practices was another good reason people might be tarred and feathered. One well-known case took place on 24 March 1832 and involved Joseph Smith, founder and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A great deal of ire from disaffected church members and other churchgoers who were not-Latter-Day Saints* existed in the community where he lived. Because of this resentment non-Latter Day Saints decided to attack, strip, and beat him.

tarring and feathering - Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In Smith’s case the tarring and feathering attack happened in the evening. He, his wife, and an infant child were forced out of their home. It was a freezing night, and the infant child died a few days later from exposure. Of the attack, his mother, Lucy Smith, published previously printed versions told by her son in her Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations. The prophet Smith said:

“I found myself going out of the door in the hands of about a dozen men, some of whose hands were in my hair, and some hold my shirt, drawers, and limbs. …. I made a desperate struggle … They went and held a council, and as I could occasionally overhear a word, I supposed it was to know whether it was best to kill me. … I learned that they had concluded not to kill me, but pound and scratch me well, tear off my shirts and drawers and leave me naked. One cried, ‘Simonds, Simonds, where is the tar bucket?’ … They ran back and fetched the bucket of tar … and they tried to force the tar paddle into my mouth; I twisted my head around, so that they could not … They then tried to force a vial in my mouth, and broke it in my teeth. All my clothes were torn off me, except my shirt collar; and one man fell on me and scratched my body with his nails like a mad cat … They then left me, and I attempted to rise, but fell again; I pulled the tar away from my lips, &c., so that I could breathe more freely, and after a while I began to recover … I saw two lights. I made my way towards one of them. … When I had come to the door I was naked, and the tar made me look as though I was covered with blood; and when my wife saw me, she thought I was all mashed to pieces, and fainted.”[6]

Although the mob may have hoped that Smith was dead, he survived. He noted that his flesh was “scarified and defaced” and that his friends and family spent the rest of the evening removing the tar. Moreover, despite being in pain and his skin appearing raw and bloody, he preached the next day before his congregation as usual.

About twenty years later, in 1854, another religious man was tarred and feathered. He was a Swiss-born Jesuit priest named Father John Bapst. He got into trouble after controversy developed over religious education in grammar schools. A Know-Nothing mob** in Ellisworth, Maine, were upset because they did not want their children taught Protestant doctrines in schools. The Kansas Catholic newspaper reported:

“[E]xcitement culminated in a town meeting on July 8, 1854, in which it was resolved that if the priest again visited the town he should be tarred and feathered and ridden on a rail. Two months later he came … True to their cowardly resolution, the Knownothings, to the number of 50 or more, carefully masked, attacked the house … where Father Bapst was, dragged him from the cellar where his host had hidden him, [the mob] stripped, and coated him with tar and feathers, using all the while the vilest blasphemies and indecencies of language, and then rode him on a rail to a ship yard half a mile distant.”[7]

tarring and feathering - Father John Bapst

Father John Bapst. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tarring and feathering incidences continued after the 1850s. For instance, one story of a person being tarred and feathered happened in 1896 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In this case the victim was William Demund. He was supposedly attacked because he gave money to a married women and paid too much attention to her. Vigilantes who attacked him pre-warned him about the attack and encouraged him to leave town. He ignored the warnings and so they took matters into their own hands:

“About 11 o’clock a mob of fifty men went to the house and took Demund therefrom. He was tarred and feathered and then ridden out of town on a pole.”[8]

The injured Demund wanted justice for what he endured at the hands of the vigilantes and had recognized some of his attackers. He therefore returned to Kenosha, had his wounds dressed, and visited police. They issued warrants for eight prominent residents of nearby Salem. Newspapers reported it was expected that the perpetrators would be arrested the following day.

Another tarred and feathered victim of the mid-1800s was a phrenologist. Years later he talked about the incidence and stated that he would “rather be hung” than suffer a tarring and feathering again. It happened while he was performing as a touring lecturer. He claimed that in one town local fireman wanted to hold a ball and when he refused to give up the hall to them so they tarred and feathered him:

“[T]hey stripped me and brought out the tar and feathers … There was a mob of 500 lawless men … Two men held me at arms’ length and two or three others did the whitewashing and decorating. They began at my head and brushed and sopped and doped me with the tar and then poured feathers over me. Someone had brought a whole feather bed. I don’t think that one single feather got away. … The tar was so hot that it blistered in places, and as it was put on with brooms and brushes, I naturally suffered considerable pain.”[9]

When asked how the tar and feathers were removed, the phrenologist stated that he got a couple to help clean him up after he offered to pay them.

“Then they went to work. With caseknives and chips they scraped off what stuff they could … I had a thick head of hair and beautiful whiskers, but everything had to go. It was about midnight when they began work and at 5 o’clock in the morning evidences appeared here and there that I was a white man. I was then greased with lard from head to foot and put to bed to sleep until noon. After dinner … good progress [was made] … You may jot it down that it takes plump twenty-four hours of the hardest kind of work to remove a coat of tar and feathers. Besides hair and whiskers I lost most of my eyebrows and eyelashes, and a considerable amount of skin.”[10]  

Tarring and feathering attacks in America were also reported in the early 1900s. That was because anti-German sentiment was widespread before World War I which resulted in attacks against German-Americans. Loose women also became victims of tarring and feathering in the twentieth century. In addition, attacks against people having sexual affairs occurred regularly into the 1930s. Even in the twenty-first century a tarring and feathering attack happened in June of 2020, but fortunately, the victims were not human. Multiple graves and memorials dedicated to Confederate soldiers that were located at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana, were covered with tar and feathers.


*Fawn Brodie in her book, No Man Knows My History, maintains that the tarring and feather of Smith happened for another reason. She asserts that the mob was seeking revenge for Smith’s sexual advances towards a woman despite him already being married. Brodie states:

They stripped him, scratched and beat him with savage pleasure, and smeared his bleeding body with tar from head to foot. Ripping a pillow into shreds, they plastered him with feathers. It is said that Eli Johnson demanded that the prophet be castrated, for he suspected Joseph of being too intimate with his sister, Nancy Marinda, [who would later become one of Smith’s plural wives].”[11]  

**The Know Nothings were a nativist political party and movement in the United States in the mid-1850s that was primarily anti-Catholic, Anti-Irish, anti-immigration, populist and xenophobic.

References:

  • [1] G. W. Stimpson, “You’d Be Surprised!,” Corpus Christi Times, July 26, 1939, p. 9.
  • [2] Evening Star, “The Tar-and-Feather Mystery,” September 5, 1873, p. 1.
  • [3] Letters of Governor Francis Fauquier 21 (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1912); The William and Mary Quarterly, p. 166–67.
  • [4] H. Hulton, Some Account of the Proceedings of the People in New England; from the Establishment of a Board of Customs in America, to the breaking out of the Rebellion in 1775, with the assistance of Princeton U. Firestone Library (André deCoppet Manuscript Collection), p. 224.
  • [5] The Age, “Tar and Feathers,” May 21, 1863, p. 7.
  • [6] L. Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations 1880 Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Plano, Illinois: Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1880), p. 203–4.
  • [7] The Kansas Catholic, “Death of Father Bapst, S.J., who was Tarred and Feathered in Maine,” December 22, 1887, p. 1.
  • [8] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Tarred and Feathered by a Mob,” June 24, 1896, p. 3.
  • [9] Detroit Free Press, “Tar and Feathers,” December 10, 1893, p. 14.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] F. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), p. 119.

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