Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tarring and feathering

I watched the first episode of the award-winning miniseries "John Adams" with my Mom last night. Toward the beginning, John Hancock (1737-1793) incites a crowd to tar and feather a representative of the British East India Tea Company. Of course I had to look this punishment up, and I found that - although it dates back to 1189, when Richard the Lion-Hearted ordered it applied to any robbers found traveling with the crusaders - it is largely associated with the American colonists, who revived the practice in the 1760s. It involved pouring hot tar, which was readily available in the shipyards, over the victim and then applying a coating of feathers. The feathers were used to comical effect, but the hot tar was more than just humiliating. Unless it was applied over the clothes as a lesser punishment, it caused burning and blistering of the skin. The removal of the tar involved at the very least the pulling out of hairs, and usually required the extremely painful application of turpentine or other caustic fluid. Although tarring and feathering was not fatal, this form of vigilante justice usually left the victim scarred.

An even more barbaric practice called "pitchcapping" was devised by British forces in 1798 for use on suspected Irish rebels and the innocent civilians who knew their whereabouts. Pitchcapping had several variations, but often began with shaving the victim's head - so roughly that one or both ears might be severed. Then a conical container of hot pitch or tar was upended on the head (or a soaked cloth was pressed to it) and allowed to cool. Sometimes lit on fire first, the pitchcap was then torn off, taking flesh with it and leaving the head disfigured for life, since - as with tarring and feathering - the victim usually survived this torture.

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