Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Tar and Feather Definition:

The punishment of an offender by covering with hot tar and then feathers.

An early form of punishment in England and North America.

Sometimes also referred to "writing a man upon a rail".

The offender whether properly convicted or not, or someone of which a vast majority of men in the community we wished to rid themselves of work to make some kind of example of, suffered the punishment of being tarred and feathered by first being stripped of his clothing. On the side, a large part of playing tar was heated and the offender being held down, he was covered with this scalding tar. He was then rolled in feathers.

The next step of the unusual form of punishment was optional and it was to place the individual onto a fence rail, to hoist the rail and to parade the individual to the outskirts of the town where it was understood he was to leave and never return. thus, the other name often given to this form of punishment, to "ride a man upon a rail".

Although the punishment is often taken to be a feature of American legal history, it's origins actually date back to Richard the I of England. To ensure law and order, and to protect against theft of valuable supplies while in transit, amongst his soldiers and sailors during his Third Crusade in 1189 to the Holy Land, he enacted the following law:

"A robber who shall be convicted of theft shall have his head cropped after the manner of a champion, and boiling pitch shall be poured thereon, and then the feathers of a cushion shall be shaken out upon him, so that he may be known, and at the first land at which the ship shall touch, he shall be set on shore."1

The form of punishment was widely advertised as a form of deterrent but also used in the Wild West of Canada and the United States in the early years of frontier migration leaving the impression that it was a form of punishment (torture, really), of North American creation. As a deterrent, it certainly must of been successful as the death rate was quite high for the victims.


  • NOTE 1: Tarring and Feathering, 1 Current Comment & Legal Misc. 462 (1889)

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