Largely a tactic of vigilante justice, wiping a person down with hot tar and applying feathers was primarily an act of public humiliation, and not meant to kill the victim. In the worst cases, it could cause severe burns and even death, but for the most part the target survived, but was considered shamed.

Not a Death Sentence

Historical examples show tarring and feathering was viewed as a much lighter punishment than lynching: legislation of tar and feathering was a 12th-century edict by King Richard I, who wrote special laws for Crusaders traveling by sea to Jerusalem. King Richard advised boiling tar and pillow feathers be poured over anyone convicted of theft, and then advised that the tarred and feathered man be exiled at the first opportunity. The act caught on in mob-rule scenarios, as in the American Revolution, with British loyalists the most targeted group for the act, according to historian Richard Thornton's 1912 "American Glossary."

Tarring & Feathering in the Last Century

More recent victims have sued those who subjected them to tarring and feathering: German-American farmer John Meints sued 32 of his attackers after being tarred and feathered at his home in 1918, and in 1981, a woman in Moulton, Alabama sued her husband's ex-wife for tarring and feathering her shortly before the couple's wedding. In a more recent example, an alleged drug dealer was tarred and feathered in front of a crowd in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 2007. In this case, the victim also survived.