In Boston in 1774, tensions were building up that would lead to the Revolutionary War. The colonies were chafing under British rule, and the British were exerting their authority by clamping down on rebellious communities. This was the atmosphere in which John Malcom, a bad-tempered loyalist customs official, was found yelling at a young boy in the street. One thing led to another, and Malcolm hit a townsman in the head. Later that night, a mob gathered to give Malcolm what for.
After a stop at a nearby wharf to pick up a barrel of tar (at some point, down-filled pillows, perhaps taken from Malcom’s own house, were also collected), the crowd, which now numbered more than a thousand people, hauled Malcom through the snowy streets to the center of town, where after three “Huzzas,” they loaded him into a cart parked in front of the Customs House. Almost four years before, this had been the site of the Boston Massacre, and as a consequence the building was now referred to as Butchers’ Hall. Bonfires were common in this portion of King Street, a 60-foot-wide plaza-like space in front of the Town Hall paved with seashells and gravel where the stocks and whipping post were also located. One of these fires may have been used to heat the stiff and sludgy pine tar (a distillation of the bituminous substance that bubbled from a smoldering pine tree) into a pourable black paste.
It was one of the bitterest evenings of the year. Boston Harbor had frozen over two nights before. Malcom was undoubtedly trembling with cold and fear, but this did not prevent the crowd from tearing off his clothes (dislocating his arm in the process) and daubing his skin with steaming tar that would have effectively parboiled his flesh. Once the feathers had been added, Malcom was clothed in what was known at the time as a “modern jacket”: a painful and mortifying announcement to the world that he had sinned against the collective mores of the community. Tarring and feathering went back centuries to the time of the crusades; it was also applied to the effigies used during Pope Night; several Boston loyalists before him had been tarred and feathered, but none could claim the level of suffering that Malcom was about to endure.
The story of John Malcolm's torture at Smithsonian also describes the political background of the incident, and the mob mentality that eventually was harnessed as a tool for the Revolution. Link
(Image credit: The Granger Collection, NYC)