J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 16, 2019

“Tarr her all over from Head to Foot”

This investigation started earlier this week when Dr. Melissa Johnson tweeted a question on behalf of her students: “Were any women ever tarred and feathered?”

I have Benjamin H. Irvin’s 2003 New England Quarterly article “Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768-1776” on my hard drive, so I looked at the list of incidents from 1766 to 1784 at the end. I replied: “No women tarred, but in March 1776 a crowd of Connecticut women threatened a new mother with the treatment for naming a baby after Thomas Gage. Also, women at a quilting bee in Kinderhook stuck molasses & grass on a youth in Sept 1775.”

A couple of hours later Irvin himself noted that the article noted two mid-century incidents he’d found in the secondary literature but hadn’t been able to pin down. (He added, “My suspicion is that the evidentiary record of tarring and feathering is incomplete. Maybe vastly so.”)

Irvin did his research before Google Books, Archive.org, the Hathi Trust, the Readex newspaper database, and other online databases grew so large. Was it now possible to trace back those references? I set out to try.

The first event appeared in the venerable Carl Bridenbaugh’s Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1743-1776 (1955): “Bolder prostitutes went aboard privateers, one receiving a ducking from the yardarm and a tarring and feathering from the skipper of the Castor and Pollux.”

The second was from Alice Morse Earle’s Curious Punishments of Bygone Days (1896): “And we read of a woman who enlisted as a seaman, and whose sex was detected, being dropped three times from the yard-arm, running the gantlope, and being tarred and feathered, and that she nearly died from the rough and cruel treatment she received.”

Earle described what’s obviously the same incident in Colonial Days in Old New York (also 1896): “And we read of a woman who enlisted as a seaman, and whose sex was detected, being dropped three times from the yard-arm and tarred and feathered.” Note that in this passage, even though she had just discussed running the gantlope, Earle did not say this woman was forced to do that, as in her other book. So right away we can see some slippage in the details.

I found a couple of printed sources that described an event incorporating details that reappeared in both Bridenbaugh or Earle’s accounts, indicating that they were actually describing the same event. One was Clarence Clough Buel’s article in the Century Magazine in 1894: “In one instance a woman tried to palm herself off as a male cutthroat on one of the companion privateers Castor and Pollux; but the ‘Gentlemen Sailors,’ on discovering her sex, ducked her three times from the yard-arm, and ‘made their negroes tarr her all over from head to foot.’”

The second was a passage from William Dunlap’s 1840 History of the New Netherlands, Province of New York, and State of New York, which directly quoted a newspaper item dated 25 July 1743. Dunlap’s transcription deviated from the original text in small ways, most notably in turning the pair of privateers into a single vessel. Since Buel didn’t make that error, he must have seen the original article.

With a date and keywords, it was simple to find the actual news story at the root of all these passages. It appeared in the 25 July 1743 New York Gazette and was reprinted by newspapers in Boston and Philadelphia:

Saturday last the Men belonging to the Castor and Pollux Privateers, having found that a Person who had entered on board them two or three Days before, in order to go the Cruize, was a Woman, they seized upon the unhappy Wretch and duck’d her three Times from the Yard-Arm, and afterwards made their Negroes tarr her all over from Head to Foot, by which cruel Treatment, and the Rope that let her into the Water having been indiscreetly fastened, the poor Woman was very much hurt, and continues now ill.
That text not only pins down the date and circumstances of the incident, but it also shows how the later authors distorted it. To start with, both Earle and Bridenbaugh said this was a tarring and feathering. The original story said nothing about feathers. The feathers were a way to make a victim look more ridiculous when put on public display, but that consideration doesn’t appear to have been part of this 1743 attack. Is there a separate history of tarring as punishment, especially at sea?

Bridenbaugh stated that the “skipper of the Castor and Pollux” attacked the woman because she was a prostitute. Earle said the punishment was because she “enlisted as a seaman.” That difference made Irvin think they were describing two separate events. The original story said the woman intended “to go the Cruize,” or enlist, so Earle’s reading was more accurate. There’s no indication this woman worked as a prostitute. Rather, she was transgressing gender lines.

Finally, both modern authors left out some notable detail. The New York Gazette blamed “the Men” for punishing the woman, not their captains (though the captains undoubtedly held authority). It also offered the detail that the sailors “made their Negroes” put tar on the woman, presumably as a further punishment. Finally, the news story is notable in being sympathetic to the woman, despite her transgression, because of how much she suffered.


Arinn Amer said...

Thank you for this post and all of your rich and careful research on tarring and feathering as of late. I'm writing a dissertation on the subject and can help answer Dr. Johnson's students' question and yours.

Yes, women were tarred and feathered in the American Revolution, despite a long-standing scholarly consensus to the opposite effect. I have encountered three female victims so far in my ongoing research. I think they've been written out of history for two related reasons, both of which may be useful for teaching students how history works. One is evidentiary. Unlike the attacks on people like George Gailer, which were very well documented in the patriot press, their assaults were not reported in colonial newspapers at the time. Instead, the source base for the violence is unpublished/local, memoiristic, or imperial. The other reason is interpretive, and reflects professional imbalances. Carl Bridenbaugh, who rendered our aspiring sailor a prostitute, was not the first powerful male historian to be dismissive of women in ways that have had enduring impact on the scholarship. In 1894, Samuel Abbott Green gave a paper at the Massachusetts Historical Society instructing his peers to discount emerging evidence that women could have been tarred and feathered, calling one female reporter "guileless."

And yes, there is also a history of women being punished with tar, sans feathers. Kristen Fischer relates a similar attack, also from the 1740s, in her excellent book Suspect Relations, about sex and race in North Carolina.

Kudos all around on these probing questions. I believe that asking exactly who was targeted by this violence can tell us much more about tarring and feathering, and about the history of America's founding. The victims weren't only customs men; in fact, they weren't only men at all.

Charles Bahne said...

Perhaps the feathers simply weren't available on a ship at sea?

A supply of tar, on the other hand, was probably carried aboard all ships, as part of their normal maintenance supplies.

The tar, meanwhile, shouldn't be confused with today's petroleum-based tar. In those days it would have been pine tar. It melted at a relatively low temperature, turning into a thin liquid. But as it cooled to room temperature, it shrank and congealed into a sticky solid.

It wasn't just an embarrassment, it was very painful, and pieces of the victim's skin might come off when one attempted to remove the tar.

J. L. Bell said...

It's not clear whether the sailors attacked the woman at sea or close to land, but since the newspaper reported they had done so only a few days before, the ships must have been close to New York. Feathers are indeed harder to come by on a ship than tar, but this news report doesn't mention feathers or a procession at all. With hindsight through the Revolutionary period, we look for those details since they were common in later events, but these sailors might not have been aiming for that ritual.

No doubt the tarring was supposed to be painful, as well as embarrassing and inconvenient. The feathers, however, seem to be added for ridiculousness, though there's one mention of people trying to set fire to the feathers on one victim.

The detail of skin coming off with tar appears in the complaint of John Malcoln, tarred and feathered in Boston in 1774. He was also beaten and whipped badly, which probably injured his skin worse than others. This 1743 newspaper item makes clear the victim suffered harm both from the tar and the rope.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Arinn Amer! Your work came up in the Twitter discussion, and I saw that I'd missed a chance to hear about your research at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Thanks for sharing a taste here, and good luck with your dissertation.

J. L. Bell said...

And now, of course, I'm intrigued by the travels of the women in the Fenton family.

Arinn Amer said...

I'll be sure to get in touch next time I'm presenting on them in the Boston area.

Don N. Hagist said...

A British soldier, John Robertshaw of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, recounted an incident of a woman being coated in sticky goo and covered with feathers as a prank rather than a punishment. Recalling a expedition to destroy enemy stories in 1779, probably along the Connecticut coast, he wrote:
"In this excursion, among other plunder, we took a store of molasses, the hogsheads being rolled out and their heads knocked in, a soldier's wife went to dip her camp-kettle in a hogshead of molasses and while she was stooping in order to fill her kettle, a soldier slipped behind her and threw her into the hogshead: when she was hauled out, a bystander threw a parcel of feath­ers on her, which adhering to the molasses, made her appear frightful enough. This little circumstance afforded us a good deal of amuse­ment."