By J. L. Bell
Journal of the American Revolution
Tarring and feathering could be fatal.
The notion that hot tar caused severe, sometimes fatal burns is based on the assumption that “tar” meant the asphalt we use on roads, which is typically stored in liquid state at about 300°F (150°C). But in the eighteenth century “tar” meant pine tar, used for several purposes in building and maintaining ships. As any baseball fan knows, pine tar doesn’t have to be very hot to be sticky. Shipyards did warm that tar to make it flow more easily, but pine tar starts to melt at about 140°F (60°C). That’s well above the ideal for bathwater, but far from the temperature of hot asphalt.
Pine tar could be hot enough to injure someone. The Loyalist judge Peter Oliver complained that when a mob attacked Dr. Abner Beebe of Connecticut, “hot Pitch was poured upon him, which blistered his Skin.”[i] But other victims of tarring and feathering didn’t mention severe or lasting burns among their injuries. Rioters probably applied the tar with a mop or brush, lowering its temperature. Sometimes they tarred people more gently over their clothing.
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