tar > paint > taint ?

Thu Feb 9 20:28:53 UTC 2006

        I was myself quite curious about the effect of tarring and
feathering after reading Huckleberry Finn; you may recall that the King
and the Duke are tarred and feathered near the end, and we had a
discussion in my American Literature class as to whether this would have
killed them.  Tarring and feathering would certainly be unpleasant, but
I do not believe it would be life-threatening unless combined with other
abuses (as, historically, it often was).  I found this description of a
tarring and feathering in 1930 Louisiana to be edifying:

        <<Plaintiff was ordered to undress. He took his clothes off,
coal tar was brought out, poured in a bucket, and was applied to
plaintiff's body from head to foot with a brush. Feathers were taken out
from a pillowcase which were put all over the coal tar with which
plaintiff's body had been saturated. He was then allowed to put on his
trousers and was put back in the car. He was then taken back to Hammond
by the Starns brothers, and was put out in front of the Gem Cafe, an all
night open restaurant. The testimony of the plaintiff is that when the
coal tar was applied to his body with a brush it burned him severely.

        After being thrown out from the car near the restaurant,
plaintiff walked to his room, got in a bathtub, began removing the tar
and feathers with soap and water as best he could.

        He says, for seven or ten days thereafter he suffered pain from
this tarring and feathering, particularly at night when it kept him from
resting; that the skin on his body peeled off from its effects, and that
it was especially painful in the more tender parts of his body.

        The record shows that Dr. Overton was called by plaintiff
between 12 and 1 o'clock following this tarring and feathering; that he
got to plaintiff's room while he was in the bathtub removing the tar and
feathers with soap, water, and towels. It took something over an hour of
rubbing and scrubbing for the removal of the tar and feathers. In
assisting plaintiff to cleanse himself of the substance some of it got
on the hands of Dr. Overton, and some on the back of his ear in using
the telephone. He testifies that it had a smarting and stinging effect
on his hands and back of his ear. His testimony is that about a week
after that plaintiff's skin peeled off where the tar had been applied.

        Dr. Overton says that plaintiff was in distress and appeared to
be in pain when he got to the room, but suffered more in the latter part
of the same day when the irritating substance began to develop its full
action. After it had thus developed, his testimony is that plaintiff's
face "was solid red, and evidently swollen. I judge, he says, that
caused him a good deal of pain."

        The defendants offered witnesses who testified that coal tar is
not caustic. These witnesses said that some of the derivatives of coal
tar are caustic, but that in its natural state it is not and will not
burn. The use of the brush in applying the coal tar on plaintiff's body,
particularly on the tender parts, no doubt, in our opinion, had an
irritating effect on the skin. His red and swollen face, which showed up
later in the evening, as testified to by Dr. Overton, makes it quite
evident that the coal tar had had a burning and smarting effect.

        Counsel for defendants contend that the red swollen face of
plaintiff and the peeling off of his skin were not the result of the
application of the coal tar, as it is not caustic in its natural state,
but the effects to which we have referred must be ascribed to the use
plaintiff made of the soap, water, and towels in his efforts to remove
the tar and feathers.

        It could certainly not be expected that plaintiff, in the
condition in which he was placed, would have sent for an expert to have
that substance removed, if there could have been any one capable of
removing it without leaving any irritation.

        Plaintiff immediately called for a physician who was the first
one to succor him. Dr. Overton, a qualified and respectable physician,
assisted him in using the water, soap, and towels. Plaintiff could do no
more than that. By the acts of defendants, plaintiff was forced to use
the means that he employed for relief, and, if the use of the water,
soap, and towels caused the injuries, it was the direct result of the
tarring and feathering.>>

Newsom v. Starns, 136 So. 743 (La.App. 1931), rev'd, 174 La. 955, 142
So. 138 (La. 1932).

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of Wilson Gray
Sent: Thursday, February 09, 2006 2:22 PM
Subject: Re: tar > paint > taint ?

BTW, I've never understood how a person could go through a
tarring-and-feathering without suffering serious bodily harm or even
death.Yet I've never even heard of anyone being permanently injured, let
alone killed, by it.


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