Tarring and feathering is a form of punishment which was developed in 12th century England. It spread across feudal Europe, and was also practiced in many European colonies, once Europeans began exploring and colonizing the globe. In this punishment, the victim was stripped, painted with hot tar, and then covered in feathers which stuck to the tar. The primarily goal was physical intimidation and humiliation, with people being tarred and feathered in an attempt to run them out of town. The term “tarred with the same brush” in reference to guilt by association appears to be derived from this practice.
This practice appears to have been practiced primarily among mobs and vigilantes, rather than being an officially sanctioned form of punishment. Depending on the temperature of the tar and the attitude of the crowd, it could sometimes become quite violent and rather dangerous. Hot tar could cause significant burns, and removing the tar would pull out hair and pieces of skin, potentially putting the victim at risk of infection. Theoretically, covering the skin in tar would also prevent it from breathing, potentially causing death.
However, the goal of tarring and feathering was humiliation, not death, and not many deaths as a result of this practice have been recorded. More commonly, people were scarred for life by the hot tar and resulting injuries from removal, marking them to other members of the community as victims. People also died as a result of lynchings, in which they were tarred and feathered, marched around town, and then hung.
Several variations on tarring and feathering have been recorded. In the British military, for example, people once practiced pitchcapping, in which a soldier's head would be covered with hot tar. Removing the tar involved being willing to lose much of your hair and scalp along with the tar, leaving ugly scars. Sometimes the bodies of people who had been hung or beheaded were also tarred and feathered, to add humiliation, and to hold the bodies together when they were hung on the gibbet as a warning for other citizens.
Many people associate tarring and feathering with the American West, where the practice endured until a surprisingly late date, with recorded instances dating to the 1900s. In fact, people were tarred and feathered recently enough for there to be photographic examples of tarring and feathering, in which streaks of tar and feathers can be clearly seen, suggesting that the practice involved less of a careful painting of the body, and more of a streaking with lines of hot tar.