1774: John Malcom, tarred and feathered

Add comment January 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1774,* in the British official John Malco(l)m was tarred and feathered and mock-executed by enraged Bostonians during the tense run-up to the American Revolution.

Malcom’s militant Loyalism put him sharply at odds with his city’s’s rising Patriot ultras — the sorts of people who, just a month before, had provocatively dumped British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Malcom himself hadn’t been proximate to that event but as a customs official he’d made himself obnoxious on the docks before. In October of 1773, he seized a ship in Falmouth,** threatening “to sheath his sword in the bowels of any one who dared dispute his authority.” The sailors responded by sheathing John Malcom in a coat of tar and feathers and marching him through the streets.

This vigilante justice was meant to come up short of serious physical injury, and it did. But it was a crippling public disgrace, far beyond the streets of Falmouth — an ironic situation since Malcom’s own late brother Daniel was a celebrated Patriot bootlegger.† Back in Boston, Malcom found himself heckled in the streets about the incident to such an extent that he complained to the governor. (The governor told him to suck it up.) And it bubbled right to the surface in the incident that brings today’s post, too.

On January 25 of 1774, one of the Patriot participants in the aforementioned Boston Tea Party named George Robert Twelves Hewes‡ happened across the hated crown agent — “standing over a small boy who was pushing a little sled before him, cursing, damning, threatening and shaking a very large cane with a very heavy ferril on it.” (That’s according to the next week’s (Jan. 31, 1774) Boston Gazette, as are the subsequent quotes in this post.) Apparently the kid had crashed his conveyance into Malcom while out frolicking in the deep winter’s snow.

Hewes interceded for the child, and Malcom rounded on him: “you are an impertinent rascal, it is none of your business!” Flexing his class rank, Malcom further scolded the “vagabond” that he ought not address a gentleman in public. Hewes dissented and after an exchange of barbs cut Malcom to the quick with the retort, “be that as it will, I never was tarred or feathered.” This own brought Malcom’s heavy cane crashing into Hewes’s head, crumpling the Good Samaritan to the cobblestones.

Angry bystanders to the incident trailed Malcom home, and heaven only knows what hard words were traded on the way. He should have been worried and maybe he was, but his blood was up from Hewes’s insult: Malcom stood on the threshold and verbally sparred with his angry neighbors — “you say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner, damn you let me see the man that dare do it better! I want to see it done in the new-fashioned manner.” The man’s Falmouth tarring, you see, had been leniently poured over his clothes, which might have been hell on his dry cleaning bills but also minimized the injury that hot tar could do to naked skin. Now he was daring a rougher treatment at the hands of Bostonians who had certainly proven up to that challenge in the past.

Calmer heads knew this situation could spiral out of control and judiciously steered the irate official into his house. But Malcom was not to be stilled; when his wife opened a sash to implore the crowd to disperse, her husband exploited the opening to thrust a sword into the breast of a bystander. Luckily for both parties the blade struck bone, causing only a glancing flesh wound.

Somehow the irascible coot restrained himself in the house long enough for this disturbance to subside, while Hewes shook off his concussion well enough to swear out a warrant.

But by evening, word of this politically charged provocation had circulated in Boston, along with all Malcom’s bluster — “among other things, that he would split down the yankees by dozens, and receive 20l. sterling a head for every one he destroyed.” A crowd started assembling again at Mr. Malcom’s door, now dangerously intent on its purpose.

they got ladders and beating in an upper window, entered the house and took him without loss of blood, and dragging him out put him on a sled, and amidst the huzzas of thousand[s], brought him into King street. Several Gentlemen endeavoured to divert the populace from their intention, alledging that he was open to the laws of the land which would undoubtedly award a reasonable satisfaction to the parties he had abused; they answered he had been an old, impudent and mischievous offender — he had joined in the murders at North Carolina — he had seized vessels on account of sailors having a bottle or two of gin on board — he had in office, and otherwise, behaved in the most capricious, insulting and daringly abusive manner — and on every occasion discovered the most rooted enmity to this country, and the defenders of its rights — that in case they let him go they might expect a like satisfaction as they had received in the cafes of Richardson and the soldiers, and the other friends of government. With these and such-like arguments, together with a gentle crouding of persons not of their way of thinking out of the ring, they proceeded to elevate Mr. Malcom from his sled into the cart, and stripping him to buff and breeches, gave him a modern jacket, and hurried him away to liberty-tree, where they proposed to him to renounce his present commission, and swear that he would never hold another inconsistent with the liberties of his country; but this he obstinately refusing, they then carted him to the gallows, passed a rope round his neck, and threw the other end over the beam as if they intended to hang him: But this manoeuvre he set at defiance. They then basted him for some time with rope’s end, and threatened to cut his ears off, and on this he complied, and they the brought him home.

See, reader, the effects of a government in which the people have no confidence!


“Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring and Feathering” (color version of same). This print and the next one make reference to a dubious report in London papers that Malcom was made to guzzle tea to the point of bursting for “your whole Fraternity at the Custom house would drench us with this Poison, and we are to have our Throats cut if it will not stay upon our Stomachs.”


“A new method of macarony making, as practiced in Boston”. (A different print with a nearly identical title shows an expanded view of a gallows here.) The number 45 seen on the hat above was code for Liberty at this period, due to the daring anti-monarchist sentiment in issue no. 45 of radical agitator John Wilkes‘s The North Briton.


A French engraving of the event, from 1784.

* There are a few other dates besides Tuesday, January 25 to be found out there, but newspaper reports from the time clearly place it on that day. Malcom himself later circulated a strange bulletin to Boston churches confirming the date with the words “John Malcom returns thanks to Almighty God, that again he is able to wait on him again in the public worship, after the cruel and barbarous usage of a cruel and barbarous savage mob in Boston, on the 25th evening of January last past confined him to house, bed and room.”

** The town of Falmouth is now Portland, Maine. Its most famous revolutionary war incident was put it to the torch by the British in 1775.

Daniel Malco(l)m’s grave is pocked by musket balls fired at the marker for good luck by redcoats.

‡ Hewes lived to the ripe old age of 98. Enjoy a public domain 1830s biography drawn from personal conversation with the old veteran here … including Hewes’s recollection of the tarring and feathering, which in his telling was clearly extremely traumatic to his antagonist.

The people, however, soon broke open the door, and took Malcom into their custody. They then took him to the place where the massacre was committed, and their flogged him with thirty-nine stripes. After which, they besmeared him thoroughly with tar and feathers; they then whipped him through the town, till they arrived at the gallows, on the neck, where they gave him thirty-nine stripes more, and then, after putting one end of a rope about his neck, and throwing the other end over the gallows, told him to remember that he had come within one of being hanged. They then took him back to the house from whence they had taken him, and discharged him from their custody.

The severity of the flogging they had given him, together with the cold coat of tar with which they had invested him, had such a benumbing effect upon his health, that it required considerable effort to restore his usual circulation. During the process of his chastisement, the deleterious effect of the frost, it being a cold season, generated a morbid affection upon the prominent parts of his face, especially upon his chin, which caused a separation and peeling off of some fragments of loose skin and flesh, which, with a portion of the tar and feathers, which adhered to him, he preserved in a box, and soon after carried with him to England, as the testimonials of his sufferings in the cause of his country. On his arrival in England soon after this catastrophe Malcom obtained an annual pension of fifty pounds, but lived only two years after to enjoy it.

On relating this adventure, the very excitement which the affront must have wrought upon him, evidently began to rekindle, and he remarked with emphasis, I shall carry to my grave the scar which the wound Malcom gave me left on my head; and passing my finger over the spot to which he directed it, there was obviously such a scar, as must have been occasioned by the wound he had described.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",England,Hanged,History,Lynching,Massachusetts,Mock Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Summary Executions,USA

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