Article V of the 1889 Constitution of South Dakota which was then still part of Dakota Territory begins with this description of the Judicial Department: “The judicial powers of the state, except as in this constitution otherwise provided, shall be vested in a supreme court, circuit courts, county courts, and justices of the peace, and such other courts as may be created by law for cities and incorporated towns.”
Early newspaper reports of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s indicate that there was from time to time exhibited by individual’s inappropriate behavior and conduct. It may not have been illegal according to civil law; however, according to some in the community it violated moral law and common etiquette.
In a number of cases, those individuals who were offended with their neighbor’s behavior came up with a solution of their own. They decided to adopt a form of discipline or punishment which had been practiced for almost two thousand years.
“Tarring and Feathering” was a form of public torture and humiliation which was used to enforce unofficial justice for inappropriate behavior. It was used in medieval Europe as well as on the early American frontier. It was primarily a type of mob vengeance.
The victim or victims would be stripped at least to the waist. Wood tar (sometimes hot) was then either poured or painted onto their body while they were immobilized. Then they either had feathers thrown on them or they were rolled around in a pile of feathers.
For some who had been tarred and feathered, that was not the end of their ordeal. They still had to endure what was referred to as “Ridden out of town on a Rail.” The individual was placed on the sharp edge of a wooden fence rail and carried on the shoulders of adversaries through the community and dumped unceremoniously at the edge of town.
Some confuse this with actually putting someone on a train which was leaving the community. Originally, this was not the case. It was practiced prior to the Revolutionary War and before trains. However, after trains became a part of the landscape it is probable that individuals did get a free ride out of town on the train.
Both were a form of punishment which was designed to humiliate and embarrass the individual before their neighbors and was not restricted to men. The goal was to force them to either join your side or leave town. The process was so forceful, and observed by many, that only the most fearless or foolhardy would ever set foot in town again.
During the summer of 1892, citizens in Tyndall organized a committee to tar and feather a worthless husband who had come back to live upon an industrious wife. He had just been discarded by a disreputable woman and needed a place where he could get free room and board. The wife, however pleaded on his behalf and he was spared the tar and feathers. However, he was told by the citizens to leave town at once and forever.
In early January of 1909, a warning had been issued to several unmarried couples who were living openly as husband and wife in Dallas. They were told that if they did not secure the services of a clergyman or cease living together, they would be treated to a coat of tar and feathers and ridden out of town on a rail. People in the community were greatly worked up over the matter. A large vigilante committee was formed to take matters into its own hands. There is no record of how far east they went.
During the years of World War I, people bought Liberty Bonds to help our country financially. One individual near Gregory refused to buy bonds or help the war effort in any way. He also drove his cattle to his Nebraska farm when the South Dakota census taker was going to come. He would then bring them back to South Dakota when the Nebraska census taker came. A large group of men caught him one day at his South Dakota farm. They took his clothes off and tarred and feathered him. He was made to walk down the main street of Gregory covered with only tar and feathers.
In later years that was all forgotten. That man’s son married the daughter of one of the men who helped tar and feather his father. They may not have been born when this happened.
In late march of 1918 a man who made disrespectful remarks about the United States government, was taken to the edge of town at Geddes by a crowd of 200 citizens and given a coat of tar and feathers. Also, a businessman in Geddes was made to kneel in the street and kiss the flag by a crowd of 500 citizens. His store was painted yellow.
One of the ugliest Non-Partisan riots took place in Dallas in 1919. Hundreds of farmers had come to Dallas for the meeting. The Council of Defense, under the appearance of patriotism, ordered the Home Guards to break up the meeting.
They chased the organizers and speakers from the hall. When they tried to hold the meeting outside a hand to hand fight between the farmers and townsmen took place. Meanwhile, other patriots were going through the baggage of the organizers at the hotel. They took their clothes, money, and official papers. Still others got tar and feathers ready and there were sinister cries of “Get the Rope!” Finally, the Home Guards, riding in autos, drove the organizers on foot for eighteen miles through the snow and cold. Almost causing the death of one of the organizers.
Today, the image of a tarred and feathered individual remains a symbol for severe public criticism.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on February 19, 2020.