Object of the Month

“An old, impudent and mischievous offender”: John Malcom Tarred and Feathered in Boston

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man or Tarring & Feathering; Copied on stone by D. C. Johnston from a print published in London in 1774 Lithograph

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man or Tarring & Feathering; Copied on stone by D. C. Johnston from a print published in London in 1774

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This lithograph by David Claypool Johnston was published in 1830 and depicts the punishment meted out to British Customs Commissioner John Malcom in January of 1774 by the citizens of Boston. Johnston's lithograph is a precise copy of an engraving by English engraver Philip Dawe published in October of 1774, the image incorporates a number of patriotic references, including the Stamp Act nailed upside down to the Liberty Tree and a view of the Boston Tea Party (which had taken place in December of 1773) in the background.

A man whose reputation preceded him

John Malcom was born in Boston in 1723, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants Michael and Sarah Malcom. John became a ship owner and master and had an active military career, beginning with the 1745 Siege of Louisburg. Frank Hersey described him as “cursed with a fiery temper which under the slightest provocation flamed into ungovernable rage.” Throughout his life, this temper would lead him into disputes with just about anyone, and unlike his brother Daniel, a patriot, John picked the opposite side of the brewing dispute between colony and crown—setting the stage for his denouement in Boston. During the Regulator Uprising in North Carolina (1768-1771), Malcom was notorious for his “enthusiastic suppression” of “rebel” forces and was suspended for misconduct in the office of Comptroller at the Customs House in Currituck, North Carolina.

After his suspension, Malcom was appointed to a position in the Customs House in Falmouth, Maine, with the newspapers announcing the arrival of “the famous John Malcom, (he says) with large Authority from the Commissioners of the Customs … When such Creatures are employ’d in publick Affairs, it gives us great Reason to think there is some rotten Plank in our Constitution.” Given his reputation, it would not be long before Malcom ruffled feathers among the maritime

In late October, Malcom seized the ship Brothers for not having a register under the slimmest of pretexts and, while doing so, he behaved in his trademark antagonistic manner. The Boston Gazette and Country Journal of 15 November 1773 reported on the outcome:

Yesterday [i.e. 1 Nov. 1773] about 12 o’Clock, we were saluted with three Cheers at a distance, when approaching the Window to investigate the Cause, we saw about 30 Sailors, surrounding an Object which had more the appearance of the D----l, than any Human being; but in Truth it was the infamous J—N M----m, Esq; who had render’d himself obnoxious to the Sailors by being an Informer. They surrounded Mr. Bradbury’s House, where Malcom was, after a stout resistance John Irish was taken, being disarm’d of Sword, Cane, Hat & Wig, he was genteely TARR’D and FEATHER’D; then after marching thro’ the Streets an Hour, was dismissed.

The “genteel” nature of this tarring and feathering—the sailors did not remove Malcom’s clothes before tarring him—stands in contrast to the treatment he would receive in Boston just a few months later.

A random altercation on the streets of Boston

While Malcom’s first experience with the tar and feathers was related to his official duties; his second would occur due to a dispute in the streets of Boston. By the time Malcom returned to Boston, it had been occupied by British soldiers since 1768 and seen the tumult of the killing of Christopher Seidel and the Boston Massacre and its citizens had just dumped three ship cargos’ worth of East India Tea into the Harbor. Boston was tense, and the presence of an arrogant, self-important Customs enforcer didn’t help matters.

On 25 January 1774, by all accounts a bitterly cold day with snow on the ground, Boston shoemaker George R. T. Hewes encountered John Malcom threatening to beat a young boy with his cane. As reported by the newspapers of the day, Hewes—convinced that Malcom would kill the boy were he to strike—confronted Malcom. The situation quickly escalated from there:

... Mr. Malcom, I hope you are not going to strike the boy with that stick. Malcom returned, you are an impertinent rascal, it is none of your business. Mr. Hewes then asked him, what had the child done to him. Malcom damned him and asked him if he was going to take his part? Mr. Hewes answered ... that he thought it was a shame for him to strike the child with such a club as that, if he intended to strike him. Malcom on that damned Mr. Hewes, called him a vagabond, and said he would let him know he should not speak to a gentleman in the street. Mr. Hewes returned ... he was neither a rascal nor vagabond, and though a poor man was in as good credit in town as he was ... I [Hewes] never was tarred nor feathered any how. On this Malcom struck him, and wounded him deeply on the forehead, so that Mr. Hewes for some time lost his senses ...

In fact, Malcom’s blow tore a two inch gash in Hewes’s hat and head. Dr. Joseph Warren, who treated Hewes, noted that had he not possessed such a “thick skull,” the wound surely would have been mortal. B.B. Thatcher and James Hawkes, who each memorialized Hewes in the 1830s, reported that the scars were still perceptible even 60 years later.

“I want to see it done in the new-fashioned manner”

After he had regained his senses, Hewes went to the constable to swear out a warrant on Malcom—the two travelled to Malcom’s house to serve it, but finding the house already surrounded by angry Bostonians (news of the assault had travelled fast) departed, planning to return the next day. It was then that the mob took Malcom’s punishment into their own hands. Again, from the newspapers:

Malcom went home, where the people gathering round, he came out and abused them greatly, saying, 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 crowd soon obliged, dragging Malcolm from the house, stripping him, and applying tar to his bare skin before coating him with feathers. They marched him through the freezing-cold streets of Boston to the huzzahs of many, although some, including Hewes, tried to aid Malcom by bringing him their own blankets or coats. The events of the evening went on for hours, ending with Malcom’s being forced to drink tea toasting all the members of the Royal family until he was sick to the point of bursting. Being threatened with the loss of his ear, Malcom finally capitulated and was returned home where Hewes recounted that “the poor creature was almost frozen, and was rolled out of the cart like a log.” Malcom’s injuries were grievous; the frostbite had caused his skin to peel off in chunks along with the tar and he was bedridden for eight weeks. After he recovered, Malcom—bearing preserved chunks of his own frostbitten skin--departed for England to petition for redress from the crown. He would die there 15 years later, far from his wife and children who had remained in Boston.

Many Bostonians were sickened by the treatment accorded Malcolm—diarist John Rowe called it an “act of outrageous violence.” Patriot leaders were quick to disclaim responsibility for Malcom’s attack, posting notifications in the streets and the newspapers that certified “that the modern Punishment lately inflicted on the ignoble John Malcom, was not done by our Order: --We reserve that Method for bringing Villains of greater Consequence to a Sense of their Guilt and Infamy.”

For further reading

Brigham, Clarence S. “David Claypoole Johnston: the American Cruikshank,” in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, April 1940, p. 98-110.

Halsey, R. T. H. The Boston Port Bill as Pictured by a Contemporary London Cartoonist. New York: The Grolier Club, 1904.

Hawkes, James. A Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party: With a Memoir of George R.T. Hewes. New York: S.S. Bliss, 1834.

Hersey, Frank W. C. “Tar and Feathers: the Adventures of John Malcom,” in Colonial Society of Massachusetts Transactions 34 (1941): 429-73.

Irvin, Benjamin H. “Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768-1776,” New England Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 2 (June 2003), p. 197-238.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. New York: Viking, 2013.

Philbrick’s dramatic narrative (p. 14-25) of John Malcom’s ordeal carries the reader through the streets of Boston as he suffers the wrath of the crowd.

Thatcher, Benjamin B. Traits of the Tea Party: Being a Memoir of George R.T. Hewes … New York: Harper, 1835.

Torbert, Amy. “Impressions of Tar and Feathers: the ‘New American Suit’ in Mezzotint, 1774-1784,” Commonplace - The Journal of early American Life, Issue 16.1 (Fall 2015).

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.