The Straight Dope | The Straight Dope | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » The Straight Dope

The Straight Dope


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Has anyone ever actually been tarred and feathered, or is this just some kind of bizarro fable? Who engaged in this practice and against whom? Wouldn't being covered with boiling tar usually prove fatal? How would you get the tar and feathers off, if in fact you ever could? The topic is neglected in "Hints from Heloise." --Sherman Pothole, Somerville, Massachusetts

Tarring and feathering may have been bizarro, Sherm, but it's no fable. One of the stranger manifestations of the American propensity for mob violence, the practice dates back to at least 1740 and didn't die out until after World War I. It was especially popular just prior to the Revolutionary War, when a lot of customs officials and British sympathizers got daubed. Moonshiners later tarred and feathered revenuers, and during World War I the same fate befell persons thought to be insufficiently patriotic.

Unlike its close cousin lynching, tarring and feathering usually wasn't fatal. One historian says it was employed chiefly when a mob was feeling "playful." But the victim usually had a lot less fun than his tormentors. A Tory assaulted by a mob in 1775 was stripped naked and daubed with hot pitch, blistering his skin. He was then covered with hog dung, feathers being momentarily in short supply. In 1912 Ben Reitman, companion of the radical agitator Emma Goldman, was beaten by a mob in San Diego, then tarred and covered with sagebrush. Afterward he spent two hours cleaning off the worst of the gunk with turpentine and tar soap--just the kind of helpful household tip we at the Straight Dope pride ourselves in providing. Hope you don't have occasion to use it.

I'm pretty sure that a wind from the south is called a "sirocco" and a wind from the west is a "zephyr," but what about winds from the north or east? Also, where do these words come from? --Jeffrey Carino, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Strictly speaking, a zephyr is a light breeze from the west, named after Zephyros, the mythological god of the west wind. Most other terms for the wind are associated with a particular region and usually some particularly obnoxious type of weather. For instance, the mistral (from the Latin for "master wind") is a dry, cold north wind that blows through the Rhone valley toward the south coast of France. The sirocco is properly a dry, hot southerly wind out of the Sahara that picks up moisture crossing the Mediterranean. It's sometimes held responsible for the fits of nutsiness that occasionally afflict North Africans, e.g., the Algerian War. When such a wind is accompanied by dust and extreme heat, it's called a simoom.

One common type of wind is the hot, dry breeze that occasionally pours out of the mountains. In L.A. it's called the Santa Ana wind, in the Alps a foehn, and on the east slope of the Rockies a chinook. Such winds cause a rapid rise in temperature that can melt snow in minutes or, on dry ground, trigger a brushfire. (You may recall the famous Boris Badenov line, "never underestimate the power of a chinook.") They're caused by "adiabatic compression," a concept that I have wisely declined to explain in the past and on which I see no reason to change my policy now. The name Santa Ana, for those of you who care about these things, most likely derives from the mountain range through which the wind blows. But some believe it comes from the column of dust raised by the cavalry of the famous Mexican general Santa Ana, or else from an Indian word santanta, "devil wind."

Many other local winds also have names. Writer Lyall Watson counted nearly 400. (Inexplicably, he did not include "Maria.") Alaska has the burga, a cold northeasterly wind often accompanied by snow. The papagayo is a cold northeasterly wind along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua and Guatemala. In Morocco, where they believe in calling a spade a spade, a cold southeaster is known as a mezzer-ifoullousen, "[wind] that plucks fowls." The closest equivalent we've got in the U.S. is that blast of hot air known as the oral-robertsi, "wind that fleeces pigeons." The name may change, but we can be sure the phenomenon will endure forever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment