Wednesday, May 11

Tar, Feathers and Myths

Tar, feathers and third degree burns

One of the two Black characters on HBO’s Western series, Deadwood was rescued by the sheriff while being tarred (but not feathered) in a recent episode. Why did he need rescuing to begin with? ... Well, just because he was within sight of an angry mob at the wrong moment.

No part of any romantic or picturesque American West you have ever imagined was present in that ugly scene. This included the sad betrayal between the pair onto the sheer evil of the mob angry over their own powerlessness before other, richer White men.

We had always imagined that 'tarring and feathering' was just an almost comical humiliation handed out to the likes of British tax collectors in the run-up to the American Revolution. On Deadwood, the tar was boiling hot and ladled onto bare skin.

It is logical to conclude then that a whole body tarring and feathering would have been a death sentence. However, this account ‘Tar and Feathers in Revolutionary America‘ paints a less gruesome and more familiar picture of its practice and origins.

It happens that the merchant John Gilchrist thought that one William Smith was a British informer. Smith reported that his assailants "dawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers on me."
Tar and feathers was a very old form of punishment, but it does not appear to have ever been widely applied in England or in Europe. Why Gilchrist and his allies chose to resurrect tar and feathers on this particular occasion historians can only surmise. Whatever their reasons, these Virginians inaugurated a new trend in colonial resistance, a trend that their New England neighbors would eagerly follow.
Indeed, American patriots used tar and feathers to wage a war of intimidation against British tax collectors.

During this period of economic resistance, the practice of tarring and feathering began to take shape as a kind of folk ritual. The participants in this ritual usually consisted of sailors, apprentices, and young boys---those members of society who could be readily mobilized by protesting merchants.

In these early days the victim was sometimes fortunate enough to be "genteely" tarred and feathered, that is, over the outer garments. Within Whig ideology, these personal assaults were warranted only because the colonists had been denied all legal avenues of redress, and they were justified only to the extent necessary to deter enforcement of customs duties.
Aside from the term’s adoption by the computer world and its use as a vivid image of disrespect in the political sphere we can’t determine with certainty if tarring was used to torture and kill. Actually, even during the Revolution we doubt it was as benign as described above.

According to this site about early uses of tar it was "also know as bitumen and asphalt [and pitch as well] was an oily, dark-coloured product obtained by the [natural] destructive distillation of peat, wood, coal, bones and other materials of natural origin.” A new theory holds chemical and geological processes independent of life on earth responsible for our fossil fuels. The above is a more familiar explanation for their existence.

Tars have been in use from “as early as 3800 B.C. [when] they were used in construction because of their adhesive and waterproofing properties. In addition,
Coal-tar pitches and one grade of asphalt for built-up roofing have a softening point of about 140°F; it is thus possible, by heating these materials even to 350°F or lower, to obtain a liquid that will wet a dry solid surface and enable the bitumen to be applied so that it can act as a waterproofing agent.
The human pain threshold is around 106-108° F and
[i]t is easy to receive third degree burns from exposure to hot tap water, which comes from not only hot drinks and pots cooking on the stove, but from bath water. An approximate one-second exposure to 160° F water will result in third degree burns. Where the water is 130° F, an approximate half-minute exposure will result in third degree burns.
So there you have it - an application of tar soft or liquid enough to be of use in a tarring and feathering would have enough thermal energy to cause severe burns to exposed skin. Given the high mortality rate of large scale burns in general and given the health standards of the past that did not even recognize the existence of bacteria, it seems that a tar and feathering was a particularly nasty way of killing someone after all.

Although we remain delighted that the redcoats lost the one particular contest that inspired Gilchrist against Smith, maybe it is time that history should take as second look at what was really going on ... at least as far as tarring and feathering goes.

the f*** word and the 'real' west

Another point of historical curiosity on the show is language. So much so that there is actually a site that counts the uses of the f*** word and provides an “f*** word per minute" calculation for each episode that ranges from a low of 0.68 to a high of 2.46.

As you can imagine for an almost hour long show that is a whole lot of cursing. This might seem like the adult cartoon South Park'ssetting out to use the word shitthe most times ever (162) in a single TV show. That was a parody of so many 'daring' yet tiresome TV events ... but it all somehow works on Deadwood. This article from Slate tries to explain why.
Executive Producer David Milch has created a harrowing example of the imaginary condition of pre-governmental lawlessness that political theorists have called a "state of nature." To be more precise, Deadwood shows a combination of Locke's commercial utopia and Hobbes' "war of all against all," where a person can top off a day of fruitful labor by being murdered in his sleep.

Milch renders that condition palpable by saturating Deadwood with unpleasant tactile detail—blood, pus, piss, and, above all, mud. Milch appears to be torn about what's a more important missing feature of the state of nature—settled laws and recognized authority or effective drainage.

Watching the first episode, you felt like you had actually been cast into a lawless corner of the old West, with strange characters coming at you from all sides, cursing and killing each other.
What the Slate writer is trying to say is that all of the cursing is about creating a certain ... atmosphere. The script is loaded with ornate 'serpentine' sentences that one expects to rise into an unlikely iambic pentameter alternating with drops into the vilest of curses. The set and costumes reveal expensive production values and unusual care for detail. What works is that a 'rawness' comes across that fits our vision of the
real place—a 19th-century gold mining camp on Sioux treaty land in the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota—not a thought experiment, and this is where Milch has courted some trouble and confusion.

In interviews, he has insisted that the show, particularly the flamboyantly vulgar dialogue, is based on rigorous historical research. Milch might be right that the quantity of swearing is historically accurate , but his show's language is dotted with obvious neologisms (one character uses the term "triangulate"; a drug addict refers to some opium as "good shit").

Some dimly literal-minded critics have used Milch's assertions against him, tallying up discrete anachronisms and mistaking these for aesthetic shortcomings. This is predictable but unfortunate, as it is precisely the dense mix of accuracy and artifice that makes Deadwood such a gorgeous creation.
Of course, all of this matters little beyond the effectiveness of the original atmosphere created on Deadwood. It is effective ... but we can't forget that the American West as we envision it is a creation of writers, directors and producers who mythologized it even as it was lived.

It all started with dime novels that popularized gunmen like Deadwood’s real life living legend Wild Bill Hickock. Other works about the American West captured the imagination of 19th Century Europe and are still going strong.

It is on the big screen that the West has always lived most vividly (this said with apologies to the author of Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry). The current incarnation of Deadwood can not even be in the same universe of John Wayne's in Stagecoach and there is no cavalry riding in to rescue anyone. Nor is it the old West of the Cold War morality tale that was High Noon.

The stereotypically 'savage' Indians of old Hollywood and the predictably noble ones thereafter are also not on display. As entertaining as the revisionist Little Big Man was, both visions of Native Americans denied them their humanity in many ways. It is also decidedly not the Disneyesque production that had the real life, it would seem barely civilized, Calamity Jane of Deadwood portrayed by Doris Day.

The atmospheric predecessors that heralded Deadwood include the highly stylized and intensely self aware re-imaginings of the West in the occasionally magnificent Sergio Leone / Clint Eastwood ‘spaghetti westerns’ such as Once Upon a time in the West. Peckinpah tried to bring them down to earth with graphic violence in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

However, beyond Hollywood's fascination with suddenly being allowed put anything it wanted in movies in the 1960s, one the first glimpses of the West as it may really have been had to wait almost three decades for the understated banality of Eastwood’s Unforgiven. A friend once remarked that the frontier did not die until that movie came out. The movie was quite fine technically and artistically ... but who really wants to spend even a vicarious moment in such a morass of futility?

Since the West was a myth to begin with it is not clear what 'realism' offers beyond the unpleasant, the mundane and the ignoble. Certainly America has trashed enough of her idols and continued to prosper that we should not hold the old West too sacred.

The evolution, or de-evolution as the case may be, of the Western myth had so far created such low expectations that this new series was able to re-invent the whole genre. Here the sheriff is both deeply flawed and admirable while the 'hooker with a heart of gold' theme has taken a totally unfamiliar form in the real life Seth Bullock and Trixie. Unlike the tidy streets of 'High Noon' and the endless vistas of 'Once Upon a Time in the West', Deadwood is a filthy claustrophobic place of palpable danger.

To recognize value in terms of art and even entertainment is more than simply recognizing that Deadwood makes Bonanza look downright silly. Something worthy should be created and something noble communicated in turn ... this series serves the latter purpose unevenly and does tend to make us accept human horrors by virtue of their sheer volume.

Anyway, this is the best TV has to offer and for all we know or can imagine, it might as well be real.

<< Home