In this depiction, the illustrator has taken the historical and geographical liberty of showing the%Captain Malcom Tarred and Feathered

by Will Fahey

Although not nearly as well remembered as more organized events such as the Boston Tea Party, one of the most significant acts of Boston disobedience to be performed in the years leading up to the American Revolution was the tarring and feathering of a Loyalist customs officer named Captain John Malcom.[1] This was at least the second time John Malcom had been tarred and feathered, the first being late in 1773 by a group of disgruntled sailors in Falmouth, when the captain was at least 48 years old.[2] The worst possible combination of factors—his participation in putting down rebellion in the North Carolina War of Regulation, his fierce loyalty to the Crown, and his unnecessarily stringent following of local trade regulations had made Malcom generally hated in Boston, although he was close friends with Governer Thomas Hutchinson. [3]

On January 25, 1774, less than six weeks after the Boston Tea Party, a shoemaker

named George Hewes “was coming along Fore-Street near Captain Rigway’s, and found

the redoubted JOHN MALCOM, standing over a small boy who was pulling a little sled

before him, cursing, damning, threatening and shaking a very large cane with a very

heavy ferril on it over his head.” [4] The cause of Captain Malcom’s dispute with the child is unclear; he may have said something disrespectful or sledded into Malcom.[5]

Concerned about the boy’s safety, Mr. Hewes intervened on his behalf, attempting to calm Malcom down. Hewes spoke very mildly to him at first, asking what had happened and, when Malcom asked why he was siding with the child, merely stating “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.”[6]  Malcom, however, grew no less angry, and insulted Mr. Hewes, telling him he, as a poor shoemaker, he had no right to confront a member of higher social classes like a customs-officer.  Mr. Hewes defended himself, admitting that he was not wealthy, but saying that as a citizen he was as well respected as Captain Malcom.  Malcom furiously responded that “he was not, nor ever would be.” [7] Although he didn’t mention it, he likely knew Hewes was also a patriot, which further decreased his respect for the man. Hewes certainly knew who Malcom was, as he could not resist retorting “be that as it will, I never was tarred and feathered anyhow.” [8] This remark caused Malcom to finally snap and he struck Hewes with his walking stick, in doing so tearing a two inch hole in his hat, knocking him unconscious and leaving a scar that remained visible until the day he died, 66 years later. [9]

A Captain of the Police appeared and the bystanders told him who had hit Hewes. Malcom had not yet left by the time Hewes woke up, but sensing the ill will everybody present felt towards him, he quickly “contrived to get a weapon into his hand and keep them at bay, till he could flee to his house,” which was quite nearby on the next street, and lock himself in. [10]  This first incident occurred at about two o’clock.[11] Afterward, Mr Hewes immediately paid a visit to his second cousin once removed, Doctor Joseph Warren, to see his injury treated.[12]  Dr. Warren saw that Hewes had underestimated the severity of the  attack; the blow Malcom had delivered to Hewes might easily have killed a weaker man. [13] He suggested Hewes apply for a warrant against Malcom, which he did, but when Justine Hale, the Constable charged with delivering the warrant, arrived at

Malcom’s home on Cross Steet, he found a crowd of people blocking the entrance, and Malcom shouting at them from his second story window to scare them away. [14]

Seeing the Constable, Malcom told him he would give himself up to arrest in the morning or afternoon of the next day, when he wouldn’t have to fight his way through an angry mob. The Constable agreed, and left him to fend for himself. [15] Malcom took “sword, pistols, and broad-axe” and returned to threatening the people, telling them not only would he shoot them if they continued their trespass, but that for each rebel he killed he would be paid 20 pounds by the Crown of England. “You say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner,” he shouted at them, “damn you let me see the man that dare do it better! I want to see it done in the new fashioned manner.” When his wife tried to reason with the mob from the ground floor, he appeared behind her and procceded to get into a fight with someone through the window, who he stabbed with his sword, “the bone stopping its course, which would otherwise have reached his vitals”, before finally retreating. With no one taunting them, the crowd lost interest and at last slowly dispersed. [16]

Malcom’s plan to wait it out until tensions subsided was starting to seem like a good one, but as word spread of what had happened throughout the day, the people of Boston grew no less angry, and that evening, there were even more of them grouped around his house than there had been before. This time they had brought weapons and ladders, and began trying to force their way into the house.[17] As this was happening, a man the Malcoms knew came to the back-door offering assistance, and was admitted to the house where, after tricking Malcom into laying aside his weapons, he grabbed him from behind and called the others in.[18]

John Malcom-Origine de la revolution Americaine

Malcom was tied up, hoisted out of a window down to the snowy street, put on a chair in a cart and “amidst the huzzahs of a thousand brought…into King street.” At this point, many people felt they had gone far enough, and expressed the opinion that they should turn Captain Malcom over to the hands of the law. His captors replied that Malcom “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 cases of [Ebenezer] Richardson and the soldiers, and the other friends of government.”[19] Those who objected to this were shouted down, and the procession continued to the so-called Butchers Hall, the site of the Boston Massacre.[20]

Feathers were taken from pillows, and barrels of tar from Henchman’s Wharf to the north. As he had dared them to, the Bostonians were not only tarring and feathering him…they were doing it “in the new fashioned manner”. The last time Malcom had been tarred and feathered, the tar used was a relatively harmless substance, just enough to stick the feathers to his clothes, which remained on.[21] This time, it was hot tar, and his shirt was removed first, roughly enough to dislocate his arm, so that the tar could be applied directly to his skin. This method had never been used in Boston before, and it had rarely  been used anywhere else. [22]

From there they dragged him through the city for hours, stopping at various locations to exhibit him to the crowds and whip him. Eventually they reached the gallows  south of Boston and placed a noose around his neck, taunting and threatening him until he had finally had enough and gave in to their demands to criticize Governor Hutchinson and renounce his profession. He was released from his bonds, but was by then too tired and injured to escape.  Before dropping him off, he crowd took Malcom back north, past his home on Cross Street where all this had first begun, to the burying ground on Copp’s Hill. [23]  The cart containing Malcom was brought before a particular grave, with the following words carved onto the stone above it.

“Here lies buried in a stone grave 10 feet deep Captain Daniel Malcom, merchant,

who departed this life October 23rd 1769, Aged 44 Years.  A true son of Liberty, a Friend

to the Publick, an Enemy to oppression, and one of the foremost in opposing the Revenue

Acts on America.”  Grave of Daniel Malcom in Copp's Hill Burying GroundThis was John Malcom’s younger brother. His epitaph was not an

exaggeration; Captain Daniel Malcom had been a vocal supporter of the Patriot cause and

had proudly disobeyed the very rules Captain John Malcom was bound to enforce as a

customs officer. [24] The bullet holes still visible on his tombstone imply he was as despised by the soldiers of Boston as his brother was hated by its citizens, but as far as the mob was concerned that night, the younger brother had in every way been a superior man.

Grave Marker for Daniel Malcom

The report of the incident in the Boston Gazette six days later was not particularly

sympathetic to the customs officer, though it stopped short of condoning the violence. It

ended on a passionate note, proclaiming neither Malcom nor the mob, but the tyrannical

and absurd lawmakers then in power, to be the ultimate perpetrators of this unrest in

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

Let those who pretend to dread anarchy and confusion at length be persuaded to join in

the only measure to be depended upon for their prevention, viz. to put the administration

into the hands of men reverenced and beloved by the people.”  [25] The Gazette also reprinted part of an article from the Massachusetts-Spy, a more radical newspaper, making much the same argument, that the only reason the crowd could not be dissuaded from punishing Malcom themselves was their somewhat understandable belief that he, like previous Loyalists who had committed acts of violence, would receive a pardon or merely a lighter sentence than whatever it was he truly deserved.  [26]

Despite everything he had been through, the event did not entirely have the effect on Captain Malcom the people of Boston would have wished it to. It is true he found himself forced to return to England in the end when relations with the colonies

deteriorated a year later, and he might have died only two years after that,[27]  but Malcom was brave enough to remain living in Boston even after he fully recovered in March and the traumatic incident made him, if anything, more convinced that the Loyalists were in the right.[28]  That is not to say he made no modifications to his behavior.  Mr Hewes remembered meeting him in the street once again and greeting each other politely this time.[29]  The captain may have still felt the same way he had always felt about patriots–but he had the intelligence to not show it.

Copp's Hill, North End, Boston


Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill : A City, a Siege, a Revolution.  New York: Penguin Group, 2013

Young, Alfred F. The shoemaker and the tea party : memory and the American Revolution.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1999

——, Walett, Francis G. The Boston Gazette 1774. Barre, Mass: Imprint Society,1972

[1] Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and th Tea Party (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999) 46

[2] Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill  (New York: Penguin Group, 2013) 16

[3] Young, Shoemaker, 47

[4] ——-, Boston Gazette, No.  982, (January 31, 1774), Second Page

[5] Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 14, 16

[6] Boston Gazette, No. 982

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] James Hawkes, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party (New York: S.S. Bliss, 1834) 35

[10] Bejamin Bussey Thatcher, Traits of the Tea Party (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835) 128, 129

[11] Boston Gazette, No. 982

[12] Thatcher, Traits, 129

[13] Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 17

[14] Hawkes, Retrospect, 34

[15] Thatcher, Traits, 129

[16] Boston Gazette, No. 982

[17] Boston Gazette, No. 982

[18] Thatcher, Traits, 129, 130

[19] Boston Gazette, No. 982

[20] Thatcher, Traits, 130

[21] Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 16

[22] ibid. 19

[23] Thatcher, Traits, 131

[24] Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 21

[25] Boston Gazette, No. 982

[26] ibid.

[27] Hawkes, Retrospect, 35

[28] Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 25

[29] Young, Shoemaker, 51