Run Out of Town on a Rail

John Malcom was a customs official in Boston who  was tarred
and feathered in 1774. In reality, he was threatened with
hanging and stripped to the waist first. Still, this engraving was
done in France and the artist may not have had first hand
knowledge of the incident.

Source: Wikimedia commons
This work is in the public domain because its copright
has expired.
One of the many, many, many things that differentiated the American Revolution from the French Revolution was the approach to influencing fellow citizens toward your way of thinking. While the French seemed to prefer the lethal, and probably very convincing, threat of Madame Guillotine, the Americans preferred the non-lethal approach of humiliation.

Most people are familiar at least with the concept of tarring and feathering. The man (or woman) is sometimes stripped naked, covered in tar and then feathers. While this had to be a painful in addition to humiliating experience, it was seldom lethal. (I have yet to find an example of any deaths from the experience, so if you know of one, let me know.) Still, as painful as hot tar being poured over you must have been, I’m sure getting it off was no walk in the park either.

One of the other humiliating “punishments” inflicted on Tories was the “riding around on a rail.” I’m sure many of you have heard the term “run out of town on a rail.” I always assumed it was a saying that stemmed from sometime in the 19th or 20th century where someone was tied to a railway car (or found refuge in one) and run out of town. Not until I started researching the 18th century for my novels, did I realize that it stemmed from the American Revolution – decades before trains became a common way to move goods or people.

Running someone out of town on a rail involves tying them to a rail or fence post and then riding them about town with the rail supported on the shoulders of two men, the goal being to humiliate the individual so that they either join your side or leave town.

Sometimes they are tarred and feathered first and other times they are stripped naked. They might be forced to sit astride the rail, which would be particularly painful on some sensitive areas, or they might have their hands and feet bound to the rail and then be carried hanging underneath the rail. (On the latter method, think of the way the cannibals carried people back to their camps in all the B movies and you’ll get the picture.)

While I'm certain tarring and feathering was nothing new in the late 18th century, I haven't found any earlier references (yet) to riding out of town on a rail. Still, humans have a way of being beastly to each other. I doubt it would have taken them until the American Revolution to dream something like that up.


P.S. For those of you who think I must have been a Tory in my previous life, I'm not taking sides here. Wait until I start in on the British!


  1. When mob rule by violence claims to be democracy in action, that's when I join the Tories.

  2. I'm hear you! I might have joined the Tories, too - in Nova Scotia.

  3. Oh the joys of lynching, eh Mary?

  4. Unknown...It's interesting that you say that. I looked it up to be sure and lynching isn't a broad category. It's specifically the extreme form of what Steve calls "mob rule by violence" and refers to hanging. I've searched for this, and I cannot find any examples of where the Rebels killed a civilian or government official in that way. Or, in any other way for that matter. I found one example where a guy who got the rail treatment died from an infection he got from a splinter, but that was weeks later. That's as close as I could find. However, if anybody can cite (and source please!) specific situations, I'd love to hear about them.

  5. Thank you for this well researched paper/blog on this phrase. I was surprised to find the lack of references available for this particular phrase, especially when one considers the myriad sources (both good and bad) on the Internet. So, again thank you; it has been a long time in coming but I couldn't be more pleased for so thorough a definition as this.

  6. Read the book, Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts, published in the 1940's. Early in the book, you'll read about tar and feathers, and "riding on a rail". Basically the book is about the American Revolution from the point of the Loyalists (Tories). It's lengthy, but well worth reading.

    1. Sounds fascinating, Helen. I always wonder whether I would have been a Tory or a Rebel. I know it's not fashionable, but I admit I am fascinated with their point of view. One of the beta readers for my current manuscript commented that my Rebels aren't always very likable. The hero is, but perhaps not his companions. :-)