We have all heard of tar and feathering as a punishment in colonial times, but the question is if it was simply a method of humiliation, or a truly horrific method of torture. The question hinges on what is meant by “tar.” Is it the asphalt tar used today which has to be heated quite hot to become liquid, and also retains much more heat than water? That tar would certainly burn and blister the skin enough to cause death.
(I have experienced a spot of hot asphalt tar in my lifetime. It burns like crazy, it sticks so tightly to your skin you can’t shake it off, and it delivers so much heat, it continues to burn even when the body part is rinsed in cold water. Evil stuff!)
But today’s asphalt tar was largely unknown in colonial days. It probably was “pine tar,” a sticky liquid at room temperature and widely used to preserve wood. That would have been available in almost any farmer’s barn, and it was well-known to be very sticky. It is still used in baseball for its stickiness. Also, drawings I have seen of someone tarred and feathered shows the victim riding a pole (as above) or running off, which he could not do if hot asphalt tar was used. “Pitch” could also refer to a pine-tree product, and not asphalt pitch.
Pine tar is a destructive wood distillate. Turpentine is a naturally-occuring ingredient. Some claim the more turpentine, the better the product.
Even the nickname North Carolina as a “the tar heel state” probably refers to pine tar that they have long produced from their many pine trees. The origin of the nickname is unknown, but one theory is that it began during the Civil War when North Carolina confederate soldiers were said to “stick together like they had tar on their heels.”
Maybe the story is true, but probably not.