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Uncovering Disturbing Histories in America

The Incident

In April of 1919, at 2:00 in the morning, a mob of sixty white students studying at the University of Maine surrounded the dorm room of brothers Samuel and Roger Courtney, two out of the approximately twelve black students at the university. The mob intended to attack the brothers for what a newspaper article described as their “domineering manner and ill temper”. The Courtney brothers managed to escape the hostile mob, only to be soon after attacked by hundreds of other white students, devoted to finishing what the previous group had not.

The Courtney Brothers. Photograph courtesy of Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections.
The Courtney Brothers. Photograph courtesy of Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections.

The white mod led the brother four miles to campus with horse halters around their neck, where they were gathered in front of a growing crowd at the live-stock pavilion. The brothers were held down as their heads were shaven and their bodies stripped naked in the near-freezing weather. They were forced to spread each other with boiling hot molasses before being covered in feathers from the dorm room pillows. The local police were alerted hours earlier but only arrived at the scene after the incident had come to a conclusion.

The Racist History of Tar and Feathering

Incidents of tarring and feathering as a form of public torture and humiliation can be found throughout global history. However, while the intention of the attack was to humiliate the victims, they often resulted in physical pain and damage when removing the feathers that had been tarred to the body. While incidents of tarring and feathering extended to early colonial periods, seen notably adopted by Great Britain as a form of punishment, the Ku Klux Klan soon began to implement this form of torture in retaliation against Black Americans, immigrants, and labor organizers. Other racist organizations started to take after the KKK, as seen when the Know Nothing mob tarred and feathered Jesuit priest Father John Bapst in 1851.

When the Key West KKK was formed in 1921, they tarred and feathered Manuel Cabeza for loving someone with a different skin color than his. Two people died from the revenge-driven violence that followed. The Key West Ku Klux Klan continued to engage in racist tar-and-feathering practices for at least another thirteen years.

The Importance of Uncovering Uncomfortable Pasts

This humiliating attack on the Courtney Brothers not only went without condemnation in 1919 but is still being obscured from the public eye through the University of Maine’s efforts to cover up the events. A statement from the university’s then-president, Robert J. Aley, claimed that the event was nothing more than childish hazing, “likely to happen any time, at any college, the gravity depending much upon the susceptibilities of the victim and the notoriety given it.” Instead of recognizing the racial injustice inherent in this senseless act, his statement justifies the tar and feathering as he highlights that one of the brothers violated unspecified school ordinances. Since this statement, the incident has never been recorded in the University of Maine’s official history.

It was only recently in 2020 during the wake of the George Floyd protests that the tar and feathering of the Courtney Brothers were discovered by a historian at the same university where the event occurred. While these incidents are appalling, prompting arguments of why these gruesome acts must be resurfaced, understanding history and problems in the past, including racial barriers, ultimately positions society in contemporary times to notice patterns and common trends that may initially go unseen. This inevitably allows society to correct and resolve such issues that continue to persist throughout the nation and the globe, as historical analysis provides us with a better and more complete understanding of society.


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