The Tar and Feather Incident

James McDonald sat in the wagon with his hands and feet bound and his eyes blindfolded. He could hear the jeers of the 40 or 50 hooded men yelling, “Kill him!” and “Lynch him!” Moments earlier, he had been forced from the house in which he was boarding and stripped of his clothing while someone slathered him with tar and then dumped feathers on him. To an observer, it seemed to be an old-fashioned form of public humiliation that one had heard took place in Salem and Boston in the 1760s and 1770s but rarely in the early 20th century.

They were now in the darkness on the side of the road at the Marion-Mattapoisett border when McDonald felt a rope drop around his neck. Someone pulled him up and kicked him off the cart. He felt the rope suddenly grow tight around his neck. He gasped for air as he tried in vain to feel the ground with his feet. It was that moment Charles Potter, a man who took the most pleasure in witnessing the mob’s work, would later describe as “the best joke of the evening.”

McDonald came to Marion around 1901. At that time, Marion was known as “ultra exclusive” and a place that had “prided itself on its quiet refinement and culture.” It was a summer resort to famous notables such as writer Richard Harding Davis, actress Ethel Barrymore, and politicians such as President Grover Cleveland and Massachusetts Attorney General Hosea Knowlton.

James McDonald was considered attractive with an imperial beard and moustache, which gave him “a certain air of good breeding.” He was about 54 years old and from Scituate where he was the proprietor of the Scituate House, a summer resort he ran for eight years. He was married and had fathered five children, two of which were stillborn.

In September 1900, he left Scituate to become a watchman at the Castle Square Hotel in Boston. It isn’t known why he gave up his proprietorship and left town to work, leaving his family behind. He may have had issues with local authorities that led to his leaving. In 1887, McDonald was charged and found guilty in district court of “keeping a liquor nuisance.” He appealed the verdict, but it is not known what the outcome of his appeal was. In June 1900, he was listed in the census as a “hotel keeper,” still in Situate.

After a short stay in Boston, he came to Marion. It seemed a likely place to go, as at a summer resort he was sure to find work. He found employment at Joe Collins’ place in East Marion on Wareham Road selling lunch and beer. Before long, McDonald became familiar with the locals that dined at the Collins place. In July 1901, he came to know Charles Potter who was a regular at the Collins place. Potter often came in with his wife, Clara, who happened to draw McDonald’s attention.

Clara Gilbert Chloe Fiske Mendel and Charles H. Potter married on December 19, 1886. By 1901, they had three children: Emma, Edith and Elmer ages 10, 8, and 4, respectively. Charles had been described as a “small” man who worked as a foreman of a section gang on the railroad. Clara, with her chestnut hair and dark eyes, was known locally for her beauty and who, according to one resident, “everybody in Marion has knowed … since she was a little girl.”

The Potters lived on Mill Street at the corner of present day Ryder Lane. The house was given to Clara and her sister by their grandmother. Clara would later convince her husband to buy out her sister’s share of the house and sign it over to her, making her the legal owner. She was often left home with the children when Charles was working at the Tremont Station in Wareham for periods of time. While Charles was away, Clara made visits to comfort her friend, Jennie McAllister, who lived next to the Collins place and had lost her 17-year-old daughter to suicide in February of 1902.

During these visits, Clara became friendly with James McDonald. Their familiarity grew and went beyond casual chats at the Collins place. Soon they were going to the theater together and McDonald took her for afternoon drives. In February 1902, McDonald left the Collins place after having “trouble” with Joe Collins. McDonald seems to have accepted an offer from Clara to rent out a room in her house.

Charles Potter did not seem to be aware of his wife’s relationship with McDonald, and he agreed with the idea of taking in a boarder, at first. McDonald, not having employment, offered to pay for his board as soon as he got a job. Once he got a job, McDonald said he promised to pay for his board and move out.

There weren’t many opportunities for employment over the winter, but as spring came, McDonald began to explore job options. He liked the idea of being a skipper of a yacht. But when he was offered a job as a yacht skipper, he turned it down, citing his lack of knowledge of the local coastline. He also thought he could rent a shack near Joe Collins’ place and run a “road barroom,” but decided against it. He had other job opportunities, but passed them up as well.

McDonald claimed he was only a boarder from February to July of 1902. After that, he and Clara entered into a partnership in running a boarding house in which they mostly had transients and no long-term boarders. Charles claimed his wife and McDonald were planning on opening an eatery, but questioned the type of customers they would attract noting “the people of Marion are not going to a lunchroom on the outskirts of the village.”

Charles and Clara’s relationship was strained. They got in arguments over McDonald living at the house and his lack of finding work. Charles ate dinner with the kids while Clara and McDonald ate alone together.

Rumors began to circulate that McDonald was selling liquor at the Potter house. Marion, at the time, was a “no license town.” Other rumors that circulated around town were that McDonald was often seen in the company of girls “not yet out of their teens” and being “unduly familiar” with the young ladies. Tensions were running high in town with some complaining to town officials, but selectmen claimed there was not much they could do. Clara was the legal owner of the house and there was no proof of the illegal selling of liquor out of the house.

In early August, Charles came home from work to find beer and booze in the house. He had enough. He told McDonald to get out. McDonald refused.

“Who’s running this place?” Charles demanded.

McDonald said he was. Charles’s wife sided with McDonald.

“I would have grappled with him then but he is a good deal larger than I….” Charles recalled. He let the matter drop for the moment.

Not long after his argument with McDonald, Charles came home from New Bedford late one evening and found a horse hitched at his house. He walked in the door to find several men in his home “carousing.” Charles announced that who ever owned the horse to get it out of the yard since it was awaking the neighbors. He then began arguing with McDonald and told him once again to leave. Charles decided size no longer mattered and began to “grapple” with McDonald. The fight didn’t last long. Clara opened the front door and McDonald threw him out.

For the next couple of nights, Charles and two of his children stayed across the street at the home of David and Mary Faunce while he pondered his next move. He decided that he would place the children in the care of Jennie McAllister while he stayed with George Gifford. He wasn’t sure what to do next. Charles felt he was overpowered and outnumbered in his own home.

He didn’t know that the next move was being planned on his behalf. On the night of August 7, Charles just sat down for dinner when there was a knock on the door. A man that Charles may or may not have known was there to inform him that a group of men were meeting at the town hall at 8:00 pm to run McDonald out of town. As Charles later explained it, “I went to see the fun.”

The story will be continued next week in the July 2 edition of The Wanderer. Kyle DeCicco-Carey is a librarian at Harvard University and an avid historian. He recently worked with the Rochester Historical Commission to help organize and preserve hundreds of documents that date back all the way to 1679. This article was compiled through dozens of historical records found during that period.

Charles and Clara Potter Headstone

3 Responses to “The Tar and Feather Incident”

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  1. Lisa Joy Walbridge says:

    / Lisa Joy: Oh, my gosh, Kyle, you really dynamited this article!!!. I’d still love it if you documented your sources, but right now, Who Cares? Splendidly written, Practically a tabloid piece of the turn of the century, except I’m pretty certian that your sources are impeccable. And, now that I know that if you published in a major magazine, they would OWN your work { EEEKS } it seems simply gracious for you to publish in the local forum you chose. Again, super work. Applause, applause!!

  2. Jo says:

    interesting Tar and Feathering

  3. Lisa Joy Walbridge says:

    Best article you’ve had in YEARS. Well researched, relatively unknown { it does not appear in the Marion town records} , and so interesting! Absolutely fascinating, and way beyond what you usually publish. Congradulations on finding a new star.

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