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shameless pleading

Ride out of town on a rail

Go now

Dear Word Detective: I just watched “O Brother Where Art Thou” on TV and it struck me that the scene where Homer Stokes is “ridden out of town on a rail” seemed, well, just a little too literal. I have looked for other explanations on the internet, but I’m not sure if I can trust those sources and I would like to hear it from you. — Rick.

I saw that movie. I remember seeing that movie. But I don’t remember much of anything about that movie, except that it was supposed to follow the general outline of Homer’s Odyssey and it contained George Clooney and some interesting music. I’ve had this problem with movies since I was a kid; they just don’t sink in the way books do. The bright side is that I can watch movies I like over and over again and be entertained, which drives the people around me crazy. But there really are subtleties in “Tremors” you don’t catch the first ten times.

rail09

An obvious candidate.

All of that is by way of explanation of the fact that I didn’t remember who Homer Stokes was or exactly what fate befell him in the movie. After consulting Wikipedia, however, I understand that he was a demagogic politician who, having been exposed as a hypocrite (quelle surprise!), was unceremoniously driven from town “on a rail.”

To “ride someone out of town on a rail” is a classic American locution dating back to the early 19th century. In its usual figurative use, “to ride someone out of town on a rail” means to severely punish them by means of ridicule or public condemnation and, optimally, to banish the person utterly from further serious consideration in whatever field they committed their offense.

For a phrase more than 200 years old, and one that seems quite mysterious when you really stop to think about it, “ride someone out of town on a rail” remains remarkably popular in common usage. The current economic crisis in particular, with its target-rich environment for vengeful urges, has apparently put a lot of folks in the mood to “ride someone out of town on a rail” (“In the old days the management of both [the banks and General Motors] would have been run out of town on a rail after being tarred and feathered for lying and cheating investors, workers and retirees,” letter, Detroit Free Press, 4/12/09).

“Running men out of town on a rail is at least as much an American tradition as declaring unalienable rights,” according to historian Gary Wills in “Inventing America” (1978), and the punishment does seem to have been a fairly common, and uniquely American, phenomenon until the early 20th century. While the “rail” in the phrase might conjure up images of the disgraced malefactor being dispatched out of town via the nearest railroad track, the actual “rail” involved in literally “riding someone out of town” was usually the sort of rail used to construct fences, i.e., a long, often rough-hewn, bar of wood. The victim was usually seated astride the rail as one would ride a horse (a position which was, not surprisingly, very painful). The rail and its rider were then borne by two men, usually part of a large mob, to the town limits, where the banishee was dumped in a ditch and warned not to return. The warning was often amplified by the application of hot tar and feathers to the rider, a punishment that was extremely painful, often permanently disfiguring, and occasionally fatal.

Since I don’t remember “O Brother Where Art Thou” in any detail, I can’t comment on the accuracy of the film’s depiction of this ritual. But if it involved a howling mob and a long piece of wood, they were in the ballpark.

10 comments to Ride out of town on a rail

  • […] in the American frontier days, a classic punishment was to banish someone from a town by literally “riding them out of town […]

  • […] before you get out your pitchforks, torches, tar and feathers and, erm, rail, hear me out. I almost finished “Final Fantasy XIII.” I ground through the game’s […]

  • George Clooney is sooooo gorgeous.If you ever read this. Marry Me.

  • Don’t forget the Duke and King in Huckleberry Finn:


    I see they had the king and the duke astraddle of a rail—that is, I knowed it was the king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human—just looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes.

  • Robert

    Did you ever get an answer on this? I was researching myself after watching again and even though it is loosely based in the odessey it does also have a lot if biblical references. AND stokes being out in a plank not a log may be referencing mathew 7:5
    You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. A verse regarding judging others. Fits nicely.

  • momule

    The esteemed Word Detective sure took a lot of words to merely say that he does not know. Poor performance indeed for someone who professes to be a quasi-expert. For shame !!!

  • George Clooney

    Edris Divincenco I will marry you!!

  • Mr. Mike Styer

    The term “run you out of town on a rail” was ALSO used in the Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) by Mr. Potter when he is talking to George Bailey (the scene where George asks Potter for an $8,000 loan) :)

  • Madeline

    You did a great job of giving the information needed. I myself landed here after having literally – and I am using that correctly – just finished watching Oh Brother just a moment before.
    I remembered clapping my hands the first time I watched the movie for the witty visual use of that old phrase regarding a rail. I thought it was great that like so many things in the movie, they didn’t feel the need to dumb things down by having some character explain it to the audience.

    I did wonder however if that was how it was done or did it involve a train as well.
    You answered that.
    And if someone reading this also caught the comment someone made about allusions to planks in the bible. I strongly believe that was not the case.
    That was a “railroad tie” or “rail” still use today in making the tracks for trains. Again the true reference to running out on a rail.

  • Trevor

    My grandfather explained to me in the 1970’s that typically, cheaters, scoundrels, and scofflaws, that were deemed a nuisance to society were generally apprehended by unknown persons (in the middle of the night if possible) tied up, and tossed into an open boxcar that might be either on a local siding or even passing through at the moment. Before being abandoned to the destination of the freight, the subject was told not to return if he knew what was good for him, and by the time he untied himself, woke up, or whatever, was in another location hopefully having received and understood the message that had befallen him, hence; Rode out of town on a rail.

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