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.
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.