Treatment of an Excise Officer

Burning of the home of Benjamin Wells, excise collector during the Whiskey Insurrection

by J. Howard Iams

The following is taken from The Whiskey Rebellion by Thomas P. Slaughter, 1986, by Oxford University Press:

People sometimes act out their ideologies and perceived self-interests with their feet or their fists, or both. Such was the case in April 1786 when word got around western Pennsylvania that a state excise Officer named William Graham had dared to appear in Washington County. Locals had heard that the excise man was asserting his authority to collect taxes on distilled beverages in the three southwestern counties Of the state, and they meant to teach him a lesson. During the night a man disguised as Beelzebub confronted Graham in his lodgings and announced that the tax man was to be handed over "for torment to a legion of devils . . . waiting outside." Somehow Graham escaped his nocturnal visitors, but the next day he was again confronted by a black-faced crowd that wanted to see him damned, at least figuratively, and perhaps literally. The mob approached the tax man in what he rightly interpreted as a menacing manner. Graham drew his pistols in self-defense, but wisely refrained from firing. Although he might have injured or killed several of the frontiersman, the collector would certainly have seated his own fate as well.

Members of the mob seized Graham's pistols and broke them into pieces before his astonished eyes. Others grabbed his official papers and shared in the joy of tearing the documents to shreds. Then they ordered the excise man to stomp the scraps of paper and the dismantled weapons into the muddy road. To the crowd's amusement, he complied. Next they told Graham to curse himself. He did. They demanded that Graham curse his commission of office and the politicians who gave it to him. Again the tax collector obeyed the frontier mob.

The crowd still was not content that the tax man, the excise, and state authority had met with sufficient humiliation. So, they cut the hair off one side of Graham's head. They braided the other half in an unsightly and mocking manner, cut a hole in the cock of his hat, and fixed it sideways on his head with the pig-tail protruding from the hole. Then the mob exposed Graham to what were perhaps lewd "marks of ignominy." He submitted to all of this passively, probably hoping to survive with the least possible violence to his person, property, and pride.

Unfortunately for the tax collector, communal sport with him as victim was not yet over. Indeed, the mob also dressed his horse "in such a manner as to disfigure" it, and then paraded Graham back and forth across the three frontier counties in which he was supposed to collect the excise. Celebrants gaily but purposefully forced Graham to trudge through the mud to stills he had intended to visit in his official capacity, halting at each for a raucous ceremony and a "treat" of alcohol. At each stop they insulted Graham further and forced him to participate in the festivities. Now whiskey distillers in the region were accomplices to the crowd action. There could be few witnesses other than Graham against his tormentors, and the communal commitment to "liberty and no excise," reaffirmed at every stop, was reinforced by the drunken good time shared by all. Not surprisingly, then, names of participants never emerged from the wilderness. Perpetrators of what an unsympathetic chronicler of the event termed the "most audacious and accomplished piece of outrageous and unprovoked insult that was ever offered to a government" were never prosecuted.

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