Reactions to the passage of the tax were swift and ranged from simple refusal to pay to outright violence against the tax collectors tasked with inspecting stills and collecting payments. Tax collectors who were brave enough to establish offices in the western counties faced threats and even public humiliations such as being tarred and feathered. Even farmers who paid the tax were not safe, as their stills were often damaged or destroyed by neighbors who were incensed at their compliance.
In Western Pennsylvania, opposition to the excise tax was particularly violent. Threats against tax collectors became a terrifying reality when an armed and angry mob marched on the home of John Neville, the local tax collector. Neville had been assisting Federal Marshal David Lenox in serving writs to still owners in the region who had not paid the excise tax. These writs demanded that the individuals who were served appear before a Federal court in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During an attempt to serve one of these writs at the home of William Miller, on July 15, 1794, shots were fired at the two men forcing Neville to return to his home, Bower Hill, while Marshal Lenox fled to Pittsburgh. The next day, a group of several-dozen armed militiamen surrounded Neville’s home and demanded that Lenox be surrendered to them. Shots fired from inside the home forced the rebels to retreat leaving at least one militiaman mortally wounded.
The next day, Major James McFarlane led hundreds of militiamen back to Bower Hill, intent on forcing Neville to resign from his position. With his home reinforced by United States Army soldiers from the garrison at Fort Fayette, in Pittsburgh, and under the command of his brother-in-law, Major Kirkpatrick, Neville was able to escape before firing between the two sides broke out. Major McFarlane was killed in the exchange of gunfire, and Neville’s home and outbuildings were subsequently burned by the rebels.
McFarlane’s death further enflamed the countryside, and, several weeks later, resulted in close to 5,000 rebels gathering several miles outside of Pittsburgh for the purpose of capturing the city. Although the march on Pittsburgh was ultimately defused, this sequence of violent events spurred the government in Philadelphia to action.