Benjamin Helm Bristow (1832-1896) was an American lawyer, Kentucky unionist, and Federal official. As U.S. attorney in Kentucky, he fought the Ku Klux Klan, and as U.S. secretary of the Treasury, he crushed the Whiskey Ring.
On June 20, 1832, Benjamin H. Bristow was born in Elkton, Ky. His choice of career and politics was influenced by his father, a lawyer and Whig unionist who served in the U.S. Congress. Bristow graduated from Jefferson College in Pennsylvania in 1851, read law in his father's office, and was admitted to the bar in 1853. When Kentucky was torn apart by the outbreak of the Civil War, Bristow raised a regiment for the Union—the 25th Kentucky Infantry—and became its lieutenant colonel. He was wounded at Shiloh but returned to service as lieutenant colonel and then colonel of the 8th Kentucky Cavalry.
The need for Union men in the Kentucky Legislature brought him election to that body in 1863, where he urged emancipation of slaves and ratification of the 13th Amendment. In 1865 he moved to Louisville, where he was appointed assistant U.S. attorney and promoted to U.S. attorney for the Kentucky district. In this post he was confronted by clashes between former secessionists and unionists, racial conflict, and the growing power of the Ku Klux Klan. With the courage and determination that marked his career, he moved against the Klan and against corruption in the Internal Revenue Service. He secured 29 convictions for violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, including one capital sentence for murder—putting a crimp in the Klan's style.
After President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Bristow U.S. solicitor general in 1870, he argued several important constitutional cases before the Supreme Court. He resigned in 1872. After a brief tenure as counsel of the Texas and Pacific Railroad, he was again called to Washington as secretary of the Treasury on June 1, 1874. The Treasury Department was riddled with corruption, and he began a housecleaning that made him the talk of Washington and nearly earned him a presidential nomination. His greatest achievement was the dissolution of the Whiskey Ring, an intricate network of collusion and bribery between Federal revenue officers and distillers by which the government was cheated of millions of dollars in taxes. By means of ingenious detective work using secret codes, Bristow's agents infiltrated the ring and obtained voluminous evidence of fraud. In May 1875 distilleries in St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee were seized and their owners arrested. The government indicted 176 men, convicted 110, and collected more than $3,000,000 in back taxes.
Because Bristow's activities endangered members of Grant's inner circle, these men forced his resignation in June 1876. Meanwhile Bristow had emerged as the 1876 presidential candidate of Reform Republicans, but he fell short of the nomination. In 1878 he formed a distinguished law firm in New York. Bristow was elected the second president of the American Bar Association a year later. He died suddenly of appendicitis at his home in New York on June 22, 1896.
A full-length biography of Bristow is Ross A. Webb, Benjamin Helm Bristow: Border State Politician (1969). An excellent account of his activities in wartime and postwar Kentucky is in E. Merton Coulter, The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (1926). Two large histories of the Grant administration discuss Bristow's prosecution of the Whiskey Ring: William B. Hesseltine, Ulysses S. Grant: Politician (1935), and Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (1936).