Benjamin Helm Bristow (1832-1896), American lawyer and politician, was born in Elkton, Kentucky, on the 20th of June 1832, the son of Francis Marion Bristow (1804-1864), a Whig member of Congress in 1854-1855 and 1859-1861. He graduated at Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1851, studied law under his father, and was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1853. At the beginning of the Civil War he became lieutenant-colonel of the 25th Kentucky Infantry; was severely wounded at Shiloh; helped to recruit the 8th Kentucky Cavalry, of which he was lieutenant-colonel and later colonel; and assisted at the capture of John H. Morgan in July 1863. In 1863-1865 he was state senator; in 1865-1866 assistant United States district-attorney, and in 1866-1870 district-attorney for the Louisville district; and in 1870-1872, after a few months' practice of law with John M. Harlan, was the (first appointed) solicitor-general of the United States. In 1873 President Grant nominated him attorney-general of the United States in case George H. Williams were confirmed as chief justice of the United States, - a contingency which did not arise.
As secretary of the treasury (1874-1876) he prosecuted with vigour the so-called "Whisky Ring," the headquarters of which was at St Louis, and which, beginning in 1870 or 1871, had defrauded the Federal government out of a large part of its rightful revenue from the distillation of whisky. Distillers and revenue officers in St Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and other cities were implicated, and the illicit gains - which in St Louis alone probably amounted to more than $2,500,000 in the six years 1870-1876 - were divided between the distillers and the revenue officers, who levied assessments on distillers ostensibly for a Republican campaign fund to be used in furthering Grant's re-election. Prominent among the ring's alleged accomplices at Washington was Orville E. Babcock, private secretary to President Grant, whose personal friendship for Babcock led him to indiscreet interference in the prosecution. Through Bristow's efforts more than 200 men were indicted, a number of whom were convicted, but after some months' imprisonment were pardoned.
Largely owing to friction between himself and the president, Bristow resigned his portfolio in June 1876; as secretary of the treasury he advocated the resumption of specie payments and at least a partial retirement of "greenbacks"; and he was also an advocate of civil service reform. He was a prominent candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876. After 1878 he practised law in New York City, where he died on the 22nd of June 1896.
See Memorial of Benjamin Helm Bristow, largely prepared by David Willcox (Cambridge, Mass., privately printed, 1897); Whiskey Frauds, 44th Cong., 1st Sess., Mis. Doc. No. 186; Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring (Chicago, 1880), by John McDonald, who for nearly six years had been supervisor of internal revenue at St Louis, - a book by one concerned and to be considered in that light.