These histories were written by members of the Fayette County Historical Commission. They first appeared in the weekly column, "Footprints of Fayette," which is published in local newspapers.
The Murder of Dr. B. W. Bristow
By Judy Pate
It was the afternoon of July14, 1896, and Dr. Benjamin Wickliffe Bristow sat peacefully reading a newspaper near the post office on Flatonia’s South Main Street. His peace was about to be disturbed in the most shocking way.
Just down the street on the corner of South Main and Market, Trotter Hopkins tied his horse to a hitching post near Sloma’s store and walked about a hundred yards west, past where Bristow was sitting. According to a newspaper account of the incident, he then “stopped, wheeled around, pulled a Colt 45 six-shooter and fired four shoots (sic) into the doctor’s body, three of the shots taking effect in the breast. Death was instantaneous.” Hopkins mounted his horse and rode out of town, but was soon apprehended and brought back by officers of the law.
What could have accounted for such a cold-blooded killing on one of Flatonia’s main streets, in broad daylight and in front of several witnesses? How had the doctor managed to make such a deadly enemy?
Bristow had led an interesting life. He was born in Kentucky in 1838, the son of a Methodist clergyman. He attended school at the Naval Academy at Annapolis before getting a medical degree in Chicago. He enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private in 1861 and was twice wounded—once severely in the battle of Bull Run.
Bristow finished the war as a surgeon at a military hospital in Texas. In 1864 he married Carrie West, the daughter of a powerful Lavaca County family. They had two children, daughter Ellen and son Benjamin Wickliffe Jr, known as “West”. By 1879 the family had moved to the new railroad town of Flatonia, where Bristow engaged in a successful medical practice and became a well-known figure about town.
Bristow rose to state-wide prominence in his profession, most notably in 1893 when Governor Hogg appointed him as a quarantine officer in Aransas Pass. But it was his anti-prohibition stance and his leadership of the so-called “whiskey club” that made him a popular public speaker at numerous picnics and celebrations. He even represented the area’s saloon men as a delegate to their state convention.
As noted at the time of his death, Bristow “was known as a jovial, good-hearted man who would occasionally talk too much but who was entirely non-combative.” His friends knew him to be a brilliant man intellectually and—though the son of a cleric—an avowed agnostic. Reading between the lines of various newspaper accounts, it would not be a stretch to imagine that he might also have been strong-willed, opinionated, outspoken and not inclined to suffer fools gladly.
But regardless of his standing in the community, professionally or politically, and however many friends or enemies he made on account of his activities there, Bristow’s death turned out to be purely a family affair. It was, in fact, his son’s troubled marriage to a girl named Lizzie Hopkins that proved to be the catalyst in the tragedy. The young couple had not been married long before they divorced, reconciled, then split again—apparently leaving family tensions high in the wake of the failed relationship.
Trotter Hopkins was, in fact, Lizzie’s brother. In the wake of the shooting, the local press surmised that Dr. Bristow naturally took his son’s part—and as noted previously—one of his faults was that he sometimes talked too much. Did Hopkins go in search of Bristow with a deliberate intent to kill? Or did he just happen to pass by and respond with murderous, but unpremeditated rage to an offensive remark about his sister?
We will never know the answer to those questions, but the story didn’t end with the death of Dr. Bristow. Another dramatic scene played out as West arrived by train from San Antonio to attend his father’s funeral, vividly described in the Hallettsville Herald, July 16, 1896: “M. A, Hopkins, his father-in-law, heard of his coming, drove to the railroad crossing and waited with a six-shooter. His intention was to kill West Bristow at the crossing, it seems. People went down to disarm him, but he kept them away under threat of death. His brother arrived upon the scene and cried out: ‘M. A., I am coming to you and you know that when I say that I mean it—and I am coming.’ To this the brother replied: ‘Just as sure as you do I will kill you.’ The brave brother rushed in on the mad man and grappled with him just in time to catch the hammer of the pistol on his finger as it snapped. An officer came upon the scene and in the scuffle, a very exciting one, the six-shooter was discharged, the ball grazing the officer’s head, going through his hat, and setting fire to his hair. After a desperate struggle Hopkins was overcome. More bloodshed is expected.”
As noted in the La Grange Journal, “The whole affair is lamentable in the extreme and will be thoroughly sifted by the courts and justice meted out.” That prediction, however, was not born out. Powerhouse attorneys were engaged on both sides: Percy Faison and ex-Congressman Lyt Moore represented the state in a preliminary examination, the Honorable Jonathan Lane the defense. Time passed . . . and then more time passed. For the next 13 years the case was repeatedly postponed. It was finally dismissed on May 19, 1909, by which time witnesses were no longer available to testify. Trotter Hopkins was a free man, never having stood trial for the killing of Dr. B. W. Bristow.
Author’s note: In the account of the attempted assassination of West Bristow at the railway depot, the newspaper reversed the names of the two brothers: B. F. was Trotter’s father, M. A. his uncle—a former mayor of Flatonia and the man who did the disarming.
Dr. B. W. Bristow, his wife Carrie West Bristow and niece Mary, daughter of Carrie’s brother Sol West. Photo courtesy of Ellen Kennard.
Galveston Daily News, July 15, 1896
Hallettsville Herald, July 16, 1896
Shiner Gazette, July 16, 1896
La Grange Journal, July 23, 1896, July 30, 1896 and other miscellaneous issues.
Bristow family and Fayette County court records.
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