The following article by David Strange originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 9 Oct 2013. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.
In 1872, Bullitt County could boast of having two doctors with the same legendary last name. These were Doctor Henry Clay Crist and his twenty-three year old son, Doctor Ben Louis Crist.
These two men shared a medical practice as well as a famous family history.
And before the year was out, they would share death.
Henry Clay Crist was born on April 11, 1824, the son of the famous Bullitt County pioneer, General (and Congressman) Henry Crist, the survivor of the "Battle of the Kettles." Henry Clay Crist became distinguished in his own right as a Shepherdsville doctor, listed in the state "Who's Who." He married Ann Morgan, and they had a son, Ben Louis Crist.
Ben was born on April 13, 1849. He attended the University of Louisville, graduating from the medical department in March, 1870.
I imagine that father and son might have thought they had a bright future together in the medical profession.
But it was not to be.
On November 15, 1872, the young Ben Crist had an altercation that would change everything.
The Courier-Journal, November 19, 1872, story reported in part:
The Shepherdsville Tragedy, The Full Report of the Late Homicide in Bullitt County
"Friday last was a black Friday for Shepherdsville. Dr. Ben Louis Crist was a young man highly esteemed by everyone that knew him, and Mr. John H. West, his antagonist, is of the firm of Thompson & West, druggists, also a very popular young man. It seems that Mr. West had said something to a young lady in the village that did not exactly suit Dr. Crist. On Friday last, about 10 o'clock in the morning, Dr. Crist called at the drug store of young West." According to the report, Crist remarked, "John, you must apologize for what you told Miss F., or fight."
The story goes on, "West said he thought that an apology was not necessary, and then commenced to walk around the counter. When he had arrived at the end of the counter, Crist caught him by the collar and attempted to draw his pistol, when West caught his arm and prevented him from shooting. West, in the meantime drew his revolver, a self-cocking pistol, but the first shot entered his own leg, above the knee, and ranged downward. The two next shots took effect in Crist's abdomen and back..."
Ben Louis Crist passed away the next day. The funeral was held in Shepherdsville and "largely attended." John H. West was taken to jail, charged with willful murder.
The news report concluded, "Dr. Crist's family are in the deepest distress and receive the sympathies of the entire community. Dr. Ben L. Crist was among the most popular young gentlemen in the county, and Mr. West, although comparatively a stranger, is conceded to be a clever gentleman. A.H. Field and R.J. Meyler are retained for the defense, and Gen. Jackson and Dick McConathy are the prosecution."
And so a life and a bright future were all-too-quickly ended in one moment of heated argument. Stated in some reports as a "rencontre," or "duel," the fight reads more like just a burst of emotion between two armed young men.
But there is much more to this story.
Almost exactly one month after Ben Crist died, his father, Henry Clay Crist also died. Some stories say that he also approached Mr. West, and met the same fate as his son. Other stories say that he died of a broken heart, quite young himself, at age forty-eight.
Nevertheless, father and son now lie side-by-side in the old Shepherdsville Pioneer Graveyard, next to the Shepherdsville riverside park, as they have since 1872.
An interesting thing to me about this tragic story is that more than the Crists lie in that graveyard. Almost everyone involved may well lie there as well, proving the old adage that "all are eventually equal in the grave." George William Jackson, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the case, is there, as is the defense attorney A.H. Field. Judge Lorenzo Hoagland (Hogland), the possible writer of the original report, and a former county judge, is buried there, too.
And who was the "Miss F." whose honor the shooting was about? It is only an educated guess, as researcher Betty Darnell says, but she believes it might have been Julia Field, age nineteen at the time, daughter of Richard Field, and niece of A.H. Field. Julia married Edward Briscoe in February, 1873, three months after the shooting. She died in childbirth October 24, 1873, and is buried in the old Shepherdsville Graveyard as well.
About the only person unaccounted for is the shooter, John H. West. West was apparently indeed a "stranger" to the county, as the newspaper account said, having come to the area from Georgetown. He was not in any local census rolls leading up to the shooting, so must have come to the county after 1870.
The murder case was set for December, then delayed to April, 1873, with West released on $5,000 bond at that time. After a four-day trial, West was acquitted of charges on April 3, 1874. I have no certain records of him after that.
Did he leave the area and make another life for himself? He is not in the 1880 census. Did something happen to him? One can imagine some secret execution of revenge by a powerful family. Or maybe he just lived out a quiet life somewhere, yet unfound by our research.
Perhaps we will never know, as we probably will never know the contents of the message that so enraged young Doctor Ben Crist.
One thing for sure. "The grave is the great equalizer." Sooner or later, one way or another, we will all be found there. Perhaps we will lie next to a father, a friend, a spouse, or an enemy. Perhaps we will be alone and forgotten by Man.
But judge or judged, king or pauper, friend or fiend, we will be there together some day.
Somehow I take solace in that, as I look out across the old Shepherdsville Pioneer Graveyard, seeing the tombstones of those passed on before. What will our future be?
It might be interesting, a hundred years after we are gone, to see what some researcher finds about each of us. What paragraph or two would that person write about you or me as he researches the unknown little person buried in some long-forgotten grave? What little scrap of information will survive?
I try to remember that, when studying the lives of the individuals buried in our past. They were, as we are, real individuals with real lives and real problems and real emotions.
Now equal in the grave, wherever that grave might be.
Copyright 2013 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.