Judge Roy Bean picked the pockets of everyone who entered his barroom court in west Texas.
The legendary saga of Roy Bean began the day he was hanged from a poplar tree in California. Bean had been jailed in San Diego for attempted murder after wounding a man in a February 1852 pistol duel, escaped with the help of the woman who prompted the dispute and then got himself strung up after killing another man in San Gabriel in an argument over a señorita. Maybe the tree limb bent under Bean’s weight. Maybe his horse didn’t move fast enough for the noose to break his neck when he was jerked from the saddle. Maybe the rope stretched. In any case, his feet were on the ground and not kicking air when the love-stricken señorita came to cut him down. Roy Bean had cheated the hangman, who hadn’t bothered to stick around to admire his handiwork.
For the rest of his life Bean was unable to turn his head and his odd habit of looking out of the corner of his eye made him seem sly and sinister. The rope also put an angry-looking red scar on his neck that he hid under a bandanna. But he went on to become a fabled figure in west Texas who proclaimed himself the “Law West of the Pecos.” Today “Judge Roy Bean” is a household name in many homes well beyond his stamping grounds, even if some of his colorful tales might have to be classified as a little tall, and he was at best a justice of the peace.
Bean, who was born in Kentucky about 1827, took his near-death experience as a sign to get out of town and the state of California. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he was in Mesilla, New Mexico Territory, running a saloon and general store with his brother Sam, who was also the local sheriff. He sided with the Confederacy, forming a guerrilla group that more often stole from local farmers and ranchers than contributed to the Southern cause.
When the Rebel army retreated into Texas, Roy went along, his saddlebags filled with all he could carry from Sam’s safe. Before long he was in business in San Antonio, smuggling cotton to the Mexican Gulf Coast, where British merchantmen were waiting beyond the Northern blockade to exchange the bales for guns that he carried back north. It made him rich and gave him an urge to become a solid citizen, an itch he scratched by operating a thriving saloon and marrying the young (maybe 18) daughter of a respected San Antonio rancher when he was about 40.
With a taste for tailor-made suits and the best cigars, the San Antonio businessman became so popular that they named a neighborhood after him—Beantown (the present-day 400 block of Glenn Avenue in San Antonio). He did have a few legal fights, though, and in 1882 he sold everything he owned, left his wife and four children and slipped off to west Texas, where railroad builders were opening virgin territory across the Chihuahuan Desert, and he could start over with a clean slate.
Bean’s first stop was a railroaders’ camp called Vinegarroon, a collection of tents and shacks as ugly as its namesake, a nasty whip scorpion. It was just beyond the Pecos River at the edge of the canyon of the Rio Grande where the gangs of tracklayers for the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad had bogged down. They called their movable town “Hell on Wheels,” but it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and neither was Roy Bean. There were already enough saloons, dance halls and gambling dens in town, but he opened a barroom anyway and quickly put the competition in the shade.
In Vinegarroon a handful of Texas Rangers did their best to keep the peace, but they had to haul their quarry more than 150 hard miles to the Pecos County seat at Fort Stockton for trial, and that kept their ranks dangerously thin. Roy solved their problem by establishing a court in his saloon that not only spared them the long trips but also gave them a place to hang out away from the hot sun. Along with an interest in the power of judgeship, he had a lot of experience in courtrooms as a felony defendant, and he had a book, the 1879 Revised Statutes of Texas. He also had some influence with railroad officials, and used it in the summer of 1882 to engineer an appointment from the county commissioners as a justice of the peace, a post he went on to win by election to five two-year terms. Roy held the first trial at his saloon, which had become a self-styled bar of justice, that July. It entitled him to hang a sign over the porch announcing he was the “Law West of the Pecos.”
There was no jail in the 40,000-square-mile stretch from the Pecos River west to El Paso and north of the Rio Grande to the New Mexico border, and Justice Bean punished the guilty by fining them. The money went into his own pocket because one of his earliest judicial decisions was that a court ought to pay its own way. Besides, he was saving the county time and money and deserved to be compensated for it. At least that was how Roy saw it; if there were any objections, he would have overruled them.
When the railroad workers continued west, Vinegarroon shut down. Bean moved his operation closer to Dead Man’s Canyon, where two rail lines came together in a grading camp, called Eagle Nest at first and then renamed Langtry, for George Langtry, the engineer who had plotted the right of way. It was where trains stopped to take on wood and water, and Roy figured rightly that their passengers would welcome cold beer when they climbed out to stretch their legs during the layover, which lasted about an hour. He leased land from the railroad on the north side of the tracks and set up shop in a wooden building that included, along with his saloon, a pool hall and his own living quarters. It was still the place to find the Law West of the Pecos, but it had a more romantic name, the Jersey Lilly.
The saloon’s name was a tribute to Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), an English actress and celebrated beauty who was billed the “Jersey Lily,” because she was born on the Channel Island of Jersey. She was not related to railroad man George Langtry. Apparently it didn’t matter much to Judge Bean how her name was spelled; he spelled it “L-i-l-l-y.” He had never seen her in person, but a newspaper picture of her that he pinned to the wall behind his bar had left him hopelessly smitten.
In a fan letter to the Jersey Lily, Bean boasted that he had named the town Langtry in her honor, and she responded with an offer to donate an ornamental drinking fountain to the rail stop. Roy shot back a reply that the town’s citizens would drink just about anything, but water wasn’t one of them. Lillie understood and instead sent him a pair of silver-plated Colt Peacemakers. They were his pride and joy. He used one revolver as a gavel to bring order to his court, and the other as a threat to maintain that order.
The judge started every session by replacing his bartender’s apron with a rumpled baggy suit jacket, a signal that the barroom had become a courtroom. He sat behind the counter with his six-guns and law book, and the jury, composed of whoever happened to be around the bar when the transformation began, sat on scattered boxes and barrels. He dispensed swift justice, but frequently called for recesses at the drop of a hat by simply picking up his apron and lining up glasses on the bar. Everybody—prisoners, witnesses, jurors and onlookers—knew that they were expected to buy drinks before he would get on with the trial.
As a justice of the peace, Roy had the power to make marriages legal, and officiating over weddings, for a $5 fee plus catering opportunities, became another profit center. He was said to have ended marriage ceremonies by saying, “May God have mercy on your soul.” He didn’t have the authority to grant divorces, but he did it anyway on the theory that untying the knot for a couple was just rectifying a mistake he had made by joining them together in the first place. There was money in that, too, even more if he had to divvy up their children.
Another perk of the office was serving as coroner, a job that netted a $5 fee for investigating sudden deaths. A typical case, and there were hundreds like it, involved a drifter who turned up dead with $40 in his pocket and a pistol in his belt. Bean ruled that the weapon was illegal and the punishment happened to be a $40 fine. He also added the gun to his personal arsenal.
Val Verde County was organized as the territory grew, and Langtry became part of it. Del Rio, the county seat, and its more formal court, was only about 70 miles away, and the need for Roy Bean–style justice was diminished. But the local ranchers realized that it was in their best interest to let him go on about his business. He had deputized most of them to make arrests and they, as well as outlaws who preyed on them, knew that Bean’s justice would be lightning-fast. Taking their cases to a real court could entangle them in delays and appeals, not to mention the prospect of losing. Worse, it meant having to deal with lawyers.
Bean’s opinion of lawyers was well known: They weren’t to be trusted, and he considered their presence in his court a personal insult. On rare occasions when a defendant insisted on legal representation, Bean always managed to make the lawyer wish he hadn’t bothered. Once, when one called for a habeas corpus hearing to determine whether charges against his client were legitimate, the judge fined him for using foul language in his court.
Business at the Jersey Lilly spiked whenever a train stopped for a layover and its weary passengers bellied up to the bar. Even if Roy Bean was napping on the pool table, the out-of-towners got a sample of his style when his bartender fined them the amount of change due if they didn’t have anything smaller than a dollar. Passengers who were too young to order a drink or who were on the wagon shopped for snacks at the general store over on the left, but most made a beeline for Bean’s little zoo out back. An unabashed animal lover, he assembled a menagerie of wolves and coyotes, snakes and armadillos, and even a mountain lion, but the main attraction was Bruno, a big black bear.
In his role as justice, Bean often sentenced rowdy drunks and wife beaters to be chained inches away from Bruno’s claws; the bear paid its way by gulping down bottle after bottle of beer that Roy sold to visitors. Bruno never seemed to get drunk, but the locals, who often did, never stopped trying. It was a favorite pastime in Langtry to gull strangers into betting that they could drink more beer without falling down than Bruno could. The bear never lost. The real winner was the man behind the bar who sold all that beer and ended up with an opportunity to fine the loser for public drunkenness.
If there was one thing Bean hated, it was giving change to his customers. He was especially reluctant to settle up with the train passengers who he’d probably never see again. He always put off taking a customer’s money until the train began puffing down the pike, and when the customer was torn between running to catch up with it and waiting for the change, Roy pretended to drop it and lose it in the sawdust on the floor. There was nothing the passenger could do but try to find a place to stay overnight—Roy had rooms for rent—until the next train came through, or run for it with no coins jingling in his pocket.
On the other hand, sometimes a customer was all thumbs when the tab was tendered, and skipped out without paying. Bean was furious when that happened, and he would send one of the Rangers up to the front of the train to stop it. Then, six-guns drawn, he would board the last car and work his way forward studying every face he passed. When he found the deadbeat, he demanded payment, plus a collection fee, under pain of death. He never had to shoot anyone. In fact, the locals said that his gun wasn’t even loaded. As far as the railroad was concerned, the delay was worth it. Their passengers expected shows like that when they traveled through the untamed West.
By 1885 Judge Roy Bean had become as famous east of the Pecos as he was west of it, and travelers between Texas and California looked forward to the stop at Langtry, Texas, and possibly a peep at the great man himself. He was a favorite of newspapermen among the railroad’s passengers, and wild stories about him were published from coast to coast; he was even the hero of a few popular dime novels. Few of the writers let facts spoil a good yarn, but their readers didn’t mind. Nor did Roy. He loved the limelight as much as he loved Lillie Langtry and the law.
Then, in 1896, James J. Corbett arrived on the scene. Gentleman Jim had been the heavyweight boxing champion of the world for four years, and during most of that time, Bob Fitzsimmons, who had put away the champion of Ireland, issued challenges every time he had a sportswriter’s ear. Jim mostly ignored them. But when a promoter offered a $10,000 purse for a fight in Dallas, he decided to defend his title. What was billed as a “Fistic Carnival” was to be held in a 20,000-seat arena built for the occasion. Two days before the scheduled match, however, pressure from preachers and others who ranked human fights far below cockfights forced the Texas Legislature to pass a law against boxing matches anywhere in the state. Faced with ruin, the promoter tried to move the event to Arkansas, but when Jim Corbett arrived there, he was arrested on charges of conspiring to assault Bob Fitzsimmons. The champ, who didn’t really want to fight Fitzsimmons anyway, took it as an opportunity to announce his retirement. Fitz responded by suggesting a rematch with the Irish champ, Peter Maher. The winner would become the new world champion if it could be pulled off.
The mayor of El Paso proposed that the championship fight could be held across the river in Mexico or even on the other side of the New Mexico border. It would be a boon for local businesses and a bonanza for the railroads. No dice. Church leaders and politicians protested. A New Mexico congressman rammed through a law banning “pugilistic encounters” anywhere in the United States, and the governor of Chihuahua, Mexico, called out the cavalry to keep the fight out of his country, too.
Finally, Judge Roy Bean came to the rescue. He suggested that the American people were eager to have the fight take place, and he was right about that. He was also right that he was the law out there west of the Pecos, and wouldn’t knuckle under to the do-gooders. What he didn’t say was that it was an opportunity to sell a hell of a lot of beer.
The plan was carried out under tight secrecy. The promoter had sent out word to fight fans to gather at the San Antonio railroad station and stand by, and in the meantime Bean was hard at work getting ready for them to descend on Langtry. His plan was to build a ring on a sandbar near the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. He also built a footbridge out of empty beer kegs leading to it. The sandbar was not in Texas, nor in the Mexican state of Chihuahua where it would have been illegal. It was part of the state of Coahuila, which had never thought of banning boxing. The south bank of the river was 10 feet above the water and made a natural grandstand, and there was room around the ring itself for standing room at $20 a ticket. Rather than break the Texas law, he raised a canvas tarpaulin on the north side of the ring to block the view.
On the appointed day, February 21, 1896—six days after Bean had suggested the change in venue—three special trains pulled into Langtry, two from El Paso and one from San Antonio, and fight fans who had paid $12 for the ride, piled out. Roy had scheduled the main event for late afternoon so they all had a couple of hours to fill and they drank their fill at the Jersey Lilly. The cost of a bottle of beer had been raised to a dollar, but this was a special occasion. Roy also sold it for the same price down by the river.
It was raining when the fight began, but the hard-drinking spectators didn’t seem to notice. They didn’t have to spend much time getting wet on the outside because Fitzsimmons decked Maher with a right to the jaw in 96 seconds. The demand for beer and red-eye lasted far into the night, and it was by far the biggest pay day in the saloon’s history. Court was in recess the next day.
Progress caught up with Bean two years later when county officials announced a special election for a real justice of the peace. “If I wanted an election out here,” he said, “I’d have ordered one.” Faced with a higher authority, he refused to do any electioneering and, predictably, he lost for the first time in his life. When the sheriff arrived to claim his guns, he refused and then raised a point of law. “A justice serves until his successor is duly qualified,” Roy argued, “and I won’t step down until you can find a citizen of this precinct to swear that the sidewinder who beat me deserves it.” In a few weeks, citizen petitions called for a new election, and Bean won back his office. He won reelection in 1900 and 1902, and when he died after a drinking binge on March 16, 1903, he was still the Law West of the Pecos.
Those words were carved on his tombstone, which would have made Roy proud. The problem is that the tombstone is in Del Rio and not in Langtry. The judge would never have approved of that. He would have delighted in what occurred 10 months after his death—Lillie Langtry visited Langtry, Texas.
Without a doubt, Judge Roy Bean was a cantankerous, moneygrubbing old reprobate, but nobody is on record as having accused him of being in cahoots with lawbreakers or bloodthirsty. He threatened a lot of men with hanging for breaking the law in his jurisdiction, but he never strung anybody up in all his time in office. No doubt he realized it was hard to extract fines from dead men. He shortchanged his customers, he fined jurors who didn’t order drinks during court recesses and he fleeced everyone who was brought before him for justice. But if he was a rascal and a con man, he was a lovable one, and out west of the Pecos, folks wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Freelance author Bill Harris of Dallas, Texas, wrote “The Silver King of Leadville and Baby Doe,” in the August 2007 issue of Wild West Magazine. Suggested for further reading: Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, by Charles L. Sonnichsen; Vinegarroon: The Saga of Judge Roy Bean, “The Law West of the Pecos,” by Ruel McDaniel; Judge Roy Bean Country, by Jack Skiles; and The Diary of Lillie Langtry, by Donna Lee Harper.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.