When one thinks of the great judges of yore, certain names stand out above the rest. Names like Judge Harold T. Stone. Judge Judith Sheindlin. Judges Wapner, Mathis, and Joe Brown. Judge Reinhold, Judge Dredd and Mike Judge all bear remembering. But towering over these colossal judicial minds stands one man, one legend so interwoven into the fabric of modern-day jurisprudence you’d be remise not to pay him homage. And that man’s name was Roy Damn Bean. That’s right - Judge Roy Bean - to be exact. The law west of the Pecos known for serving up both justice as well as tasty beverages from his courtroom/saloon known as the Jersey Lilly located in a little fart of a town in west Texas known as Langtry.
Phantly Roy Bean, Jr. was born in Kentucky, in 1825, to parents Phantly Senior, and Anna Gore.
First off, let’s address the name issue. His first name, to be exact. Phantly. That might not have been his name as there is some evidence it was actually Fauntleroy. As in little lord Fauntleroy. No wonder he just went by Roy. A lot has changed in Texas since the days of Judge Bean and now, but I believe the one constant is you might just get your ass kicked if you go around answering to Fauntleroy.
Bean was born on a farm and he was born in Kentucky, but we don’t know when. The best guess is sometime in the early 1830’s. While doing “research” on this article I spent way more time than I should have trying to narrow down the exact year he was born. I’ll go into the particulars about his birth year later and why I think it’s important, but for now, for the sake of the story, we’re going with the early 1830’s.
Bean’s formative years, much like his date of birth, are mired in mystery. So just keep that in mind as we go forward and make some attempt to separate the man from the myth.
Roy was the youngest of five children - Three boys and two girls. And most sources I found say that the Bean family was an extremely poor family, but I did find one source, an ancient post on genealogy.com of all places, that claimed anecdotally that the Beans were pretty well off, having lots of land and lots of slaves. So, not sure which one of these narratives is accurate. Doesn’t really matter much, as Bean would leave home while still a very young man.
Once again, we don’t know exactly when this was but nearly every version of Roy Bean’s life involves him leaving home while still a teenager when – according to him at least – he hopped on a Flat boat that was bound for New Orleans.
And if you’re not familiar with these flat boats, they’re just what they sound like. Large, rectangular shaped Flat-bottomed boats, of various sizes but usually big enough to carry a whole bunch of goods as well as people. They played a big role when it came to conducting business and moving goods in the early 19th century, especially before the advent of steamboats.
Basically, you’d load the boat full of various merchandise, float down the mighty Mississippi to New Orleans, sell all of your goods, along with the boat, which was dismantled and sold as lumber, and then, after satiating your appetites of the flesh with coffee skinned creole women and sugar cane rum, you’d walk back home via a major road at the time known as the Natchez Trace. Hopefully with some coins jingle janglin’ in your pockets.
At the time of Roy’s arrival, which would have been sometime in the 1840’s, New Orleans was about as bustling as a city could be.
Matter of fact - in 1840 – The Big Easy was the 3rd most populated city in the United States and THE number 1 wealthiest city.
And a lot of that wealth was due to it being home to the counties largest slave market at the time. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of money was made off of selling of other human beings. And the slave trade spawned all sorts of other industries necessary to support it. Transportation, housing, clothing, food. Stuff like that.
In Roy’s heyday New Orleans was a melting pot of French, African, German, American, Irish, and Italian migrants. All trying to make a buck. I imagine for a Kentucky farm boy like Roy, it would have been overwhelming. All of a sudden finding yourself in such a rich city, surrounded by more people and diversity than you ever imagined possible. Hearing all those different accents and foreign languages.
Plenty of opportunity there for a young man - a young white man, at least - with a little ambition and gumption to make a fortune. Also lots more opportunity for a young man to get himself in a whole lot of trouble. Which is exactly what Roy Bean did.
What type of trouble did he get into? Who knows. According to one source, and one source only, he got into a big brawl in the French quarter and had to haul ass out of town to avoid any repercussions. Another very unreliable source I found claimed he killed a man on a steamboat.
Years later Roy would tell his friends that during this time of his life he was engaged in driving slaves for another party from Kentucky to New Orleans, but as far as I can tell he made no mention of any trouble. Whether or not any of this is true, we may never know. Like I said, a lot of murky water surrounding Roy’s early life.
His next stop would be Mexico, via the Santa Fe Trail. He had hooked up with his older brother Sam and the pair headed on down south and opened up a trading post of sorts in the state of Chihuahua.
But not for long, though. This woulda been about the year of our lord 1848. And much like New Orleans, there would be plenty of trouble to be had for a young gringo in old Mexico. The story goes that Roy got into it with a local who was spouting off about killing a white man, so Roy went ahead and took preemptive measures and kilt the Mexican before the man had a chance to make good on his threat.
Needless to say, they were no longer welcome in Chihuahua, so Roy and brother Sam pushed further west into Mexico, to the state of Sonora. Eventually, by 1849, Roy was in San Diego where his eldest brother Joshua was living.
Joshua Bean, just like brother Sam, had served in the Army. After his hitch was over, he migrated to California; eventually settling in San Diego where he became a trader and a saloon owner. He even became the first mayor of San Diego. And he, just like Roy, was quite the character. While he was mayor he allegedly - and illegally - sold City Hall to himself.
By 1851 Joshua had moved on to Los Angeles where he opened up another saloon. And ended up getting himself killed in the process, over a damn woman.
Getting in fights over women would be a common occurrence for the Bean Clan.
You can’t tell by looking at his pictures, but evidently Roy Bean was quiet the lady’s man in his younger days. And most of the trouble he got hisself into in San Diego seems to be centered around women.
The result of once such incident found Roy challenged to a duel by a hot-headed Scotsman named John Collins. And not just your normal stand in the street duel. Oh no, this one would be done on horseback. A wild west jousting match with pistols instead of lances. Luckily for both men, nobody lost their life in the duel, but Collins did receive a bullet to his arm and Bean received several months in jail.
During which time he received many visits and gifts from local senioritas, who seemed to adore him. At least according to Roy.
No telling how long Bean would have spent in jail, but he wasn’t going to just sit around and find out. Roy had one of his lady loves smuggle him in some knives, hidden in tamales. Knives that he then used to dig through the walls of his cell, thus escaping. No word on whether or not he ate the tamales first.
The story goes that he fled to San Gabriel California - now part of present day Los Angeles - and got work bartending for his brother Joshua at the Headquarters Saloon. Unfortunately, this was right around the time that Joshua would be murdered. And even though Roy inherited his brother’s saloon, he himself wouldn’t be in California much longer. He just could not seem to be able to keep himself out of trouble when it came to women.
In about 1854 a young lady he was courting was supposedly kidnapped and forced to marry a Mexican military officer. Bean wasn’t having none of that noise, so he challenged the man to a duel. The officer accepted and Bean kilt him dead.
Unfortunately for Roy, the dead man had friends. Angry friends. Six of whom caught up with Bean, placed him on a horse, slipped a noose around his neck, and then left him there to hang at the horse’s convenience.
There’s a scene in the movie The Homesman where a main character is left to die in such a fashion. And I’m wondering now how often this actually happened back in those days. Or if it ever happened. I guess the idea being, if nobody swats the horse and makes it bolt, then nobody can be held morally responsible for the death. Just leaving a man horseback with a noose around his neck somewhat alleviates guilt and places the blame on the horse. In theory, I guess.
For Roy Bean it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When the dead officers’ friends rode off, Roy’s girlfriend emerged from hiding and cut Bean down. Not before the horse bolted, though. Make no mistake about it, Roy Bean was extremely lucky. He got hanged, but either the rope wasn’t long enough, or it just had too much stretch in it, because the fall didn’t break his neck. But had his lady friend not acted when she did, Bean would have likely slowly suffocated to death.
This incident left a permanent rope burn around Roy’s neck which – so the story goes - is why he took to wearing the long beard you see in all the pictures. Also left him with a stiff neck for the rest of his life.
After this little failed lynching incident Roy decided that California was hazardous to his health and moseyed on over to New Mexico, joining his brother Sam near Silver City.
Now, I don’t know how much of what I just recounted of Roy Bean’s early life is actually true or how much of it is stuff he just made up in his later years.
I don’t know that he actually ever visited New Orleans. I’m not sure if he really killed a man in Mexico and I’m not positive that he got hung in California.
I know he was in California, living with Joshua, in 1850 because I did find him on a census. I think. It’s real hard to make out the first name, but it’s a 19-year-old Bean whose first name seems to be some sort of bastardization of Fauntleroy.
Fortunately for us, once Bean left California things start to get a little less murky. That’s where we start having more evidence and more of a paper trail proving certain events.
In the early 1860’s Roy’s brother Sam became the Sheriff of Dona Ana county, and together the brothers would eventually open a store and a saloon, which they guarded with a canon. Yes, you read that correctly. A canon!
I think it was mostly for show but legend states that it was used at least once to thwart an Apache raid on the town.
By the way, Silver City was a mining town and where there’s a mine, there’s money. And where there’s money there’s always someone like Roy Bean ready to help relieve you of said finances. And what better way to do so, than by operating a saloon. I can only imagine business was a booming. Nothing lasts forever, though.
This was the early 1860’s and the Country was quickly becoming divided and even New Mexico was not immune from the effects of the War Between The States.
Roy, being a southern man and one of Kentucky’s very own, ended up siding with the Confederacy. And at least one source I found stated that he helped form a gorilla group that spent more time stealing from local farmers and ranchers than actually contributing to the southern cause. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know. But at this point I wouldn’t put it past him.
What I do know is that the Confederate Army invaded New Mexico in 1862 and, after a mostly Union victory at the Battle of Glorietta Pass, the rebels were forced to retreat back in Texas. And Roy Bean followed ‘em, after stealing whatever he could fit in his saddlebags from the safe his brother Sam kept in the saloon.
Back during the Civil War you had something called blockade runners there on the Gulf Coast.
A lot of people don’t know that England backed the Confederacy during the war. At least financially. Which caused the Union to form a blockade that – well – blocked any British supplies coming and going for some 3500 miles of coastline.
These blockade runners, usually British ships, would slip through undetected with loads of much needed guns and other supplies, in exchange for cotton that the British textile industry was desperately in need of.
Roy Bean’s job, during all of this, was to haul cotton from San Antonio down to Matamoras and then return with his wagons full of British supplies.
Which he did. And then, after the war ended, he would call San Antonio home for the better part of the next two decades.
In October of 1866 Roy decided to settle down and marry a 15 year old girl named Virginia Chavez.
And I say 15, but Virginia’s age at the time of the marriage, just like Roy Bean’s age, is up for dispute. The 1870 Census lists Virginia as being born in 1851. That would have made her 15 at the time of the wedding. Her official death certificate lists her birth year as 1844, which would have made her 22 years old at the time of the wedding. According to genealogy website Wiki Tree she was born in 1848, which would have made her 18 at the time of the wedding. Gosh dang! Why can’t we get some solid ages for these people?!
Whichever way you wanna look at it, Roy Bean married himself a much younger woman and - unfortunately for the both of them - there are no indications that this union was a happy one. Matter of fact, all evidence points in the opposite direction.
Within a year of swapping vows Roy was arrested for beating young Virginia. He allegedly came home one night in a bad mood, pulled a stick out of the fireplace, and placed the glowing red wood against her backside.
During the trial Bean’s lawyer demanded proof, asking that the defendant, Virginia, show her scar to the Jury.
This was 1867. Reputable ladies wouldn’t show their ankles in public in those days, much less their back sides. Virginia obviously refused to do so, and the judge dismissed the case.
Bean - once again allegedly - said of the incident “If that jury had seen the scar, they’d have put me in jail for life”.
Old San Antone newspapers going back over a hundred years describe Bean as both a “southside legend” and a “scoundrel”. And from what I can tell, both of these descriptors are pretty accurate. Judge Roy Bean is definitely a legend, especially in Texas. And – judging from the various money-making schemes he undertook there in San Antone - he most certainly was a scoundrel of the first order as well.
He was a part time teamster and at one point started a business hauling and selling firewood. Not his firewood, mind you. Roy preferred cutting down trees that didn’t belong to him. Cheaper that way.
He tried working as a butcher but apparently butchering other people’s stray cattle - without first buying them - is frowned upon.
He even went into the dairy business, but he got caught watering down the milk with creek water. One story - that should probably be taken with a grain of salt - goes that one of Bean’s milk customers complained about finding a minnow in his milk. To which Bean replied, “that’s the last time I let that cow drink out the creek before I milk her”.
Everything this man did had some sort of an angle to it, some dash of skullduggery. Like he was always trying to get something over on someone.
Oddly enough - to balance it all out - Roy was said to be pretty charitable to the poor citizens of Beanville, the neighborhood he called home whilst in San Antonio. Many of those stray cattle that he butchered fed families in need. A practice he would continue as the law west of the Pecos. But we’ll get to that soon enough.
On the 1880 census Roy Bean is listed as a widower, but the fact was he was actually divorced. Virginia was still alive; she had just done left his ass by that point. And he himself was starting to wear out his welcome in the Alamo city.
One version about the events leading to Roy’s departure of San Antone, written by an unknown author and found at the San Antonio Conservation Society reads “ After his 17 years residence here and these misdemeanors and a vast accumulation of debts, the city fathers ran him out of town, as they expressed it “for the good of the town,”
So, in 1882, Bean bid San Antonio ado and lit out for greener pastures. And by greener pastures I mean the desolate dry land of West Texas, west of the Pecos river and just north of the Rio Grande.
There was a railroad being built and building a railroad has a way of making a man thirsty. Roy Bean decided to turn that thirst into a profit by opening up a tent saloon in a railroader camp known as Vinegaroon.
Perhaps you’ve seen the AMC television program Hell On Wheels.
This camp, Vinegaroon, was sort of a Hell On Wheels type situation. You know how back in the old west you had mining towns like Deadwood and Tombstone or Silver City where the usual suspects would always find themselves? Gamblers, gunfighters. Morally ambiguous lawmen.
And then you had the cow towns, which made a whole lot of money off of thirsty cowboys fresh off the trail. Well Vinegaroon, and communities like it, were the same way. Only instead of miners or cattlemen, they catered mostly to railroad workers.
And as you can imagine, a railroad camp set up in 1882 West Texas wasn’t exactly a bastion for law and order. Or cleanliness. Or the appreciation for the finer things of life like poetry or classical literature, or tender feelings.
Whores, gambling and whiskey? You bet.
Tranquil peacefulness and mutual respect of your fellow man? Not so much.
The lawlessness got so out of hand that it began to impede the progress of the railroad. So, the railroad men called in the Texas Rangers. And even they were appalled at how bad things had gotten.
“There is the worst lot of roughs, gamblers, robbers and pickpockets collected here I ever saw, and without the immediate presence of state troops, this class would prove a great detriment towards the completion of the railroad” wrote one Ranger Captain of Vinagaroon.
Keep in mind, there was only so much the Rangers could do. And when they made an arrest, they’d have to haul the accused over 120 miles away to Fort Stockton to stand trial. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
As it so often goes in these boomtowns, there’s a period of anarchy where the law of the land is whatever law you as an individual are able to enforce. With your fists or with your guns.
And often as not, into this vacuum of lawlessness enters an equally lawless man who’s given a badge and the authority to keep the peace.
Wyatt Earp weren’t no angel. Neither was Bat Masterson or Pat Garrett or Bill Hickock. All of these were flawed men who broke the law more than once their own selves.
With that in mind, it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that when the Texas Rangers visited west Texas, they chose a scoundrel like Roy Bean to take up the cause of keeping the peace.
And although they didn’t go so far as to pin a badge on him, they did have him appointed as the Pecos County Justice of the Peace. This not only freed them up from having to haul prisoners all the way to Fort Stockton, but the fact that the Judge also operated out of a saloon gave them the Rangers a convenient place to relax and enjoy a nice refreshing beverage.
This all got me to wondering just what exactly it is that a Justice of the peace does. Literally all I know about them is that’s where you go to get married when you’re broke, or you just don’t want a fancy church wedding.
According to the law offices of Wikipedia, Wikipedia, and Wikipedia, a Justice of the Peace is a judge of a court with limited jurisdiction who typically preside over misdemeanor cases, traffic violations, and other petty criminal infractions. They may also have authority over cases involving small debts, landlord and tenant disputes and or other small claim court proceedings.
Within four months of this new position a newspaper article was written up saying that newly appointed Justice of The Peace Bean was usually so drunk and quarrelsome that many people shunned his saloon altogether. The article does goes on to offer up some hope, though, saying “aside from his bibulous peculiarities, Old Roy is generous, brave, courteous and a keen lover of fun. He holds court anywhere and carries a pocketful of blank warrants, one of which he will fill out and sign at a moment’s notice”.
But almost as if to step all over that little sliver of hope, the newspaper man then goes on to describe a recent incident where a drunk and disorderly Judge Bean forced a Texas Ranger to put his degenerate ass in chains.
It was the day before the Judge was due to hold court and he was really tying one on, waving his pistol around and spouting off stuff like “I’m the law around here and if anyone don’t like it, they best hide out because I’ve got my war paint on. And when Old Roy get’s his war paint on he’s hell!”
A Ranger tried to simmer the Judge down, but to no avail. He eventually disarmed the old reprobate and had him put in chains until he sobered up. And promised to stay sober.
A promise which didn’t last too long.
Now, you may be asking yourself: Given all of this acting out, exactly how the hell was Roy Bean qualified to become a Justice of The Peace?
The short answer is, he probably wasn’t qualified.
Matter of fact one of the first things he did once he got the appointment was shoot up the saloon of one of his competitors, a Jewish man. No idea if the victim being Jewish had anything to do with it or if Bean just didn’t like the competition or what. But that’s not exactly the way a learned man of the law comports himself.
In Roy Bean’s defense, though, he himself did have more experience than most when it comes to being in a courtroom. At least as a defendant. Remember, He had to defend himself against more than one felony charge while living in San Antonio.
Also, he just so happened to be in possession of a fancy 1879 Revised Statutes of Texas lawbook. What other qualifications do you need, people?
And he did have some standing when it came to the Railroad Officials who were building the dang railroad. It was their influence on the county commissioners, as well as the Texas Rangers, that helped get Bean appointed Justice of the Peace. It’s important to note, however, that he would be elected - by the people - to five more terms as JP. So, he couldn’t have done THAT bad of a job.
And it is in his capacity as Justice of the Peace that he earned the moniker, Law West Of The Pecos.
Since Vinegaroon catered to railroad workers, once they finished that particular part of the line, they moved on. Thus rendering the tent city obsolete.
Not having any thirsty miners around means a dip in profit, and Roy Bean certainly wasn’t going to tolerate that so he relocated as well; moving his operations closer to Dead Man’s Canyon, where two rail lines came together in a grading camp.
This place was originally called Eagles Nest but then renamed Langtry. Contrary to popular belief the town of Langtry, Texas was NOT named after the British Stage actress Lillie Langtry. More on her to come, but Langtry was – in fact - named after Railroad engineer George Langtry, who oversaw Chinese immigrant work crews.
Langtry was basically a place where the trains would stop to take on wood and water. This process took about an hour and Roy Bean figured that the passengers might want to take that opportunity to get out and stretch their legs and have a cold beer or a shot of whiskey to wet their parched lips. And he figured rightly. He raised his saloon right there on the north side of the tracks, leasing the land from the railroad and christening the joint as the Jersey Lilly. Which, unlike the town, WAS named in honor of miss Lillie Langtry, who was born on the Isle of Jersey.
Judge Roy bean held court in his saloon, the Jersey Lilly, with a whiskey barrel for a bench and the butt of his revolver for a gavel. And he didn’t have no volumes of law books to peruse in his free time. He had that one dusty ass old law book I already mentioned. And don’t even THINK about brining a more up to date version into his establishment.
And there wasn’t a jail house in Langtry, either. If - for whatever reason - you violated the law of Judge Roy Bean and he deemed in necessary that you be locked up, you usually just ended up getting chained to a tree. Often times, though, if someone couldn’t afford to pay their fines the judge would make them work it off doing free labor around town.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about Lillie Langtry, Roy Bean’s crush and in whose honor the Jersey Lilly was named.
Lillie, born Emily Charlotte Breton on the British Isle of Jersey in 1853, was a stage actress who travelled extensively, all over Europe and the United States.
Roy wasn’t the only one with the hots for miss Langtry. Her looks, coupled with her natural charm, garnered her quite a bit of attention from men. Noblemen, to be precise. And - unfortunately for Roy - these noblemen were just her type.
Although she was married to a Mr. Edward Langtry, that didn’t stop Lilly from playing the field. Matter of fact she was known to have affairs while having affairs. Throughout the years she enjoyed the company of such notable nobles as The Prince Of Wales, Edward the 7th, The Earl Of Shrewsbury, Prince Louis of Battenberg, British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, wealthy new yorker Frederick Gebhard, Prince Lewis Esterhazy, and Hugo Gerald de Bath.
I wrote previously of the widely held belief that the town of Langtry was named after Lillie Langtry. I think this is largely due to Judge Bean himself making that claim, in a letter he wrote to Miss Langtry.
That’s right, they were pen pals. Or, for you youngsters out there, the old Judge slid all up in Lilly’s DM’s.
He told his crush that he named the town in her honor - which of course, was bullshit. But he certainly wasn’t the first guy to stretch the truth while trying to impress a woman.
To his immense joy, Miss Langtry actually wrote back to Roy, offering to donate an ornamental drinking fountain to the town out of appreciation. To which Roy replied that while the town’s citizens would drink just about anything, water wasn’t one of ‘em. So, instead of a fountain, Lilly sent Roy a brace of silver-plated colt revolvers which quickly became some of his most prized possessions. He used one of the peacemakers as a gavel to bring the court to order and kept the other one close just in case he needed to maintain said order.
To say that the Judge held an unconventional court would be making a vast understatement.
He didn’t allow hung juries or appeals. His word was final and anything else was a waste of time. The jurors were chosen by him, and they usually consisted of his saloon’s best customers. Meaning them that could afford to buy whiskey - which they were required to do, per Judge Roy’s edicts, during every court recess.
Judge Bean was also known for uncommon or out of the ordinary rulings. One famous example is that of Paddy O’Rourke, who killed a Chinese rail worker.
During the trial, which of course was held in the Jersey Lillie and officiated by Judge Bean, a mob of at least 200 angry Irishmen showed up and demanded that their kinsman be freed. What’s more, they said that if he wasn’t, they’d lynch Roy Bean.
Upon hearing this, the Judge consulted his trusty revised 1879 edition of Texas Statutes and concluded that homicide is defined as the killing of a human being. However, he said, he could find no laws against killing a Chinaman.
The case was dismissed, O’Rourke went free, and Judge Bean lived to rule another day.
If you’re anything like me you’re aghast – and rightfully so - at the idea of Judge Bean letting a killer off the hook because the victim was Chinese. Unfortunately, racial equality was almost nonexistent in Judge Bean’s day.
Also, I’m thinking Roy was probably looking out for himself here. He had already had a noose placed around his neck once and probably didn’t think he’d survive a 2nd lynching.
I think Bean was a tough man in the sense that he was a survivor, but he certainly wasn’t a heroic man. There would be no standoff in the streets - guns drawn, staring down an angry mob in the name of justice when it comes to Roy Bean.
And I also think that – considering the times – he wasn’t ALL bad.
Even though Roy had left his ex-wife in San Antone, he didn’t use that opportunity to be a dead-beat dad. He might not have been the greatest father figure in the world, but he did love his children. Matter of fact, after a while they came and lived with him at the saloon. Legend has it that his youngest son, Sam, slept on the pool table.
Let’s go ahead and take a look at a few other examples of Roy’s controversial court rulings.
There’s the story of a train passenger who made a quick stop in the Jersey Lilly one day, tossing the judge a $20 gold piece in exchange for a beer - obviously expecting to get change back.
When Bean refused to give the customer his change, the man protested. Causing Roy to fine the man 19 dollars and 95 cents for contempt of court, saying that he’d double the fine if the man said another word.
Was court actually in session when the man demanded his change? No. But then again, court was in session whensoever Judge Bean deemed it so.
I think the lesson here is don’t go demanding things in Judge Beans saloon/courtroom. That and make sure you bring exact change.
In another case a young rancher was once fined $5 by the judge for fighting. The man produced witnesses to say that, in fact, he had been defending himself. So, the Judge – being fair minded – reversed the fine. The other guy -whom the rancher was defending himself against - was fined instead.
Only problem was that man had already skipped town and Judge Bean wasn’t just not going to get paid. So, he told the young rancher he’d have to hold him in custody until either the other man returned or someone else paid the fine. The rancher just ended up paying the damn fine himself so he could be set free.
And then there’s the infamous case where Judge Roy Bean fined a dead man. A railroad worker had fallen to his death and since Bean was also the coroner, he was the one who showed up to declare the death accidental. Upon inspection of the dead man’s body, a pistol was found along with $40, prompting the judge to fine the corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon.
Lest you start thinking that Bean was totally corrupt, I will add that the $40 didn’t end up in his pocket; it went towards burying the dearly departed railroad worker.
Let’s not forget the time Roy Bean almost caused the stock market to collapse.
The Judge learned from a telegraph operator that Jay Gould was passing through on a special train headed east.
And Jay Gould was one of the wealthiest men alive during this time. A robber baron of the gilded age and who’s widely regarded - then and now - as not exactly being the nicest person to ever walk the earth. Just the kinda guy that Roy Bean wanted to meet!
The judge flagged the train down with a bandana, doffed his sombrero and introduced himself to Gould as the law west of the Pecos, inviting the railroad tycoon to his saloon for a drink.
An invitation that Gould accepted.
When the special train didn’t show up at its destination at the predetermined time all hell broke loose. Gould was reported as being killed in a train wreck and the stock market went wild.
All because Judge Roy bean wanted to buy the man a drink.
But there in Langtry life just sort of went on as normal. I feel like it’s important to point out that the Judge didn’t spend all of his time punishing law breakers. Part of his job title as justice of the peace was joining couples together in holy matrimony.
After officiating weddings Roy always concluded the ceremony with the phrase “And may God have mercy on your souls.”
Judge Bean wasn’t legally allowed to grant divorces, but this was a rule that he utterly and completely ignored. At least when it came to couples whose marriages that he had officiated. According to him, granting a divorce was just his way of rectifying the mistake he made by joining the couple together in the first place.
I briefly touched on the Judge’s penchant for charity earlier.
In the 1960’s author Jack Skiles interviewed a longtime Langtry Texas citizen named Beula Farley, who actually knew Bean back in the old days. She had this to say about the Judge’s character:
“Roy Bean was a smart ol’ booger. He had his faults, but listen, he was a good man at heart. He might have been a murderer and a robber, and a thief, but he was good in his way. He was the best-hearted old fellow you ever saw. He would do anything for anybody.”
Believe it or not, the Judge he was known in Langtry as being kind and generous to widows and needy children, as well as using the fines he collected in court to buy medicine for the sick. Even back in San Antonio when he stole cattle, he was said to have distributed the meat to the impoverished of Beantown. He was quoted as saying “No use for poor people to starve while rich people have fat cows running on Beantown pastures”.
This was partially due to having a soft spot, I mean I guess even some of the hardest of hardcases have soft spots. But he also might have suffered from a guilty conscious, as well as a belief in the afterlife.
Once, when Bean was asked why he helped so many people, he said “Well, I ain’t been an angel myself and there might be a lot charged on me come judgement day. I figure what good I can do – the Lord will give me credit when the time comes.”
By the way - since we’re talking about Bean’s good qualities - I’d like to point out that, unlike a lot of old west guys, I didn’t find anything that even hinted that Roy Bean ran women out of his saloons.
Zero mentions of prostitution going on at the Jersey Lilly.
This struck me as is ironic, seeing as how Judge Bean isn’t exactly known as a paradigm of righteousness. Unlike Wyatt Earp who actually was arrested for pimping out women.
But that’s none of my business.
Over time Judge Bean began to make a name for himself and the Jersey Lilly became a popular stopping off point for easterners wanting to see the old man. Not only could they have a drink or play a quick game of 9 ball on the pool table I previously mentioned, but they could also pay a visit to the zoo that the Judge kept out back.
Yes, Judge Roy Bean – in typical Texas fashion - had his own personal zoo consisting of wolves, coyotes, snakes, armadillos, a mountain lion, and the main attraction, a big black bear named Bruno.
Legend has it that Judge Bean would, at times, chain disorderly drunks just outside of Bruno the Bear’s reach. Not close enough so the bear could hurt ‘em, but close enough to make them rethink their criminal ways.
The Judge would also give Bruno beer to drink. Or more accurately, the patrons of the bar would give Bruno beer to drink, upon the Judge’s urgings. He’d bet train passengers that they couldn’t outdrink Bruno. The catch was, the passengers had to not only pay for their beer, but Bruno’s as well. Supposedly the bear never lost these drinking games and Judge Roy lined his pockets with the gullible customers’ money.
Earlier I shared that story about how the Judge refused to make change for a customer. He did this quite a bit, but not always that same way. Sometimes he’d take so long making the change that the train would start taking off, forcing the passenger either to forget the change so he could go hop on the train, or miss the train altogether, thus forcing them to spend the night in Langtry, where they’d have no choice but to rent a room from – you guessed it – Judge Bean.
When the shoe was on the other foot and some sneaky train passenger tried to skip town without paying his tab, Judge Roy would have the train stopped and he’d personally board it, guns drawn, until he found the culprit, demanding not only his money but also an added collection fee.
He never shot anyone while doing this. And, according to sources, his pistols weren’t even loaded. Matter of fact, Judge Roy Bean never even hung anybody in his capacity as justice of the Peace.
This was new to me, I always thought that Roy made a reputation by being no nonsense and stringing up criminals. Turns out I was wrong, but I’m not the only one. A quick google search will result in more than one erroneous article claiming that he was execution happy. Not sure what the source here is, but I’m thinking it’s likely that he gets mixed up with Judge Parker, the hanging Judge out of Fort Smith Arkansas.
Did Judge Bean ever sentence someone to hang? Yes. Many times. But did anyone actually get hanged? Not that I’m aware of. Turns out Judge Bean was a fan of the scared straight tactic and found mock executions highly entertaining.
There’s an article in True West Magazine - written by Marshall Trimble - highlighting such an incident. Long story short, there was a hobo that got arrested after stealing a railroad official’s pistol. He was brought before Judge Bean and ended up cursing the good judge up and down, resulting in Roy sentencing the man to death by hanging.
Weren’t no tree’s in Langtry tall enough to hang a man from so they hauled his ass up against a railroad boxcar and put a noose around his neck, tossing the other end of the rope over the top of said boxcar. At this point the thief came to see the light of the lord and began repenting of his transgressions, but Judge Roy wasn’t having none of it. “Too late” he told the man.
Meanwhile the one guy who made up the jury whispered to the condemned “hey, when we ain’t looking slip this noose off your head and run like hell and don’t never come back around here no more”. At that moment Judge Bean and the others solemnly raised their faces to the sky and closed their eyes in prayer. The thief slid the noose off his neck and was last seen running out of town as fast as his feet could carry him. The Judge and company then retired back to the Jersey Lilly for another round of drinks.
I doubt this was the only time Roy pulled off such a stunt. And I’m sure those who “escaped” the wrath of Judge Bean spread the news far and wide and this helped solidify his reputation as a hangman.
The newspapers didn’t help matters, either. Much like today, so called journalists aren’t shy about spinning the truth to entertain their readers. And as time grew, Judge Bean started becoming a famous man east of the Pecos as well. And far be it for him to dispel any of the myths about himself. He loved the limelight and all the attention that the stories brought him. And of course, the customers.
After a while, the area where Langtry was located became organized into Val Verde County and they made the town of Del Rio, which was about 70 miles away, the county seat. By this time, we’re talking about the year 1885 now, Del Rio had more of a formal court system so the need for Judge Bean’s unconventional ways of dispensing justice was quickly diminishing.
Luckily for Roy, he did still have the support of local ranchers, whom he had deputized. This allowed them to make arrests on the outlaws and rustlers who preyed on their operations, and they knew that the Judge would deal out justice much quicker than the real court over in Del Rio. They also knew they didn’t have to deal with lawyers in Judge Bean’s jurisdiction.
If there’s one thing that Judge Roy Bean hated worse than angry Irish mobs, it was lawyers. Once, on one of the rare occasions that a lawyer was allowed inside the Jersey Lilly, the attorney insisted on a habeas corpus hearing to determine whether or not the charges against his client were legitimate, an action which prompted Judge Bean to immediately charge a fine to the lawyer for using foul language in his court.
By 1887 the Judge decided to get himself involved in a little boxing match between the heavyweight champion of the world, Gentleman Jim Corbett, and his challenger, a scrappy Irishman named Bob Fitzsimmons.
The fight, dubbed as a “quote Fistic Carnival” was originally going to be held in Dallas. They even built a special arena for the occasion that could seat 20,000 spectators. But just days before the fight it got called off thanks to some holier than though preachers and do gooder 19th century Karen types who pressured the Texas Legislature into passing a law banning boxing matches statewide.
Due to the fight getting cancelled - and for various other reasons - the champ Jim Corbett retired, leaving room for another boxer named Peter Maher to step in. If he and Fitzsimmons fought, the winner would take the title as the new world champion pugilist.
Around this same time, the mayor of El Paso came up with a clever little loophole and announced the fight could take place across the river in Mexico or even in New Mexico. Which caused another self-righteous conniption fit amongst God’s holiest of children. A New Mexico congressman pushed through legislation banning boxing in the entirety of the United States and the governor of Chihuahua, Mexico said he wouldn’t allow the fight to happen in his territory, either.
Bunch of party poopers.
And then, just when it looked like the fight wasn’t going to happen at all, our very own Judge Roy Bean waded into the midst of this sanctimonious quagmire offering up a solution. His plan was to have the fight take place on a Sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande River, not too far from Langtry and on the Mexican side of the river. The catch was, it was the Coahuila side of the Rio Grande, not the Chihuahua side, like was planned in El Paso. Unlike the state of Chihuahua, the governor of Coahuila had never thought to ban boxing.
And lest some priggish plaster saint try to put a stop to that idea, too, the plans were made in secret.
Fight fans were told to gather at a train station in San Antonio where they could purchase tickets for the fight at $20 a pop, another $12 for the train ride, and then get whisked on down to Langtry, where Judge Bean was busy making preparations.
Make no mistake about it, Roy wasn’t doing this because he believed the laws against boxing were unjust, or even because he was a big fight fan.
Nah, he smelled money.
If the fight happened near Langtry, all those fight fans would show up with a big thirst on. And who better to make a profit out of selling libations to the thirsty masses than Justice of The Peace Roy Bean?
There’s a lot more to this fight, it’s a story in and of itself, but to make a long story short it went off without a hitch.
Fitzsimmons defeated Maher in just 96 seconds, the fight fans drank Judge Bean’s liquor well into the night resulting in the Jersey Lilly’s biggest pay day ever and no one got their feelings hurt.
In 1898 the world was a changing. Spain declared war on the United States and Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders charge up San Juan Hill.
1898 was the year Corn Flakes were invented. The year Hawaii was annexed, and Pepsi Cola came into existence. So did the Good Year Tire Company.
A machine gun was first used in battle, the first cheerleaders ever cheered on a football game (Spoiler alert, they were all dudes).
Physicist Marie Curie discovered Radium. And, amongst all of this change, the honorable Judge Roy Bean was informed that a special election for an actual REAL justice of the peace would be held. To which he replied “If I had wanted an election, I would have ordered one”
And, because Bean was a stubborn old coot and he didn’t want any damn election in the first place, he effectively took his ball and went home. Refused to do any sort of campaigning whatsoever. And this refusal resulted in him losing the election.
And then he did something that TOTALLY Under No Circumstances WOULD EVER HAPPEN NOWADAYS. When he lost the election, he refused to step down from his position.
And, believe it or not, he got his way. There was a citizen’s petition that called for a new election and Bean won the office of Justice of the Peace back.
He also ended up getting reelected two years later in 1900 and again, two years after that in 1902. Matter of fact he died while still serving as Justice of The Peace in March of 1903.
Roy’s death - much like his early life - is shrouded in mystery. Some accounts state that he died of heart and lung ailments. Other accounts say that he died after a heavy drinking binge or that he fell ill after a trip to San Antonio. I’m not sure which version is the truth, but probably it was a combination of all of the above. Maybe he was already in bad health and a trip to San Antone, coupled with a several day drunk just did him in.
Either way it’s said he died peacefully, in his sleep, there in the Jersey Lilly on March 16th, 1903.
The Jersey Lilly still stands to this day, by the way. You can not only visit it, but you can step inside and stand at the very bar where the Judge doled out justice. Hope to make it over there one of these days.
A year after Judge Roy’s death the town of Langtry received a special visitor. One that surely had Roy spinning in his grave. The great lady herself, Miss Lillie Langtry herself stepped off a train in route to Los Angeles to pay a visit. She was regaled with stories of the judge told to her by star struck locals, about how he dispensed justice and just how he admired her so. The Mayor of Langtry even gifted her one of Bean’s revolvers. I think Roy woulda liked that. Years later when Lilly wrote her autobiography she said of the stop in Langtry “quote It was a short visit, but an unforgettable one.”
Unforgettable, just like Judge Roy Bean.
His life wasn’t an example of courage like lot of the other Texas legends. Men like Davey Crockett or Jim Bowie or Travis. But I think Judge Bean’s a little more relatable. He sure as hell had his flaws, just like we all do.
As one writer put it back in 1933, nobody has filled Judge Roy’s shoes after his death And Maybe nobody wants to.
If you’re interested in learning more about Judge Roy Bean please check out the podcast episode I did on the old reprobate. For more wild west content, head pay my website a visit and subscribe to my YouTube channel. Bloody Beaver Podcast features true stories about the wild and woolly west. Along with plenty of dad jokes. All episodes can be found wherever you listen to podcasts. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.