Some time ago, actually a few years ago, my friend Les Kinsey asked me to look into Judge Roy Bean. My friend Les Kinsey is from Texas. If anyone knows anything about folks from Texas, then they know real well about their Texas pride. And yes, no matter where they roam, they'll always be from Texas. Of course reading about the history of Texas, I understand how that's the case. It's very justified.
My friend's family goes back to the start of Texas. I found out through Les that his great-grandfather knew Judge Roy Bean pretty well. I'm sure his family has a few great stories about their dealings with the old judge. For me, I would've loved to have had the chance to chew the fat for a while with Les' relations in Texas who knew the Judge. I would have loved to hear some of their tales. But since that's not the case, as with others who I've written about on here, I have to go with what I've read and learned about the man.
He was born sometime in 1825 in Mason County, Kentucky. His birth name was Phantly Roy Bean, Jr., so it's not a surprise that he went by "Roy." He was the youngest of five children. He had three brothers and a sister. It's said that the Bean family was very poor. So poor in fact that at a fairly young age, around 16, Roy ventured out for himself on a flatboat headed to New Orleans looking for work.
A flatboat is a lot like a barge. It was used to haul freight and passengers. The interesting thing about a flatboat back in the day is that they were pretty much a use one and tear apart vessel. It's true, flatboats on the rivers were usually torn apart for their lumber once they'd reach where they were going.
As for Roy in New Orleans, I haven't been able to find out what sort of trouble he got into there. But we do know that what ever it was, it was enough to make him flee Louisiana and head for Texas. In fact, after leaving New Orleans, Roy went to San Antonio where his older brother Sam was working as a teamster and bullwhacker.
His brother Sam hauled freight to Santa Fe and on to Chihuahua, Mexico. In 1848, Sam and Roy decided try their hand at going into business for themselves by opening up a trading post in Chihuahua. Most agree that that wasn't a real smart move as the area was considered pretty rough. In fact, it was so rough that Roy is said to have actually shot and killed a Mexican bandit there.
The story goes that the bandit was a local outlaw who wanted to "kill a gringo." Roy felt threatened and killed the desperado before the bandit killed him. While that sounds like a clear cut case of self-defense, they were in Mexico. And since he and Sam were on the Mexican side of the river, they fled to Sonora one step ahead of the Mexican authorities who wanted to charge Roy charge with murder.
About a year later, in 1849, Roy moved to San Diego, California. It's true, he moved to San Diego to live with his older Joshua. Believe it or not, Joshua Bean was elected the first American mayor of the city of San Diego in 1850.
I find it interesting that Joshua Bean served with future president Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American War. When Joshua left the Army, his unit was in California. That's how Joshua arrived in California in 1849, and then San Diego in 1850. After Joshua left the Army, he opened up a trading post and saloon. After San Diego became a town, he was elected the first American mayor of San Diego. And yes, I find that incredible.
As for Joshua, after giving up the post of Mayor, he left San Diego and moved to San Gabriel, which is near Los Angeles, where he opens up "The Headquarters Saloon".
In November of 1852, Joshua was killed in an ambush just outside of the town of San Gabriel. According to some sources, he was killed over a woman. Of course, there are other sources that say he may have been killed over a shady land deal while he was mayor of San Diego.
As for his younger brother Roy, while in California with his brother, at one point during his stay he found himself in a dual with a Scot by the name of Collins. Yes, it was over a woman. As crazy as it sounds, Roy was challenged to a pistol-shooting match while on horseback. And no, I've never heard of such a dual.
When Roy was offered his choice of targets, he decided that the two men should shoot at each other. The duel is said to have taken place on February 24th, 1852. After the smoke cleared, Collins was wounded in his right arm and Roy Bean was said to be unscathed. But though that was the case, immediately both men were arrested. And again, as crazy as it sounds, both Collins and Roy were charged with assault with the intent to commit murder.
If this all sounds like a comedy of sorts, well it gets better. It is said that Roy was young and supposedly a real lady's man. While I couldn't find one picture that proved that out, I'll just take the word of the sources that I've looked at. As for the pictures of the old man that we know as Judge Roy Bean, I'm sure they're not representative of a younger Roy Bean. I mean really, who among us looks like we did when we were in our early 20's before years of living an interesting live took it's toll. No one I know.
As for Roy Bean being a lady's man? Well, it's said that while he was in jail for the two months that he was there, he supposedly received all sorts of gifts including flowers, wine, cigars, and even food from admiring women in San Diego. One of his gifts were a dish of tamales. In the tamales were a couple of small knives.
Yes, I know that you can see where this is going. Roy used the small knives to dig his way out through the adobe walls of his cell. He escapes on April 17th, and flees to San Gabriel to be with his older brother Joshua. He actually goes to work for his brother as a bartender in The Headquarters Saloon. Later, after Joshua was ambushed and killed, Roy inherited his brother's saloon.
As for his stiff neck? No, he didn't get it in Texas after being hanged there. Fact is, it's actually the result of being left to hang in California.
The story goes that in 1854, Roy was courting a young Mexican woman who is said to have been kidnapped and forced into a marriage. Her kidnapping husband was a Mexican Army officer. Roy immediately challenged the man to a dual, and subsequently shoots the Mexican officer dead.
As luck would have it, the Mexican Army officer had friends who wanted to take revenge on Roy Bean. The story is that six of the dead officer's friends find Roy, ties his hands, and take him to a tree to be hanged. They put a noose around his neck while Roy is atop a horse. They then left him to hang.
The rest of the story is that the six men fired shots in the air and yell before they left, but the horse didn't stir. Hiding nearby and watching all of this is the bride of the Mexican officer. She watches the six men leave, then comes out from behind a tree and cuts Roy's ropes. From this, Roy Bean was left with a permanent scar from the rope burn around his neck. That's also how he obtained a permanent stiff neck.
Shortly after that, Roy left California and headed to New Mexico to live with his brother Sam again. Sam had actually been elected the first sheriff of Doña Ana County by then. Then in 1861, Sam and Roy opened up a store and saloon on Main Street in Pinos Altos in what is today Grant County, New Mexico.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, it's said that Roy joined the Confederate Army. In March of 1862, he was supposedly a part of the Confederate Army that was retreating to San Antonio, Texas, after the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. He stayed in San Antonio after the war.
On October 28th, 1866, Roy Bean married 15 year-old Virginia Chavez. During their marriage, they had four children together. His family is said to have lived in "a poverty-stricken Mexican slum area called Beanville". He worked as a teamster, sold firewood, worked as a butcher, and even delivered milk. His milk delivery business suffered when it was found that he was putting creek water in the milk to stretch it and increase his profits. He might never had been found out if he had only strained the water first. What gave him away was when his customers started noticing minnows in the milk.
Bean was said to have acted very surprised when his customers brought that fact to his attention. In fact, so much so that he's known to have said, "By God, I'll have to stop them cows from drinking out of the creek."
As for those who say that he supposedly rustled cattle at that time, I haven't been able to find proof of that. But we do know that by the late 1870s, Roy was running a saloon right there in "Beanville". His saloon was doing OK, but not everything was above board. Because of that, there was trouble when someone didn't take to the watered down booze or the sketchy card games. In fact, there was so much trouble coming from his place that a neighboring store owner wanted him out of there so bad that she actually bought him out for $900 with the agreement that he leaves San Antonio.
Sometime during this time period, Roy and his wife adopted a son. But even the addition of another child wasn't enough to save their volatile marriage, so they divorced around 1880. Right after that, Roy left her and his children. Yes, without support, he left them and put San Antonio behind him. It's said to be Roy Bean's only marriage.
With the money from his Beanville saloon, Roy bought a tent, supplies, and anywhere from ten to fifteen barrels of whiskey. By early 1882, he used his tent, supplies, and barrels of whiskey to create a small saloon near the Pecos River. The tent city where this was taking place was called Vinegarroon.
It's said that the key to success for a business is location. Well because the railroad was push further West, the tent city of Vinegarroon is said to have had anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 railroad works, some sources say there were bout 8,000 railroad workers there. All just within 20 miles of his saloon's location.
Back in 1881, the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to build the second transcontinental railroad and America's first year-round all-weather line. The route ran through Pecos County, which is today Val Verde County. The construction started in 1881 and was open by 1883. During the construction, Southern Pacific required a number of "work camps," many which later became towns all across that county.
While over a dozen of those camps were built, most simply disappeared when the route was completed. Vinegarroon is said to have been the largest camp. It was also the longest lasting camp. This is because those rail workers were working on the largest portion of the project which was the 1,425 foot Tunnel Number Two on the West side of the Pecos.
Vinegarroon was said to be "one of the wickedest tent villages the West had ever known." And if you want to know what Vinegarroon means, well I have no idea what language that comes from, but I do know that a Vinegarroon is a whip-tailed scorpion that's found in West Texas. The little stinkers are out at night and are said to give off a strong vinegar-like odor when they're messed with. Yes, they named the camp "Vinegarroon" after a scorpion that has a reputation of being disliked but mostly harmless. Imagine that.
So yes, at the time of the construction, Roy Bean was in Vinegarroon. He had opened a tent saloon which was one of at least twenty or more saloons in and around that area. Of course Bean opening a saloon was like attracting bees to honey. Problem of course is that some of those in Vinegarroon were not exactly upstanding citizens.
So now, if you're asking when do we get to the whole "Law West of the Pecos"? Well, we're coming to that. Because the nearest established law was the county seat about 300 miles away at Fort Stockton, there was little to no law in that part of the country. One source states that the distance between Vinegarron and Fort Stockton was "more than three-hundred miles away by horseback, six-hundred for a round trip, and twelve days on foot to convey prisoners."
The story goes that a group of Texas Rangers asked that a local jurisdiction be set up in Vinegaroon. One Texas Rangers supposedly described those West of the Pecos as being "the worst lot of roughs, gamblers, robbers and pickpockets I ever saw."
On August 2nd, 1882, the Pecos County commissioners gathered at Fort Stockton to appoint a Justice of the Peace to help establish law and order in the Pecos River area of Southwest Texas. The request by the Texas Rangers was answered when Roy Been was appointed "Justice of the Peace" for what became Precinct 6 of Pecos County.
Now you're probably wondering, why choose Roy Bean? Well, though Bean was a heavy drinker and known to be a somewhat shady character, he came highly recommended by Texas Rangers who felt that he "had what it would take" to bring the law and order "West of the Pecos."
About two months later, Texas Rangers brought in Joe Bell to be tried on July 25th, 1882. That was the first time someone in violation of the law was brought in front of Judge Roy Bean. Joe Bell was tried for stealing. Judge Bean fined and released him.
It didn't take too long for Bean to turn his tent saloon into a "part time courtroom." After that he began calling himself, "Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos." He did use state statues to make his rulings. In fact, he was known to rely on "The 1879 Edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas." And believe it or not, he only used "The 1879 Edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas." It's actually said that when he'd get new or revised law books in, he used them for "kindling."
As for the perks of his being the only "Law West of the Pecos"? Well, having the law not apply to him was a perk. For example, it's said one of his first "acts as a justice of the peace" was to shoot up the tent saloon of a "Jewish" competitor.
Also, another perk was to make up the rules as he went along. For example, it's said that he did not allow for hung juries to take place or for appeals to be made. Jurors were his bar cronies and they were expected to buy drinks during a court recess.
Then there's the perk of being able to make rulings as you please, and he was definitely known for his strange rulings. For example, after an Irish railroad worker by the name of Paddy O'Rourke was arrested for shooting a Chinese laborer, about 200 very angry rail workers showed up. The 200 very angry and most likely drunk men threatened to lynch Judge Roy Bean if he did not set Paddy O'Rourke free.
One story on this incident says that he poured through his law book before rendering a decision. Another story is that he looked outside and saw over 200 very angry rail workers and had a drink. Either way, the Judge ruled that, "homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman". With that, Judge Bean then simply dismissed the case.
Now, let me just say this on that. I read an article write in 1986 calling Judge Roy Bean a "bigot" because of that "ruling." I have to say that I always laugh at Monday Morning Quarterbacks who think they know what they would have done in a similar situation. Some make me wonder if they would have rather he be hanged?
As for Vinegarroon, it folded by December of 1882 when railroad construction had moved further West. When that happened Bean moved his courtroom and saloon to either Strawbridge or Sanderson, and then to Eagle's Nest about 20 miles West of the Pecos River. Eagle's Nest will later become the town of Langtry. And to his credit, about that time was when he wired his children to live with him. I don't know how many joined him, but it's said that his son Sam joined him in Langtry.
Now, here's something to think about. By moving away from Vinegarron, Judge Roy Bean effectively left Precinct 6 which was the area of his jurisdiction as "Justice of the Peace." But despite his move, he continued to represent himself as a Judge and "Law West of the Pecos". In fact, the sign over the entrance of his saloon in Eagle's Nest plainly stated that he was the "Law West of the Pecos."
Southern Pacific railroad completed that line on January 12th, 1883. The completion of the route was celebrated by driving a special solid silver spike into the last tie. It's said that Judge Roy Bean told a story about how he tried stealing that silver spike as soon as everyone was gone, but someone else got there first. His yarn was just that, a yarn. Fact is, a railroad official had actually taken the spike as a souvenir for Southern Pacific railroad. Also, the last tie was said to have been cut up into small pieces after the spike was driven. The pieces were handed out as souvenir gifts to the official guests there.
As for the Eagle's Nest, that site was soon renamed Langtry. And no, it was not named after the well-known British stage actress Lillie Langtry as many believe it was. It was actually named after George Langtry who was a Southern Pacific railroad engineer and foreman. He was known to have supervised the Chinese rail workers in that area.
Bean actually arrived in Langtry right after completion of the route, but when it was still Eagle's Nest. He went about setting up a tent saloon there on Southern Pacific land. There is a story that tells about how the original owner of the land ran a saloon there as well. He sold that land which was 640 acres to Southern Pacific railroad. He supposedly sold it to the railroad on the condition that no part of the land could ever be sold or leased to Roy Bean.
The rest of that story says that Paddy O'Rourke, the Irish rail worker who went in front of Bean over shooting that Chinese laborer, had told the Judge to use the railroad right-of-way because it was not supposedly covered by the contract between the old owner and the railroad. With that, Judge Roy Bean built his famous saloon right there at that spot.
As most of us know, it is a wooden structure, which Bean called "The Jersey Lilly" named after Lillie Langtry. So why "The Jersey Lilly" you ask since she was British? Well, she was a native of Jersey which is officially known as the "Bailiwick of Jersey" which sits off of France but belongs to Great Britain. As for her being related to Southern Pacific's George Langtry, no she wasn't.
As for Judge Bean holding court there, he did use the saloon as his courthouse as both a Justice of the Peace and as a Notary Public. As for his strange way of doing things, since Langtry did not have a jail, people awaiting trial or serving time were chained to the only tree in Langtry at the time. Another quirk is that all cases were settled by fines. And by the way, his court did not give change. So if he fined someone $18 and the person handed over a $20 gold piece expecting change back, Bean was know to immediately amend his decision "Make that $20, by God, that's my ruling!"
As for minor offenses, the "fine" was usually reduced to the defendant buying a round of drinks for the judge, jury, and others there. And yes, that may run $2 dollars. If a person could not pay a fine, Bean was known to have them serve their time by being staked out in the sun for a day or two. The other option to that was to use a prisoner to do public works in Langtry. This worked well for people who needed to work off their fines.
As for fines collected, Bean refused to send the State of Texas any part of the fines. Instead, he kept all of the money. Though he is said to have enjoyed his tough reputation, he actually sounds like a very kind man in many respects. For example, it's said that he took most of the fines and much of the property that he collected and simply gave it to the poor in the area. He did that without it being known that it came from him. And yes, it's said that he even took funds that were collected at "The Jersey Lilly" and used those funds to buy needed medicine for the sick and the poor in and around Langtry. Friends, that's not what a badman does.
And while many folks know about his famously fining a dead man $40 which was the exact amount that in the dead man's pockets, I can't help but wonder how many people know that he spent that $40 on the man' casket, headstone, and to pay the gravediggers for their labor. In that incident, the only thing Judge Bean did keep was the man's gun. The Judge is said to have used it as a gavel.
As for the fines that were never turned into the State of Texas, it's said that the Governor of Texas received a number of complaints about how no funds ever came from Bean's court. The Governor is said to have written the Judge about it. The reply from Judge Bean is as follows: "Governor, you run things there in Austin and I'll run things here. My court never cost the State any money." Supposedly the Governor of Texas never bothered him again about the matter.
As for his leniency, while horse thieves who were often sentenced to hang in other jurisdictions, in his court they were always let go with the provision that they return the stolen horse to its rightful owner. And as for sentencing an offender to State Prison, he never did that.
Now that's not to say that he didn't "stage" hangings. Yes, he "staged" hangings. From what I've read, Judge Bean would actually have his cronies literally recite a prepared script when they'd stage a hanging. With the hopes that all there were still sober enough to remember what their lines were, they would usually go about the whole thing as a sort of drama and get into an argument about something or other. All while turning their backs to the prisoner being "hanged". With their backs turned, and time ticking away, a prisoner would take their supposed distraction as a chance to escape the hangman's noose. It was all designed to scare criminals. And yes, it's said that when given that "second-chance" to live a clean life, a young wannabe outlaw would change his ways.
As for Mondays, yes Judge Roy Bean did in fact do a "wholesale" clearing of his docket. A sample case is said to be: "It is the judgment of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of the State of Texas, particularly in my bailiwick, to-wit: drunk and disorderly, and being the Law West of the Pecos, I fine you $2.00 - now get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again. Next case!..."
Although only district courts were legally allowed to grant divorces, Bean did so anyway, and he pocketed the $10 for each divorce. He charged $5 for weddings. He'd end all wedding ceremonies with "and may God have mercy on your souls" as if they were the condemned.
There is a story of how a district attorney from Del Rio went to Langtry to inform Judge Bean that it was not legal for him to grant divorces. Bean is said to have replied that if he could marry them, then he could "fix his mistakes." The rest of that story talks about how that district attorney wouldn't let the matter lay and pushed it. Judge Bean is said to have gotten the district attorney in a poker game where he lost $230 to the Judge. Judge Bean told the district attorney that he'd forgive the debt on the condition that the subject of granting divorces never came up again. Supposedly, it never did.
Even though he was defeated for re-election in 1886, he was appointed again to be the Justice of the Peace of a new precinct that was newly created in the county in 1887. He served as a Judge for another ten years, until 1896. After that, it's said that he kept on dispensing justice. In fact, after that defeat in 1896, it's said that "he refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try all cases north of the tracks".
That same year, on February 21st, 1896, Bean was responsible for organizing a World Championship Boxing match between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher. Held near Langtry, Texas, in Coahuila, Mexico, Judge Roy Bean was responsible for making that fight happen. Because boxing matches were illegal in both Texas and Mexico, the Judge held the event on an island in the Rio Grande.
The fight was billed as a World Heavyweight title bout for the National Police Gazette Championship belt. Spectators were actually brought in by a special train. Once there, they crossed a footbridge that was specially constructed to allow access to the sandbar. It's said that alcohol flowed and wagers were made. The fight itself lasted only 1 minute and 35 seconds, and was won by Fitzsimmons. The sport reporters hailed the Judge for thumbing his nose at the Texas Rangers and Mexican authorities by holding the fight on a sandbar in the Rio Grande river. His fame was spread nationwide.
As for Lillie Langtry, she visited "The Jersey Lilly". She stated so in her autobiography. She said she did in fact visit there shortly after Judge Bean's death. She did so because of the admiration that she found in the letters that he wrote to her. I believe she also visited Langtry because she wanted to meet one of the best that the American West had to offer.
All in all, he was tough and resilient. He lived by a code and expected others to do the same. He was as just and practical as any human could have been expected to be for the times he lived in.
He was in many ways, the perfect example of the rugged individualist that the American West needed. He took the worse that nature and the criminal world had to offer in the Old West, and stood tall against both.
After reading about him, I found him not just a saloon-keeper and Justice of the Peace. He really was "The Law West of the Pecos". He came highly recommended by Texas Rangers for a reason. He really did have what it would take to bring law and order West of the Pecos. They felt that way for a reason, and I understand why they felt that way. Roy Bean had what it took to do the job.
Because my friend Les Kinsey asked me to look into the Judge, I've actually been working on this for a couple of years now. I'd like to say that I'm sorry for this piece being so long, but I'm not because there was just so much to the man. And yes, there is a lot of stories about him that I left out.
And there's something else about this piece that you my readers need to know, though I work real hard to stay impartial and unbiased when reporting on a historical figure, there were aspects of Judge Roy Bean that I just admire. I found a side of him that goes against the myth and lends more to why he is an American legend, nevertheless a Texas legend.
In the Marine Corps, I was taught a fundamental rule of life, "Adapt, Improvise, Overcome." I see the Judge as doing just that in a West that was rapidly changing. I see that in a brave man who did not back down from a duel, a man who dispatched a Mexican bandit to where he needed to go, a good man who stood for the law in a place that was lawless before he came along.
And yes, I'm still laughing at minnows in the milk.