Judge Roy Bean
The Only Law West of the Pecos
Judge Roy Bean
"He could find no law against killing a Chinaman"
In a small wooden saloon along the Rio Grande on a desolate stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert in southwest Texas, Judge Roy Bean held court over the local population of Langtry, in Val Verde County. Having previously been an adventurer, murderer and escaped convict, the roguish Bean soon settled into a legitimate life as a saloon keeper and judge. After picking up a smattering of law while running a construction camp saloon, he became known as the “Only Law West of the Pecos”, and was fond of handing out his own particular brand of justice. He would regularly stop trial to serve liquor to counsel, jury and defendants and play a couple of hands of poker before resuming. Using an outdated law book, the many court cases that came before him would involve the most unorthodox of verdicts, and many ended in fines which were pocketed by Bean. His notable career as Justice of the Peace came to an end with his death in 1903, but his legend has persisted, and there are many humorous anecdotes about his time as the Lawman of Langtry.
In 1882 the community of Langtry was established by the Southern Pacific Railroad as a grading camp called Eagle Nest. It was later be renamed after the engineer and foreman, George Langtry, who supervised the immigrant Chinese work crews who built the railroad in the area. Soon after completion, a man arrived by the name of Roy Bean, who proceeded to set-up a tent saloon on company land. He was then authorized as a Justice of Peace by a passing Texas Ranger, and began calling himself the “Only Law West of the Pecos”. One day, the corpse of a Southern Pacific railroad workman was found. The man had been died after falling from a high bridge over the Pecos River. He sometimes acted as coroner, for which usually collected a $10 burial fee, as well as $10 in court costs. Bean did not think the coroner’s $5 fee was enough, and so upon searching the body, he found a revolver and $40 on his person. He declared, “I find this corpse guilty of carrying a concealed weapon, and I fine it $40”.
Such were the unique and often questionable rulings of Judge Bean, that he would mete out whatever verdicts he saw fit. Afterall, he was the Law in Langtry. But the man who would become the undisputed Judge and jury in Val Verde County started his career on the wrong side of the law. Phantly Roy Bean Jr. in circa 1825 as the youngest of five children to Phantly Roy Bean Sr. and the former Anna Henderson Gore, an extremely poor family in Mason County, Kentucky. At the age of sixteen, Bean left home to ride a flatboat to New Orleans, where he hoped to find work, but soon got into trouble. He then fled to San Antonio, Texas, to join his elder brother Sam, who had earlier migrated to Independence, Missouri, and worked as a teamster and bullwhacker. Sam Bean hauled freight to Santa Fe and then on to Chihuahua, Mexico, after which he fought in the Mexican-American War, before moving to San Antonio where he was joined by his younger brother.
Together they opened a trading post in 1848, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, but soon Roy Bean was charged with murder by the Mexican authorities. He had shot and killed a Mexican desperado who had threatened to “kill a gringo”, and to escape, they both fled west to Sonora, Mexico. The younger Bean then moved to San Diego, California in the spring of 1849, where he lived with his other brother Joshua, who would be elected the first mayor of San Diego in 1850. Considered a handsome ladies man, Bean would compete for the affections of many local women, and was challenged by a rival named John Collins, who suggested they contest their feud with a pistol-shooting match on horseback. Bean was given the task of choosing the targets and decided that the two men would shoot at each other. The subsequent duel was fought on February 25, 1852, and ended with Collins taking a shot to his right arm. Both men were then arrested and charged with assault with intent to murder.
Bean would spend the next two months in jail, where he received many gifts from the local women of San Diego, including flowers, cigars, food and wine. Hidden in some of these gifts were knives, which Bean used to dig through his cell wall and escape on April 17, 1852. He then fled to San Gabriel, California, where he worked as a bartender in his brother Joshua’s “Headquarters Saloon”, which he inherited in November 1852 upon his brothers murder. Bean continued with his womanizing ways, and in 1854, he courted a young woman who was then kidnapped and forced to marry a Mexican Army officer. Bean challenged the man to a duel and killed him. The dead man’s friends then took their revenge, and Bean was put on a horse with a rope tied around his neck, leaving him to hang when the horse moved. He managed to stay alive when the rope stretched, and the bride soon emerged from her hiding place and cut him down. He was left with a permanent rope burn on his neck, that remained for the rest of his life.
Soon after this traumatic experience, Bean decided to move away from California and migrated to New Mexico to live with his brother Sam, who had in the meantime been elected as the first sheriff of Dona Ana County. By 1861, the brothers operated a general store and saloon on Main street in Pinos Altos, just north of Silver City, New Mexico. There they advertised liquor and “a fine billiard table”. Bean placed a cannon that belonged to him in front of the store, and which had been used to repel an Apache assault against the town. New Mexico was invaded by the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and during the Battle of Glorieta Pass in March 1852, the Confederates lost their supply wagons which forced them to retreat to San Antonio. Bean joined the retreating army after taking money from his brother’s safe, and for the remainder of the conflict, he served as a guerrilla running naval blockades by hauling cotton from San Antonio to British ships off the coast of Matamoros, then returning with supplies.
Over the course of the next twenty years, Bean lived in San Antonio, where he worked as a teamster and engaged in various business opportunities, including attempting to run a firewood company by cutting down a neighbour’s timber, and a dairy business, which ended when he was caught watering down the milk. He even worked as a butcher, rustling unbranded cattle from other ranchers in the region for his own business. On October 28, 1866, Bean married eighteen-year-old Virginia Chavez. Despite them couple having four children together, Roy Jr., Laura, Zulema and Sam, it was tumultuous union and within a year of marriage, he was arrested for aggravated assault and threatening the life of his wife. The family lived in what was described as “a poverty-stricken Mexican slum area called Beanville.” By the late 1870’s, Bean was operating his own saloon in Beanville, and was known about town for his roguish behaviour.
He soon got wind that many construction camps were being set-up when several railroad companies began working to extend the railroads westwards. A local store owner “was so anxious to have this unscrupulous character out of the neighborhood,” that she decided to buy up all of Bean’s possessions for $900, so that he could promptly leave San Antonio. By this time, he had separated from his wife and left his children to the care of friends as he prepared to move west. With the money he received, he purchased a large tent, various supplies to sell and ten 55-gallon barrels of whiskey. By the Spring of 1882, he had established a small saloon near the Pecos River, in a tent city he named Vinegaroon. He had chosen this site because within 32 kilometres of the settlement, there were some 8,000 railroad workers, all of whom would buy his wares and whiskey. The nearest court was located some 320km away at Fort Stockton, and there was little anyone could do to stop lawbreakers.
By August 2, 1882, Bean was appointed justice of the peace for the new Precinct 6 in Pecos County, after a request by a Texas Ranger for the setting up of a local law jurisdiction in Vinegaroon. Before his appointment, Bean head his first case on July 25, 1882, when Joe Bell was brought in by Texas Rangers to be tried. One of Bean’s first acts as the newly installed justice of the peace was to “shoot up the saloon shack of a Jewish competitor.” He then turned his tent saloon in a part-time courtoom and thereafter became known as the “Only Law West of the Pecos.” When acting as Judge, Bean relied on a single law book, the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas, a mostly out-of-date copy, and when newer law books appeared, he would use them as kindling. He meted out his own particular brand of justice, and disallowed hung juries or even appeals. Jurors were selected from among his favourite bar customers, who were expected to buy a drink during every court recess.
He was well-known for his unusual court rulings. In one such case, an Irishman named Paddy O’Rourke was arrested after he shot a Chinese laborer. During the trial at Bean’s saloon courtroom, a mob of some 200 angry Irishmen surrounded the court, threatening to lynch Bean if O’Rourke was not freed. After leafing through his lawbook, Bean declared that “homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman,” and immediately dismissed the charges. In another, when a young ranchman was fined $5 for fighting, he produced witnesses that he had not been fighting but had in fact held the other person off. Bean remitted the fine and instead fined the other man $10, who had in the meantime skipped town. The ranchman was committed until the fine was paid; in the end, the ranchman paid the fine.
By December 1882, construction of the railroad had moved farther westwards, and Bean decided to move his courtroom and saloon some 110km to Strawbridge. He sent for his children to join him, where they would live with him in the saloon, with his youngest son Sam often sleeping on a pool table. When a competitor laced Bean’s whiskey with kerosene, he was unable to attract customers, and so left the area and moved to Eagle’s Nest, 32km west of the Pecos River, which was soon renamed Langtry. The original owner of the land, who also ran a saloon, had sole around 640 acres to the railroad company, on the condition that no part of the land could be sold or leased to Roy Bean. In order to counter this clause, Bean was given advice by O’Rourke, the Irishman whose case he had previously dismissed, that he should use to railroad right-of-way, which was not covered by the contract. Bean was then able to squat on land he had no legal right to use.
Bean eventually errected a wooden structure for his saloon, which he renamed, the Jersey Lillie Langtry, in honor of Lillie Langtry, the actress, who would recount in her autobiography that she didn’t visit the area until after Bean’s death. She did however send him a pair of Colt. 45 pistols as a gift. The saloon courtroom did not have a jail, and instead it is reported that a large oak tree with a heavy log chain served as the ‘jail’ for those who were unable to pay their fines. As per the law, fines were to be handed over to the state, but instead Bean kept all of the money. In most cases, fines handed out by Bean were for the exact amount the accused person was carrying. In one incident, when a train passenger tossed a $20 gold piece for a beer, Bean refused to give any change. When the stranger protested, Bean fined him $19.95 for contempt of court and threatened to double the fine if the stranger said another word; the stranger left on a train.
Despite the mandate that only district courts were legally allowed to grant divorces, Bean did so anyway, and pocketed $10 for each divorce. He would charge $5 for weddings, and ended all wedding ceremonies with the phrase “and may God have mercy on your souls,” which was traditionally said when a death sentence is carried out. When a Mexican received permission for one day off from work by his boss to marry his future wife, there was not enough time to secure a license, so Bean married them anyway and proclaimed that the marriage license would arrive by the next day’s mail after charging them his usual $5 marriage fee. After he performed the marriage of two Mexican couples, they later came before Bean and asked to be divorced and remarried to the other person’s spouses; Bean agreed to the demand, charging each $10 for marriages and $40 for divorces.
He continued to conduct his own brand of law within his courtroom, and when a railroad contractor named Howard, who had some law training, was brought into court and read from the latest revised law statutes, Bean remitted the fine but rendered a verdict that no law books were to be brought into his court. A rival saloon owner named Torrano was brought before Bean charged with assault. A jury of six of Bean’s regulars found the accused guilty and fined him two dozen bottles of beer. Bean forbid his rival from buying beer at his own saloon and instead had him pay retail fine at The Jersey Lilly. Bean won re-election to his post in 1884, but was defeated in 1886. By the following year, the commissioner’s court created a new precinct in the county, and Bean was appointed to be the new justice of the peace. He would continue to be re-elected until 1896, and after his defeat, it was reported “he refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try all cases north of the tracks”.
In 1890, Bean received word that railroad developer, speculator and robber baron Jay Gould, who had once attempted to take control of the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt, was passing through Langtry on a special train. Bean flagged down the train using the danger signal, and believing the bridge was out, the engineer stopped the train. To his surprise, Gould and his daughter were then invited by Bean to visit the saloon as his guests. The Gould’s two hour visit reportedly caused a brief panic on the New York Stock Exchange, when it was erroneously reported that Gould had been killed in a train crash. On April 16, 1897, there was an accidental collision between two trains during which one man, Robert Beckman, was killed and four others scalded. The inquest was presided over by Judge Bean, who brought the body of Beckman to Langtry for burial in the Langtry graveyard.
Bean organized a In 1896 world championship boxing title bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher on an island in the Rio Grande. The fight was hosted there because boxing matches were illegal in both Texas and Mexico. As a result of the fight, which lasted only 1 minute and 35 seconds, and was won by Fitzsimmons, Bean’s fame throughout the United States. During him term as a judge, and despite his becoming known as a ‘hanging judge’, Bean was known to have sentenced only two men to hang, one of whom escaped. In most other jurisdictions, horse thieves were often sentenced to death, but Bean always allowed them to go if the horses were returned to their owners. As was reported in March 1897’s edition of Leslie’s Weekly read, “The picture in your publication of March 11, of Judge Roy Bean is all right, except the collar and cravat. He was once trying a Mexican on a charge of horse stealing and his charge was the shortest on record: Gentlemen of the Jury, there’s a greaser in the box and a hoss missing. You know your duty, and they did.”
In the later years, Bean spent much of his profits helping the poor of the area and always made sure that the local schoolhouse had free firewood in the winter. In January 1901, it was reported that Bean stated that a claim for damages of $13,000 from Apache depredations of his mules would certainly be allowed. On 16 March 1903, after a bout of heavy drinking in San Antonio, Roy Bean died peacefully in his bed. He was interred, along with his son, Sam Bean (1874–1907), at the Whitehead Memorial Museum in Del Rio. In 1965, as part of the Civil War Centennial commemoration in Texas, an official Texas Historical Marker honoring Roy Bean was erected on the museum grounds in Del Rio, Texas. Bean has been portrayed on both the small and big screen by a variety of actors.
In the 1940 film The Westerner, he was played by Walter Brennan, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, a 1972 heavily fictionalized theatrical biopic starred Paul Newman as Bean, while Ned Beatty portrayed the Langtry Judge in the 1995 TV mini-series Streets of Laredo, starring alongside James Garner and based on the Larry McMurtry novel of the same name. In the 1969 film A Time for Dying, which portrayed the Vinegaroon period, starred Audie Murphy starred as Jesse James and Victor Jory played a half-crazed Judge Roy Bean. Brad Sullivan played Judge Roy Bean in the television movie, The Gambler: The Luck of the Draw, alongside Kenny Rogers and Reba McEntire. Bean is best remembered as a scallywag of the lawless wild west, the gambler, saloon-keeper and one-time smuggler who found himself as the ultimate law west of the Pecos.