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"Law West of the Pecos"

Updated on August 4, 2015

Judge Roy Bean

Perhaps no other person in Old West history would seemingly be less likely to hold a position as judge than Judge Roy Bean. There was little which could be called judicious in his character.  His simple motto was “Hang 'em first, try 'em later,” though he is known to have sentenced only two men to hang…and one of them escaped.

He was born Phantly Roy Bean, Jr. around 1825 in Mason County, Kentucky, the exact date not being known.  He was described as a grizzled bear of a man  and an eccentric saloon keeper  and justice of the peace  in  Val Verde County, Texas, who proclaimed himself  the "Law West of the Pecos." 

Judge Roy Bean was said to hold court in his saloon along the Rio Grande in a desolate stretch of the Chihuahua Desert of southwest Texas.  After his death, films and books portrayed him as a hanging judge.

An article in the Smithsonian Magazine edition of June 1998 by Bruce Watson adequately depicts a fictionalized account of what might be considered a typical day in Beans’ court.  It reads in part: "…Doffing his saloon apron, the grizzled barkeep dons a dirty alpaca coat, sits himself down behind the bar, draws a pistol and bangs for silence using the butt as a gavel.  "Order, by Gobs!   This honorable court is now in session, and if any galoot wants a snort before we start, let him step up to the bar and name his pizen."

Little Formal Education

He had virtually no formal education in legal aspects of being a judge and his only knowledge of the judicial proceedings came from a law book containing the 1879 Revised Statutes of Texas. If newer law books appeared, Bean used them as kindling.  A learned man he may not have been, but perhaps his one redeeming value was he knew how to hold court, unorthodox as it may have been at times.  Bean once said of himself: “I know the law...I am its greatest transgressor.”

Bean began getting into trouble at an early age. He left home in 1847 and lived in Mexico for a while…until he shot a man in a barroom fight. Bean fled to San Diego.  Again he shot a man during an argument and was forced to leave town quickly. The tale was the same in Los Angeles, where he killed a Mexican officer in a duel over a woman.  Angry friends of the officer lynched Bean, but fortunately, the rope stretched and Bean managed to stay alive until the woman in question cut him down. He bore rope scars on his neck the rest of his life. Bean moved on to New Mexico and Texas.

There is no doubt Bean was not a likely choice to end up as a judge.  He had scrapes with the law on many occasions.  Fortunately, two of his brothers had managed to make something out of themselves.

Circa 1900

Fancy Pants

In 1849 he went to live with his brother Joshua, mayor of San Diego.   Apparently Bean thought a lot of himself there as he was often seen strutting about town wearing a fancy sombrero, pants and sporting two guns and a Bowie knife. He had a penchant for romancing women, bragging, dueling and gambling on cockfights. Joshua made Roy a lieutenant in the state militia and bartender of his saloon Headquarters to try and keep Roy out of trouble. For awhile, it worked but in 1852, Roy was arrested for wounding a man in a duel. However he managed to escape and returned to New Mexico where another brother, Sam, had become a sheriff.  He tended bar for several years managing to stay out of trouble.

When the civil war erupted he began running the Union blockade, bringing goods from the Mexican border into Texas.  After the war, on October 28, 1866, he married eighteen-year-old Virginia Chavez and settled in San Antonio with her and their four children.  He was about 40 years old.  Within a year he was arrested for aggravated assault and threatening his wife's life.


Lillie Langtry

A Rogue and Scoundrel

Bean was still a rogue and scoundrel. He sold firewood he had cut on another man's land without permission. He sold watered down milk and later worked as a butcher, rustling cattle and generally bilking his neighbors in any fashion he could devise. They named his neighborhood” Beanville.” And by no means was the name meant to be an honor.

In 1882, crews began construction on the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad to link San Antonio and El Paso. Temperatures were over 100 and water was scarce. Bean purchased a tent, some supplies and ten 55-gallon barrels of whiskey. He established a small saloon in a tent city he named Vinegaroon.

Within a 20 mile radius were 8,000 railroad workers who Bean served whiskey. His patrons included all kinds of roughnecks, gamblers, robbers and pickpockets. Texas rangers had no problem in arresting law breakers. However, the nearest courtroom was 200 miles away at Fort Stockton and it soon became obvious some kind of law needed to be instituted. Bean decided he'd be it.

He had only three month's formal education in his entire life but nonetheless, on August 2, 1882, Pecos County Commissioners appointed Bean as their Justice of the Peace for the new Precinct 6.

One of his first acts as a justice of the peace was to "shoot up” the saloon shack of a Jewish competitor.”  Bean next converted his tent saloon into a part-time courtroom and began calling himself the "Law West of the Pecos."

Bean did not allow hung juries or appeals, and jurors, who were chosen from his best bar customers, were expected to buy a drink during every court recess. Bean often handed out sometimes humorous and bizarre rulings.

 In one case, an Irishman named Paddy O'Rourke shot a Chinese laborer and was arrested. A mob of 200 angry Irishmen surrounded the courtroom and threatened to lynch Bean if he didn’t immediately release him. After poring over his law book, Bean ruled that "homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman.  The case was dismissed. 

Bean once fined a dead man $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. Another time he threatened a lawyer with hanging for using profane language when he referred to the "habeas corpus" of his client. 

By December 1882, railroad construction had moved further westward, so Bean followed along and set up his courtroom and saloon in Strawbridge.  A competitor in the area laced Bean's whiskey with kerosene forcing him to 20 miles West in Eagle’s Nest of the Pecos River.

 The site was renamed Langtry, so named for the famous English actress, Lillie Langtry. Bean had never met the beautiful actress, but he had an unrequited affection for her after seeing a drawing of her in a magazine.  His famous saloon, The Jersey Lilly, was also named in her honor.  Above the door he posted signs that read “ICE COLD BEER” and “LAW WEST OF THE PECOS.”   For the rest of his life, he followed Langtry's career.

The original owner of the land, also a saloon keeper, had sold 640 acres to the railroad on the condition no part could be sold or leased.  So for the next 20 years, Bean squatted on land he had no legal claim to.

Langtry did not have a jail, so all cases were settled by fines which Bean kept. In most cases, the fines were made for the exact amount an offender had on his person. Horse thieves, usually hung in other jurisdictions, were always let go if they were returned.

Although only district courts were legally allowed to grant divorces, Bean did so anyway, pocketing $10 for each divorce. He charged only $5 for a wedding, and ended all wedding ceremonies with "and may God have mercy on your souls"

Bean won re-election in 1884, but was defeated in 1886. The next year he was appointed Justice of the Peace for a new precinct in the county.  He continued to be elected until 1896. However he "refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try all cases north of the tracks.”

In 1896, Bean organized a world championship title bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher.  Since boxing matches were illegal in both Texas and Mexico the match was held on an island in the Rio Grande.  The fight lasted 1 minute, 35 seconds, but the resulting sport coverage made him famous.

In later years Bean spent much of his profits aiding the local poor. He always made sure the schoolhouse had free firewood in winter. 

 He died March 16, 1903, peacefully in his bed.  He and a son, Sam Bean, are interred at the Whitehead Memorial Museum in  Del Rio.  Lillie Langtry, the object of Bean's devoted adoration, visited the village named in her honor only 10 months after he died.


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      alastar packer 

      7 years ago

      Super hub with a great story in Judge Roy Bean. My faves are his ..what do you call them..the way he used sayings when passing sentence on someone? I can see why he worshiped Lillie Langtry, what a hunk of woman. Never seen it but wonder if that movie with Newman playing him is any good. UP and awesome.


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