Judge Roy Bean
In a state brimming with eccentric notables, few stand out more than Judge Roy Bean. For twenty years, the “Law West of the Pecos” brought order to the remote, arid Trans-Pecos region. His quirky sense of justice assures him an honored place in Old West lore and history.
Roy Bean’s beginnings go back to the mid 1820’s in the backwoods of Mason County, Kentucky. Facing abject poverty at home, he left at fifteen, hit the Santa Fe Trail, and ended up running a trading post in Northern Mexico with his brother Samuel. After getting into trouble with Mexican authorities, Bean fled to Southern California. He worked at the “Headquarters Saloon” owned by his brother Joshua, who became the first mayor of San Diego, California. Supporting a flashy vaquero look, young Roy Bean became something of a ladies’ man. Such posturing led to altercations. In one of the biggest social events in early San Diego, he took on John Collins in a pistol duel. Like a Medieval joust, both participants dueled on horseback with Bean getting the upper hand. He wounded his adversary in the leg and killed his horse. In 1852, Joshua Bean was murdered and Bean took over his brother’s saloon. His troubles continued after killing a man in a duel over a woman. Avoiding the hangman’s noose, he left California.
Bean journeyed to Mesilla, New Mexico and the new home of his brother Samuel. Elected Sheriff of Dona Ana County, Samuel also had a saloon. It seems saloons were in the Bean family blood. Mesilla was an enclave of Confederate support before the war. When Union forces occupied New Mexico, Bean retreated with the Confederate Army to San Antonio. He tried his luck in the freight business, but that proved more laughable than successful. A Uvalde sheep rancher recalled, “Roy Bean’s freight outfit to haul my wool was the sorriest I have ever beheld. The six wagons were rickety. The teams to draw same were an equal number of jackass and emaciated horses that had seen better days. The harness consisted of ropes, leather, and raw hide thongs, chains, and ill-fitted collars for the jackasses.” When he wasn’t trying to coax an extra mile out of his badly worn animals, Bean courted a 15 year old Mexican girl named Virginia Chavez. Three years later they married and had four children.
In 1882, the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad began laying track between San Antonio and El Paso. Bean saw an opportunity. Tired of married life and the freight business, he divorced his wife and headed west toward the railroad camps near the Pecos River. Upon arrival, he set up a tent saloon and started serving drinks to the railroad workers. Railroad camps in the Old West were havens for gamblers, drunks, opium addicts, thieves, and murderers. In the tent city of Vinegarroon, a boxing ring was set up where workers bet drinks while watching bare knuckle fights. For food and sport, workers dynamited fish out of the Rio Grande. Accidents were common, violence was rampant, and graves were unmarked. Texas Rangers were dispatched to keep the camps in line and protect nearby residents. In dire need of local law enforcement, the Rangers tabbed Bean for the job of Justice of the Peace. Probably impressed with his commanding presence in the camps, the Commissioners of Pecos County officially appointed him. Bean held the office (with interruptions in 1886 and 1896) from 1882 until his death in 1903.
The Jersey Lilly and Courthouse
In 1886, Bean moved to the town of Langtry, named after railroad foreman George Langtry. He later claimed he named the town after Lillie Langtry, a stunning British stage actress Bean became infatuated with. Bean built a saloon and named it “The Jersey Lilly” in her honor. Proclaiming himself the “Law West of the Pecos,” Bean dispensed justice while dispensing whiskey in his saloon. Lacking a jail, Bean kept drunken rowdies handcuffed to a mesquite tree. Law was interpreted through a single book, the 1879 “Revised Statutes of Texas.” Fees ranged from 5$ for weddings to 10$ for divorces. All weddings ended with the death sentence passage, “and may God have mercy on your souls.”
A popular story involved the murder of a Chinese railroad worker by one of the many Irish workers. The worker was brought before Judge Bean while his fellow Irishmen threatened to riot if their friend wasn’t exonerated. Bean carefully scanned his law book then declared, “It don’t say nothing in here about it being against the law to kill a Chinaman. Case dismissed.”
Bean’s greatest achievement may not have been as Justice of the Peace, but as a fight promoter. In February, 1896, a world title prizefight was to be held in El Paso between number one contender Bob Fitzsimmons and Irish champ Peter Maher. Because both Texas and Mexico outlawed prizefighting, Bean came up with a novel solution. Why not have the fight at Langtry in the middle of the nearby Rio Grande ? The two fighters and paying spectators boarded a special train in El Paso for the fight in Langtry. Spectators and residents swamped “The Jersey Lilly” while the fighters got dressed aboard the train. A rickety footbridge had been constructed across the river to a sandbar and hastily assembled boxing ring. Drunken fans watched Fitzsimmons knock out Maher within a few seconds from the opening bell. Texas Rangers could only look on from the bluffs above the river; the fight was out of their jurisdiction.
Despite Judge Bean’s moodiness, revolting table manners and drunken tirades, he was basically a good soul that helped the poor and established a schoolhouse for the local children. He never allowed children in the saloon. Destitute mothers without a supporting husband were provided one of Bean’s rent homes free of charge.
His obsession with Lillie Langtry never wavered. In anticipation of a future performance, he built an opera house for the red-headed actress. Bean wrote her a letter imploring her to visit the town he named after her. The actress couldn’t make it but offered him a water fountain instead. Bean later replied that it would be useless since the only thing the citizens of Langtry didn’t drink was water. Unfortunately, the two would never meet. Bean died on March 16, 1903 in his saloon. He was buried at the Del Rio cemetery.
Almost a year later, Lillie Langtry visited the town she thought was named after her. While traveling from New Orleans to San Francisco, her train stopped for a short visit; the whole town turned out. A bugler and drummer provided musical accompaniment as Miss Lillie herself stepped off the train. She visited the saloon and schoolhouse. After being told about the school’s overcrowded condition, she donated fifty dollars to enlarge it. Poker chips from the saloon, one of Judge Bean’s pistols, and of all things, a pet bear were presented to her. Langtry recalled the bear presentation in her memoir, “The Days I Knew:”
“They hoisted the unwilling animal on to the platform, and tethered him to the rail, but happily, before I had time to rid myself of this unwelcome addition without seeming discourteous, he broke away, scattering the crowd and causing some of the vaqueros to start shooting wildly at all angles.”
Lillie Langtry had a life that could be a guidebook for today’s Hollywood celebs. She had a three year affair with the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (Queen Victoria’s son and the future King Edward VII). The prince even constructed a retreat for the two of them called the “Red House.” If that wasn’t enough, she had affairs with the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg (First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy) while still married to her husband Edward Langtry. Lillie Langtry was one of the first actresses to be paid to endorse commercial products such as soap and cosmetics. She also purchased the Langtry Estate and Vineyards in Lake County, California. It is still in operation today and Langtry wines can be purchased online. Lillie Langtry died in 1929 while living in Monaco.
Here is a favorite scene from the movie, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” starring Paul Newman as the Judge. In this fictional scene, Judge Bean demonstrates the Texas solution to global terrorism on mad, Albino outlaw, “Bad Bob.” This guy is so crazy and scary-looking, I think he would have been shot back then for just being crazy and scary-looking. Check out the movie and read Jack Skiles’ wonderful book, “Judge Roy Bean Country.”