Judge Roy Bean: A Crude, Drunk Bigot--and a Folk Hero

Associated Press

He was tough and crude, a gambler and a con man, a boozer and a bigot and an opportunist who played fast and loose with the law of the land.

He was mean and uncouth and possessed the table manners of a barbarian.

He probably would have been a womanizer except that he was fat and hairy, seldom bathed and suffered a schoolboy crush on a British actress he never met.

Come along then to the rocky, rugged hills above the Rio Grande River and meet the most colorful and enduring of Texas legends, Judge Roy Bean of Langtry, “The Law West of the Pecos.”

Structure Restored

His rustic courtroom-saloon stands here today as a monument to America’s last frontier and to the man who ruled it with a bizarre brand of justice.


The restored wood structure is the focal point of the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, itself a symbol of one of the most exciting eras in the 15 years of Texas independence.

Author C.L. Sonnichsen said his biography on the judge was written “without any illusions but with the realization that Bean was something more than an amusing old scoundrel.”

“He had in him the stuff of an American folk hero of the sort which this country will never again produce,” Sonnichsen said.

On Aug. 2, 1882, Pecos County commissioners gathered at Ft. Stockton to appoint a justice of the peace to help restore law and order at the railroad camps in the Pecos River area of Southwest Texas.

Rail Workers No Angels

They did so at the request of the railroad and a Texas Ranger named Oglesby, who described the 3,000 rail workers and their followers as the “worst lot of roughs, gamblers, robbers and pickpockets I ever saw.”

The commissioners’ choice was Roy Bean, portrayed as a man with a “great appetite for publicity and a great knack for achieving it.”

Untold numbers of books and magazine articles and a movie starring Paul Newman have recounted the escapades of the crusty old judge and the whiskey-flavored justice dispensed from the porch of his saloon, the Jersey Lilly.

Still, a new book is being written by historian Jack Skiles, 54, who as a child used the saloon as a playhouse and who today serves as supervisor of the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center.

“We used to build fires inside the old saloon,” he said. “It’s a wonder we didn’t burn the place down.”

Began Work Early

Old-timers insist that the judge erected his “Law West of the Pecos” sign and began holding court even before his judicial appointment was official.

Armed with a six-shooter and a rarely-consulted copy of the 1879 Revised Statutes of Texas, Bean set about shaping a bit of Texas history in his own irascible image.

Langtry had no jail, so he deemed all crimes punishable by fines, with most if not all of such moneys trickling into his own pockets.

The judge was particularly fond of interrupting his bluff-and-bluster justice for beer breaks in the saloon and often included a round of drinks for the jury as part of the fines.

His pet bear Bruno likewise drank free and often as part of the judge’s rulings, and the tipsy beast surely intimidated those drunken defendants who found themselves chained to nearby mesquite trees while sobering up for trial.

Had Little Use for Chinese

An Irish railroad worker once shot and killed a Chinese laborer, and for a moment or two this posed a dilemma for Bean, whose clientele was decidedly more Irish than Chinese.

As Jack Skiles said: “Roy Bean truly loved the ‘sons of St. Patrick’ who liberally patronized his saloon, but he had little use for the thrifty Chinese who brought their opium from China and had no need to do business with him.”

With the accused gunman standing before him, the judge flipped through his Revised Statutes of Texas and announced that he found nothing to suggest that killing a Chinese was a criminal offense.

After dismissing the case, Bean herded spectators into the Jersey Lilly and permitted the free-spending Irishman to demonstrate his gratitude.

Exploited Thirsty Passengers

Bean built his saloon in the shadow of the train depot to exploit thirsty passengers. He named his booze and billiard emporium after English Actress Lily Langtry, who was born on the Isle of Jersey.

Lily came to Langtry but not before the judge had died.

“I only wish now I could have come sooner,” she was quoted as saying during a brief appearance at the depot in front of the saloon and an adjacent “opera house” that bore her name.

Bean swore he named the town itself after the actress, for whom he carried a torch until he died in his billiard room in March, 1903. Some argue today that the town’s name sprang from a less romantic source--a construction engineer named George Langtry.

It was near Langtry, at Dead Man’s Gulch, that a silver spike joined the transcontinental tracks of the Sunset Route, now the Southern Pacific, on Jan. 12, 1883.

Bridge Called Longest

The tracks stretched from New Orleans to San Francisco, cutting through limestone cliffs and rocky hills, and spanned the treacherous waters of the Pecos River.

An historical marker at a scenic point near Langtry notes that the railroad crossed the Pecos in 1891 and at the time was the world’s longest such bridge at 2,180 feet and its highest at 321 feet.

In 1896, Judge Bean used the serpentine flow of the Rio Grande to defy the American and Mexican governments, along with the Texas Rangers, by staging an outlawed world championship boxing match on the river bank.

Although the story surely has been embellished, it is historic fact that Bean lured the Bob Fitzsimmons-Peter Maher world heavyweight bout to Langtry after the fight was banned at several proposed sites.

Jumped at Opportunity

At the time, boxing was outlawed in most of the United States, so the fight was booked into Juarez, Mexico. Fight fans, writers and hangers-on had gathered across the river in El Paso when word arrived that the Mexican government had torpedoed the match.

While scrambling futilely for an alternate site, the promoters received a telegram from Roy Bean inviting them to Langtry.

And so it was that on the morning of Feb. 22 a special train packed with boxing fans arrived in Langtry--about the same time as 18 Texas Rangers who had been sent in to stop the fight.

Unruffled, the wily old judge announced that the fight would be staged across the river in Mexico, and out of the Rangers’ jurisdiction.

“When the extra supply of beer that Bean had ordered from San Antonio had been considerably diminished, the sports followed Roy Bean down the main street of Langtry to the Rio Grande,” said Jack Skiles.

Probably Pocketed Profit

“They crossed the river on a footbridge built especially for the event, and watched Bob Fitzsimmons knock out Peter Maher in the first round.”

Skiles said both Fitzsimmons and Roy Bean pocketed some easy money that day and the Eastern writers made the judge famous with their stories about the Law West of the Pecos.

One such story concerned a hobo who toppled off the bridge spanning Eagle Nest Canyon and was found dead the next day by a section crew.

Judge Bean’s inquest failed to identify the man but did turn up $40 and a pistol. Bean fined the corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon and confiscated the pistol.

‘Man for the Place’

Irate victims, the corpse excluded, sometimes protested Jersey Lilly justice to federal authorities, but never to much avail. His superiors knew the territory.

“He was the man for the place,” said a federal judge named T.A. Falvey, who presided over the southwestern district that extended from Del Rio to El Paso. ". . . He was distinctly a creation of circumstances.

“He was in control of the situation and his control was the only one possible. His decisions were not always according to the law and fact, but they were accepted, and that was the big point.

“He was what he claimed to be, the Law West of the Pecos.”