As a saloonkeeper, he was called his own best customer. He ran afoul of the law more often than many of the men before his own court. Like so many of the early law figures of the frontier who lived on the edge of the law themselves, Judge Roy Bean became a legendary figure in the West.
Roy Bean was born in 1825 in Mason County, Kentucky, near the Ohio River. He was the youngest of five children in a poor family. As a young man eager for opportunity and adventure, he went to New Orleans to find work. Finding only trouble, he followed his older brothers to the Far West instead.
He had a reputation for charm but also a reputation for a sharp temper. While in San Antonio in 1852, he was imprisoned for fighting a duel – fought while on horseback. However, he escaped from jail and ran to California.
His older brothers, Samuel and Joshua Bean, had established themselves as respected business leaders in their communities. Joshua Bean served as mayor of San Diego, California, and as a major general in the California militia before his death in 1852. Samuel Bean served as a sheriff in the New Mexico Territory as well as an owner of various saloons. Roy Bean lived with both briefly and became a partner in their various business enterprises. In one venture with Samuel Bean, while the two owned a saloon in Mexico, he reportedly shot and killed a man in his own bar.
During the Civil War, he worked on boats running against the Union blockade. In 1866, he settled down in San Antonio and married the 16-year-old daughter of a prominent rancher. The couple had four children and a stormy marriage. Reports surfaced of Bean stealing cattle and selling stolen firewood. He also operated a saloon in a San Antonio neighborhood that became known as “Beanville.” In 1882, he left his family for work with the railroad under construction between San Antonio and El Paso. When construction crossed the Pecos River, Bean’s fortunes suddenly changed.
At Vinegarroon (later renamed Langtry, reportedly at Bean’s behest), a railroad camp, Bean set up a new saloon, the “Jersey Lilly.” Meanwhile, Pecos County was desperate to organize the area along the Rio Grande as settlers trickled in and the railroad neared completion. Pecos County took up a large portion of West Texas when it was formed by the state legislature in 1875. In August 1882, county commissioners named Roy Bean as justice of the peace for the southeastern reaches of the county. Val Verde County was formed in 1885 from portions of Pecos and took in Langtry.
Today, a Texas justice of the peace mostly handles small claims disputes between two parties, traffic violations, and the most minor misdemeanors. For Pecos County and the wild frontier region of far West Texas in the 1880s, a justice of the peace like Judge Roy Bean was effectively the only court available for miles. Fort Stockton, the county seat and the site of the next major court, was a difficult ride of nearly 150 miles distant.
Judge Bean set up his courtroom in a room next to his thriving saloon, dispensing his own colorful form of justice. Twice he sentenced men to death, but one escaped and the other had his sentence commuted. He illegally granted divorces for $10 each. He fined a dead man the $40 he had on him so the county could pay for the funeral. Reportedly, he kept almost all the fines he assessed in his court room. However, he gave generously to the poor and supplied the local school with firewood in the winter. He was twice voted out of office, but he came back and served until he retired in 1902.
Bean died in his bar in 1903. In 1972, actor Paul Newman portrayed the colorful judge in the movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Today, Langtry is a tiny, unincorporated community of 150 residents kept alive mostly by the Judge Roy Bean legend and a museum dedicated to his memory.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.