Roy Bean - The Law West of the Pecos
Phantley Roy Bean (1825-1903) - Roy Bean was born in Mason County, Kentucky around 1825
to Phantley Roy and Anna Henderson Gore Bean. The
youngest of three sons, the Kentucky family was very poor.
At the age of 15, he left Kentucky to follow his two older brothers west. With his brother, Sam, he joined a wagon train into New Mexico, then crossed the Rio Grande
River and set up a trading post in Chihuahua, Mexico
After killing a local man, Roy fled to San Diego, California
where his brother, Joshua, lived.
On February 24, 1852, Bean was in a duel on
horseback with a Scotsman named Collins. In the gunfight, Collins was shot in
his right arm and both men were arrested for assault with intent to murder.
Bean, who was considered brave and handsome by the local women, received
numerous visits and gifts during his six-week stay in jail. When one of his
admirers slipped him knives hidden in some tamales, Bean used them to dig
through the cell wall and escaped on April 17th.
Next, he wound up in San Gabriel,
where his brother Joshua owned a
called the Headquarters. When Joshua was killed in November, 1852, Bean
and began to operate it.
While there, Bean killed a Mexican official during an argument over a woman. Friends of the official soon hauled Bean off, lynched him and left him to die. However, he was saved by the young woman
who had been the cause of the dispute. For the rest of his life, he sported a
permanent rope burn on his neck, which constantly felt stiff.
Before long, he was back in New Mexico,
where he again lived with his brother Sam who had become the sheriff in Mesilla.
Civil War, the
Texas army invaded
New Mexico and Bean
soon joined them, hauling supplies for the
Confederates and living in San Antonio. On October 28, 1866, he married eighteen-year-old Virginia
Chavez, but the couple were not happy together. Just a year into the marriage,
Bean was arrested for aggravated assault on his wife. However, despite their
differences, the couple would eventually have four
children. For the next decade, the family lived in a Mexican slum area on South
Flores Street in San Antonio that soon earned the name of Beanville. During these years, he
worked at a number of professions including teamster,
running a dairy
business, and other entrepreneurial enterprises that were obviously not very
successful, as he became known for circumventing creditors, business rivals, and
By the early 1880's, Bean and his wife were separated and he sold
all his possessions and left San Antonio, wandering about the railroad camps
before finally landing in west Texas
Pecos River. In the early 1880's the Southern Pacific Railroad was
working hard to to overcome its last obstacle of completing its transcontinental
route -- crossing the
Pecos River. A construction camp formed near the
railroad bridge site, which was called
Vinegarroon, named for a for a type of
scorpion found in the area, that emits a vinegar-like odor when it is alarmed.
The community was founded in 1881, serving as a temporary home for thousands of
railroad workers and Roy Bean quickly established a small
saloon in the tent
July 5, 1882,
Captain T. L. Oglesby
penned a note to his commanding officer General King describing the area:
Eagle Nest, Pecos
July 5, 1882
Upon my arrival here on June 29th, I proceeded to visit all the railroad
camps and scout the country thoroughly. There is the worst lot of roughs,
gamblers, robbers, and pick pocketed, collected here I ever saw, and
without the immediate presence of the state troops this class would prove
a great detriment towards the completion of the road.
There is nothing for
Rangers to do but hold this
rough element in subjection and control them. The majority of the railroad
camps are in Pecos County. This immediate section being 200 miles from
the nearest jurisdiction Court of Justice and the consequent minor
offences go unpunished; but, I hope to remedy that in a few days by having a
Magistrate appointed for the precinct.
When it became known that a Justice of the Peace was wanted for the area, Roy
Bean was quick to volunteer and on
August 2, 1882, he became the only "legal authority" in the area. He first operated his "justice" out of his tent saloon in
Vinegarroon. With the nearest
court 200 miles away at
he quickly became the self-proclaimed "Only Law West of the Pecos."
Roy Bean'ss Jersey Lilly Saloon and Courtroom in
Langtry, Texas. This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
An unusual sort of "judge" from the beginning, one
of his first judicial acts was to shoot up the
saloon of a Jewish competitor.
Holding court in his
utilized a single law book -- the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes
Texas. His methods of justice, carried out in his combination
saloon/courtroom, were somewhat odd and always final. During construction of the bridge at
Vinegarroon a structure collapsed and ten workers fell.
Judge Roy Bean
was called to the site to hold an inquest. Riding on a mule to the accident, he
pronounced all ten men dead; however, only seven of them had actually been
killed. When questioned on this point, the judge reasoned that the others would
soon die and that he did not want to make the trip twice. Fortunately, for the
three men, he was wrong, and they survived to tell the tale.
December, 1882, railroad construction had ended on the bridge and
Vinegarroon was abandoned. Bean then headed northwest to the railroad
camp of Eagle Nest (later called
There, he quickly set up another tent saloon on railroad
land, to the chagrin of Cezario Torres, who owned most of the land beside the
railroad right-of-way. He later built a
wooden structure for his saloon, which he called the "Jersey Lillie"
after the well-known British stage actress
Lillie Langtry. Her real last
name was actually Emilie Le Breton and she was not related to George Langtry, of
whom the town was named.
Bean used the saloon as his headquarters and courtroom, and continued his eccentric
On one occasion when
the body of a dead
was found in the area, which held $40 and a six-gun, he charged the corpse with
carrying a concealed weapon and fined it $40. On another case, when an an Irishman named Paddy
O'Rourke was going to be tried for shooting a Chinese laborer, a mob of 200
angry Irishmen surrounded the courtroom and threatened to lynch
was not freed. In response,
Bean ruled that "homicide was the killing of a human
being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman" and the case
Despite the protest of
thought it preposterous to forbid a man to carry a weapon. One man who was
arrested and accused of carrying concealed weapon was released by
with the following logic.
"That charge won't stick," pronounced the judge. "If
he was standing still when he was arrested he wasn't carrying weapons because he
wasn't going no place. And, if he was not standing still, he was traveling, and
it's legal for travelers to carry weapons. Case dismissed."
Jurors for his cases were chosen from his best bar
allowed no hung juries or appeals.
Langtry had no jail, all cases were settled by fines, most of which just happened to be
the amount the accused had on his person.
Of these fines collected, he was never known to have sent any of the money to
the state, but, rather pocketed the cash.
Though later portrayed in Western films and books as
a "hanging judge,"Bean only sentenced two men to hang, one of which escaped.
And, in fact, when it came to horse thieves, who were often sentenced to hang,
they would be let go under Judge
Bean if they returned the horses, and of
course, paid a fine.
Bean also made money from granting divorces, which he
didn't have the jurisdiction to do, and married numerous couples, always ending
the wedding ceremonies with the words, "and may God have mercy on your souls."
was defeated in the election of 1886, but the
very next year a new precinct was created after
Langtry had become part of Val
Verde County and he was appointed once again as the new justice of the peace. He
continued to be elected until 1896, when he was finally defeated. However, in
typical "Bean" fashion, he refused to surrender his seal and law book and
continued to try all cases north of the railroad tracks.
In 1896, Judge Roy
Bean made national headlines by
setting up a boxing match in
Texas had outlawed boxing, he
scheduled the heavyweight fight between Robert James Fitzsimmons and Peter
Maher, to be held on a sandbar on Mexico's side of the Rio Grande River, just
then made arrangements for the press, spectators, and
Texas Rangers to travel by train from El Paso to
Langtry. Fitzsimmons knocked
Maher out in 95 seconds, winning the heavyweight title.
Judge Roy Bean's Jersey Lilly Saloon
today, Kathy Weiser,
This image available for photographic prints & downloads
For years, he boasted of his "acquaintance with
Miss Langtry," telling anyone and everyone that he would one day meet her. When
he built a home for himself behind the saloon, he even called it the “Opera House” in anticipation of a visit by the
famous actress. Though he never met
Lillie Langtry, he often wrote her, and she allegedly wrote him
back and sent him two pistols, which he cherished for the rest of his life. He
credit for naming the town after her, even though it
was not the case as mentioned before it was named for railroad man George
As he aged,
Bean spent much of his time on his porch
with a shotgun in his arms and doing a lot of drinking and boasting. However, he
was also known to help the poor in the area.
After a heavy bout of drinking,
Bean died in his
saloon on March 16, 1903 of lung and heart ailments without ever having met his
Lillie Langtry. He
was initially buried in Westlawn Cemetery in Del Rio, Texas,
but due to the numerous visitors to his grave, he and his son, Samuel,
were later re-interred behind the Whitehead Memorial Museum.
Almost a year after his death,
Lillie Langtry finally
visited his old home. En route from New Orleans to Los Angeles, she stopped
to listen to the townspeople tell the stories of Judge Roy
Bean. Of the
visit, she would later write, "It was a short visit, but, an unforgettable
The Jersey Lilly Saloon still stands in
today, along with his home and a museum.
of America, updated July 2016.
Texas Rangers - Order out of Chaos
Del Rio to Sanderson on the Pecos Trail
Roy Bean also built the
Opera House and Hall of Justice, which served as his home and never as an
actual "opera house." Kathy Weiser, February, 2011.
This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
Roy Bean and his son's grave at the Whitehead
Museum in Del Rio,
Texas Kathy Weiser,
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