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 in 1848.
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, California, where his brother Joshua owned a saloon called the Headquarters. When Joshua was killed in November, 1852, Bean inherited the saloon 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.
During the 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, saloon operator, running a dairy business, and other entrepreneurial enterprises that were obviously not very successful, as he became known for circumventing creditors, business rivals, and the law.
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 near the 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 city.
On July 5, 1882, Texas Ranger Captain T. L. Oglesby penned a note to his commanding officer General King describing the area:
Eagle Nest, Pecos County, Texas
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 Fort Stockton, 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 Fort Stockton, he quickly became the self-proclaimed “Only Law West of the Pecos.”
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 saloon, he utilized a single law book — the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of 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.