He was born on November 25, 1855 to Ethel Joseph and Mary Frances Ousley Royal, in Lee County, Alabama, the only son in a family of five daughters. While still a young man, he headed west, landing in Fort Worth, where he went to work for the railroad.
On January 19, 1879 he married Naomi Obedience Christmus in Coryell County, Texas and the couple would eventually have six daughters and one son. Shortly after his marriage, the couple moved to Junction, Texas, were Royal operated a ranch and a saloon. Several years later, after he was reportedly indicted for murder, he took his family to Pecos County in 1889.
He soon established another ranch near Fort Stockton as well as a saloon located at Callaghan and Main Street. Called the Gray Mule Saloon, the building still stands in Fort Stockton today.
A quarrelsome and intimidating man, Royal killed one of his employees after the two got into a dispute. Despite the killing and his personality, Royal was elected Pecos County Sheriff in 1892. A controversial figure from the start, area citizens were initially split in their opinions. While some thought he was a tough lawman who worked hard to establish law and order, others thought he abused his power as sheriff, often terrorizing those who disagreed with him.
During his short two-year term as sheriff, his time in the position was certainly not uneventful. One story tells of how he won the Koehler Saloon in a card game, but the owner died before signing it over.
Another tale, which occurred in 1893, relates a story of a man who was accused of stealing a watermelon. As Royal was taking the man to jail, he tried to escape but, was quickly recaptured. After the thief spent three days in jail and was released, the sheriff and another man, most likely his infamous deputy, Barney Riggs, were said to have taken him outside of town where Royal horsewhipped him and told the man never to return to Pecos County.
Royal got more aggressive and intimidating the longer he was in his sheriff’s role. He began make threats toward several leading citizens in the community including County Judge O.W. Williams; merchants, Frank and James Rooney; and County Clerk, W.P. Matthews. All these men had backed his opponent R.B. Neighbors in the 1892 election and were planning to back him again in the upcoming election to be held in October, 1894.
On August 4, 1894, while drinking in his saloon, he sent word to the two Rooney brothers and Matthews, who were in Koehler’s Store that he was going to “wipe them out.” The sheriff would later deny sending the message, but, it was confirmed that the threat was delivered.
Later, the sheriff went to Koehler’s Store looking for the Rooney brothers, however, as he walked in with a cocked pistol he was spied by James Rooney, who was in a small room in adjoining the saloon. After Royal found no one in the store and turned to go back out, Rooney confronted him with a shotgun. The sheriff began to shoot and Rooney also fired, but, no one was hit and Royal fled.
Royal then gathered up his deputies and some friends, who surrounded the store, threatening to burn it. The Rooney brothers and W.P. Matthews, who was also in the saloon, soon surrendered to Sheriff Royal, who arrested them and marched them to the Justice of the Peace for preliminary examination. However, the three arrested men, sure they would not be guaranteed safety in the city court, waved the examination, stating they wished to appear before the grand jury.
When the Grand Jury was formed the next month, most of its members were Royal’s friends. The jury issued numerous indictments on several people opposed to A.J. Royal including Judge O.W. Williams for not paying an occupation tax. They also indicted another man for “fornication,” but did not cite his partner, as she was also intimate with one of Royal’s hired men. They indicted the Rooneys, for charges that we were unable to determine. Obviously, all those indicted felt that there was no protection of the law in Pecos County.
Sheriff Royal and his deputies wasted no time arresting those who been indicted and once they were behind bars, refused to accept bail. However, County Judge O.W. Williams issued a writ of Habeas Corpus and they were released.
When Royal’s opponents continued to receive threats, it began to look as if the political dispute could erupt into an all out “range feud.” Five men of Texas Rangers’ Company D were sent to town at the request of citizens because of the volatile, feuding atmosphere. Extremely unimpressed with Sheriff Royal, they soon advised Royal’s enemies to arm themselves.
Of the sheriff’s character, Texas Ranger Sergeant Carl Kirchner stated that Royal was “a very overbearing and dangerous man when under the influence of liquor. Almost the entire county seems to be against him.”
Judge Walter Gills of the 41st Judicial District Court would echo Kirchner’s appraisal, saying: “You may think it strange that a sheriff would be charged with creating the necessity of Rangers by his own lawless acts but, unfortunately we sometimes have the worst men in the county to fill that office in this end of the state.”
In the meantime, Royal and his deputies were using other tactics to secure his re-election. One such scheme was to allow a Mexican-American prisoner named Victor Ochoa to escape in exchange for making campaign speeches for Royal to Hispanic voters.