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The Story of Judge Roy Bean - J. Marvin Hunter

Published November 23rd, 2014 by Unknown

Judge Roy Bean.jpg

[From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, May, 1948]

Roy Bean has been praised and maligned by writers in song and story; many fictitious stories have been told about him, as well as many true ones. The story of Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos, is a strange one, to say the least. Take it, preferably, with a grain of salt, for Judge Bean has been dead for more than forty years, and Texans embroider their legends strangely with the passing of the years. But take it, anyway, for it exemplifies exactly the American weakness for the fellow who can flout the law in a picturesque and picaresque way.

For nearly a quarter of a century this stocky little fellow, not a gunman, not an imposing figure at all, was the undisputed ruler of an empire in West Texas as large as the New England States, minus Maine. "The Law West of the Pecos" was Roy Bean, and the only law. Between San Antonio, 200 miles to the east, and El Paso, three hundred miles northwest, was the tiny town of Langtry, where he presided at the bar of justice and the bar of mahogany. He dispensed mescal and matrimony, whiskey and equity, practical jokes and practical jurisprudence. He was both salon and saloon keeper, mixing politics and potations in the standard old American formula. Some unofficial historians of the upper Rio Grande country say he appointed himself for the first ten years; that finding a demand for law and order, he merely volunteered to provide it. Later he was regularly elected and thrice re-elected.

Following the natural course of folk lore, the legend of Judge Bean in time will invest him with the wisdom of Solomon, the magnanimity of a King Arthur, and the sympathies of a Robin Hood. He had none of those qualities. Looked at coldly, he was a roving rustic, became a saloon keeper in a frontier town, craftily turning the residuary respect for law and order that remained in his neighbors to his own profit. He had a saving sense of humor, or the grotesque, that tickled the fancy of a community whose chief craving was for amusement and escape from harsh reality. But his legend is a mighty one in Texas, where the two most frequently told Bean stories are those of the Chinese and of the man who fell off the Pecos Bridge.

The Chinese had led a hard life at a ranch, where he was a cook. A real cowboy, off his horse and loafing around the corrals, uses his brain mostly to think up practical jokes. The poor China boy was a miserable butt for the ranch outfit. Both his ears had been punctured by bullets from the six-shooters of a couple of William Tells trying to see how near they could come to his head without killing him. He had a severe and permanent limp; he had been lassoed and dragged across the prairie. He protested once too often. One of the hands, Black Pete, all hot and bothered, shot the complaining coop dead, "to shut him up." Pete was hauled up before Judge Bean. The cowboys stood around in respectful silence as the judge took down his library and thumbed it over. It was his only law book. Finally the court looked up over his steel-rimmed specs:

"I find nothing in here whatsoever that makes it a crime for a white man to kill a chink," he said dryly." The said defendant, Peter Johnson, otherwise known as Black Pete, is hereby acquitted."

The Judge arose, pulled off his Prince Albert coat, restored the statute book to its place on the shelf, and went behind the bar. Black Pete bought for the house.

The bridge over the gorge of the Pecos River just below Langtry was for years the highest in the world. During its construction a workman fell onto the eastern bank of the Pecos, just out of Judge Bean's jurisdiction. The judge ordered some Mexicans to bring the body to him and, as coroner, rendered a verdict of accidental death.

Someone searched the deadman's pockets and found $40 and a six-shooter. Instantly the judge re-opened the inquest. After due deliberation and some thumbing of the statute book, he found the dead man guilty of carrying a concealed weapon, confiscated the pistol as the fee of a deputy sheriff, and then fined the dead man $25 and costs, total $40. Bailiff Bean, acting for the honorable court, collected the fine.

Judge Bean ran a Reno all his own. His fee for marrying was $5, and for unmarrying the same, doubtless the lowest divorce rate ever quoted in America. Let this be said in his favor; he did not cater to outsiders. He had a certain respect for the bonds of matrimony; he refused to divorce any but couples he had married with his own hand and seal. His logic on the divorce question would have delighted the most radical thinker of fifty years later. Whom man hath joined together, man can put asunder, according to Judge Bean.

Once he performed a double ceremony, marrying two Mexican horse wranglers to two buxom young tortilla bakers. After the wedding when Judge Bean had pocketed ten silver dollars, the four newlyweds embraced all around. Perhaps that started the trouble. Within a month the two couples came back to see the judge. "We wish to change ladies," the spokesman informed the court, in Spanish. Judge Bean inquired carefully. Each bridegroom and each bride assured him that a sort of double trial marriage had convinced the four that all would be happier if the exchange could be made.

"All right," said the court, getting the Prince Albert down from its peg on the wall. "Stand up there and join hands. But the authority under which I thee wed, I hereby declare you divorced. Ten dollars."

The two bridegrooms dug out the silver from the tight pantaloons. The four, smiling broadly, set forth into the dawn of a new day. The judge suddenly recalled that he had forgotten something.

"Come back here. You can't go off and live together without gettin' married proper. It ain't lawful. Stand up—join hands. Do you, Juan, take her, Emelia, to be your lawful wife. Do you, Jesus, take her, Conception, to be your lawful wife. Ten dollars. Once again."

It was after this extraordinary ceremony, the story of which penetrated in a few weeks as far as El Paso, that the district judge in that quaintly Puritanical center of culture, cantinas, gambling hells, and gunmen, sent down word to Judge Bean that no justice of the peace could grant divorces and get away with it.

"You tell that hombre," Bean replied to the emissary, "that I run my court on common sense lines and he can run his the same way. If a justice of the peace has got the right to marry people he's got the right to unmarry them, nolle prosequi or tertium quid. This court don't give no advice and don't aim to take ary word of it."

When duty called him to convene court—and duty did not have to speak above a whisper— he came forth from behind the bar, donned his rusty Prince Albert coat, his robe of justice, seated himself on a beer keg behind a plank table and called the court to order. If he needed a deputy there was always a thirsty cowboy hanging around. If he needed extra help there were extra cowboys with dry throats. The costs of court actions were customarily paid in liquid currency.

For sixty years he has been a glamorous figure for Texans to tell strangers about. Since he died, in 1902, the stories have been growing broader in the telling as most Western stories do. Boiled down to essentials and trimmed to fit the recollections of the men who knew him and saw him hold court, the yarns are still wooly enough.

The most credible history of Roy Bean begins shortly after the Republic of Texas had decided to join the Union, in 1845. Bean had left his native Kentucky on a steamer for New Orleans. On board he got into a fight and feared he had killed his opponent. Texas was a hospitable haven; he swam ashore and headed west. In San Antonio he conducted a dairy, but that was too dull. He pushed on to the gold fields in '49.

In California he did not find gold, but he did find romance. He gallantly rescued a Mexican girl from an abductor. A Mexican officer, disliking the manner in which Bean had interfered, challenged him to a duel. The Mexican wanted to fight with lances. Roy Bean knew nothing of lances, but he shot a pistol pretty well. As the challenged party he chose pistols. He killed the officer; the Mexican authorities sentenced him to be hanged. The story has it that he actually was strung up and that his friends cut him down. He would never discuss this, but there was a livid line around his neck, and he carried his head in a strained position, as though he felt the hangman's knot under the left ear.

He drifted back to Texas, and when the Civil War began became a Confederate blockade runner on ships carrying cotton to England. After the war he carted merchandise from San Antonio west to Ft.Stockton, 400 miles, by wagon train. When the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad (now part of the Southern Pacific lines) was started west from San Antonio toward El Paso and the Pacific Coast, Bean rigged up a saloon and followed the main construction camp. When it reached the Pecos river, a permanent camp was established to build the bridge across the canyon.

Bean stayed there. The town, on the west bank of the Pecos, a few miles north of where it empties into the Rio Grande, was called Vinegaroon. The bridge station on the river is now called Viaduct. Three stations up the road toward El Paso is Langtry, where Roy Bean set up his last saloon; the next flagstop is now called Bean, in his honor.

The territory Judge Bean claimed as his jurisdiction ran 300 miles west from the Pecos river, and 125 miles north from the Rio Grande. The district court at El Paso claimed the same area.

Much has been said about how Langtry got its name. One version is that Roy Bean named the place for Lilly Langtry, the famous English actress, who toured the United States in 1882. The real truth of the matter is that the station was laid out by the railroad folks and called Langtry in honor of one of the officials. The station was named before Roy Bean established a saloon there. But he called his saloon "The Jersey Lilly," in honor of the glittering stage beauty. An amateur painter lettered a large sign for the barroom: "The Jersey Lilly Saloon. Billiard Hall. Ice Cold Beer."

Transcontinental trains stopped at Langtry to take on water, and obliging trainmen tarried, so that passengers on the long trek might stretch their legs and take in the sights. The only sights were the Jersey Lilly Saloon and Judge Bean. Odd anecdotes grew out of this custom; out of it also grew Bean's distate for Eastern "dudes."

One of these gentlemen strolled into the bar one day and called sharply for a bottle of beer. Bean set one out for him. "Oblige me with a glass," suggested the customer.

"Drink it out of the bottle or leave it alone," Bean countered.

"My mistake," said the dude, and drained the bottle. He cast a scornful eye at the resplendent sign, "Ice Cold Beer" and asked, "How near the ice do you keep this beer?"

Bean snorted. "Whoever heard tell of ice in the summer time."

The visitor dropped a $20 gold piece on the bar. Bean chucked it into the cash drawer.

"My change?" the gentleman queried.

"You don't get no change. Any galoot that comes into my bailiwick and puts down a $20 gold piece and expects to get change back ought to have a guardeen."

"But my good man, that's robbery!" protested the easterner. "Is there no law in this country?"

"I'm the law," said the judge dryly. He took off his bar apron, shrugged into his judicial garment and mounted the chair of justice.

"I find you guilty of disorderly conduct and fine you $10 and costs. The costs will be $9. Court is adjourned."

The judge descended from the bench and became the bailiff.

"With the dollar you owe me for the beer, that makes $20 which has already been paid into the treasury of the honorable court,' he explained. "The prisoner is discharged, and you'd better run for that train; it's about to pull out and we don't aim to harbor no disorderly persons in this town."

The young man ran. The story was worth many times $20 to him before he died, as an anecdote to tell every Texan he met, always ending triumphantly, "And you call that a civilized state!"

Not all of his Eastern victims took his little pleasantries with such good grace, however. There was the tragedy of the pet bear.

Some cowboy had lassoed a bearcub and brought it to Bean. The judge kept the bear chained to a post between the saloon and the station. Visitors bought beer at a dollar a bottle to see Bruin guzzle it. Both the bear and Judge Bean's cash drawer flourished on the fare. The tragic end of the animal was one of the causes contributing to Bean's distrust of the Eastern "dudes."


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One of these had smarted under a classic Bean decision while on his way to the West coast. Some months later he came back through Langtry and revisited the saloon. It happened that Bean was in San Antonio on one of his rare excursions. The Easterner sent him a telegram saying the bear had died; what should they do with it? After the train had departed, a telegram from the judge came to his Mexican assistant.

"Skin the bear," the message read. "Save the skin."

Wondering, but knowing better than to delay in carrying out any order, the Mexican walked out t'a where the bear was chained, took careful aim, and shot it between the eyes. Sadly he set about the task of skinning it. When the Judge returned he gazed grimly at the brown hide stretched to dry on the side of the saloon.

"Too bad," he sighed. "Sure will miss the old boy."

"Yes," agreed the assistant bartender. "But why you want him killed?"

History is, perhaps wisely, silent on the details of the explosion. Nor is there any record of a third visit made to the Jersey Lilly by the Easterner. Likely he drank as much at that fount of wisdom as he thought good for his health.

Judge Bean had no delusions of grandeur. For twenty years he ruled his domain and had a gorgeous good time at it. It was a joke he played with a straight face. The most colorful figure in all that vast stretch of land, he was anything but prepossessing in person. Squat, powerfully built, he had reddish hair and a crinkly, sandy-red chin-beard. He had a keen wit and a thorough appreciation of his own picturesque qualities. Men who knew him and who saw him hold court were impressed alike by his utter fearlessness and his resourcefulness. There was a flamboyant streak, too, in his makeup, that came out in his signs.

Over the door of his wooden shack he had two large signs. One read: "Judge Roy Bean, Notary Public." The other splendidly informed the passerby: "Law West of the Pecos." Within the bar was another: "Our Motto—Argumentum Adjudicum." Judge Bean translated that for wondering visitors: "Don't argue with the Judge."

In all Bean's history the most astounding chapter concerns the fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher, when the judge got by with a defiance and an outwitting of the entire State of Texas and its fearless, resourceful and efficient ranger force.

Dan Stewart, the Tex Richard of his day, had promoted the fight. There was widespread interest in it, and Dallas, selected by Mr. Stewart, as the lucky city to entertain the fight crowd, had made gala arrangements. But the religious folk of the state prevailed on the Governor to "do something about it." He did. He called a special session of the State Legislature. A bill, rushed through, made it a felony to hold a prize fight in the state.

Worried, but undaunted, Mr. Stewart moved the scrap to El Paso, which is just a hop skip and jump from Mexico and New Mexico, but still in Texas. The Governor would have none of that even on the edge of the state 600 miles from the capital. He ordered rangers out to stop it. The promoter was in despair. Roy Bean came to his rescue. He invited the fight to Langtry and wired San Antonio for a carload of beer.

Several cars of sightseers and the entourage of the two fighters detrained at Langtry. After a visit to the Jersey Lilly the mob set out for the Rio Grande, a narrow stream a mile and a half away. Judge Bean's deputies had lashed boats together to make a pontoon bridge. Easily and joyfully, if none-too steadily the fight fans marched across it, and there, on the soil of Mexico, the freckled and lanky Fitzsimmons finished the business before the house. He knocked out the Irish champion in the second round. Everybody tramped back to the Jersey Lilly to buy her from the man who knew good business when he saw it.

Many famous people were glad of the stop the transcontinental trains made at Langtry in the latter days of Judge Bean's rule, proud to visit the little saloon and talk with the old man. J. C. Tolman, of Houston, relates the story of the time Jay Gould paid a visit.

The financier was returning east from California in a special train, and Judge Bean learned from the telegraph operator that it was not to stop at Langtry. He greatly desired to meet the railroad wizard, so he walked down the track and calmly flagged the train with a red bandana. The engine, all brakes set, shuddered to a stop. Guards with sawed-off shotguns jumped off. Only the station agent and Bean were in sight, both in shirtsleeves and neither armed.


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Bean doffed his sombrero and asked if Mr. Gould were aboard. Before any of the startled guards could answer, a small man appeared on a car platform and asked the hatless old man what he wanted. Bean calmly looked Gould in the eye.

"I guess you're Mr. Gould," he said, finally. "I'm Roy Bean, the law west of the Pecos, and I want to shake hands with you. Won't you get out and say howdy ?"

Mr. Gould, Dr. Munn, his personal physician, and two young women, one of whom Mr. Tolman believes was Helen Gould, descended from the car. Bean invited the mover to his saloon. They stayed so long that a frantic train dispatcher at El Paso almost lost his reason. The Langtry station agent, when the train swept past his window, had reported it on its way. Then he had become so interested in the meeting between Bean and Gould that he had forgotten to amend his message. He had been invited to share Bean's ceremonial champagne.

The Gould party, after a considerable time, boarded the train and sped away. As the agent and Bean strolled toward the station, the uproar of the telegraph instrument brought the agent to his senses.

"Where hell you been? What hell matter? Gould special passed you two hours ago. Hasn't reached Comstock. Must be ditched. May have fallen off high bridge. For God's sake get section crew and find out. Reported Gould killed in wreck. Stock Exchange wild. Will fire you quick as can get reliefman. Trains piled up all over division. Answer quick."

The agent ticked off:

"Jay G. been visiting with Roy Bean and me. Been eating lady fingers and drinking champagne. Take your old job and go to hell. Special just left."

Langtry was founded about 1885. In 1902 the judge was defeated in the Democratic July primary by a Mexican dark horse candidate; he had grown too sure of his power. This humiliated the old man, then past seventy. Before the November election he campaigned for W. H. Dodd, an independent candidate, and visited every ranch in the county electioneering. He elected his man. Mr. Dodd held the office for seventeen years, almost as long as Bean had, and died in Langtry some ten years ago. But the old judge died shortly after his downfall.

He died, with the customary irony of such characters, in his bed. Several of his old friends were gathered about. His favorite mountain lion and an eagle were in the room; the skin of that ill-fated bear was on the floor. He was smiling, as he resigned for all time the judgeship of his Pecos domain, enjoying perhaps, to the end the little joke he had kept up, with a straight face, for twenty years.

Two years after his death, Lilly Langtry passed through her namesake town. The train halted long enough for her to visit the old saloon, which still bore its flamboyant sign. The famous beauty took away as mementoes a few pokerchips and one of the judge's old six-shooters. She gave the Langtry school p50 to repair its roof, as a sort of Roy Bean memorial. Until she died on the Riviera about twenty years ago, she never forgot Judge Bean nor wearied of telling about him.

Of Roy Bean, nothing remains but a tradition; the picturesque court house and saloon has been torn down.

In the sun-baked Campo-Santo at Del Rio a granite block marks his grave. His epitaph is his own claim to fame





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