Judge Roy Bean–The Only Law West of the Pecos

“Hang ’em first, try ’em later”  

Photo by DesertUSA.com


“Doffing his saloon apron,  the grizzled barkeep dons a dirty alpaca coat,  sits himself down behind the bar, draws a pistol and bangs for silence using the butt as a gavel.   “Order, by Gobs!   This honorable court is now in session, and if any galoot wants a snort before we start, let him step up to the bar and name his pizen.” The good judge had never seen the inside of a law school.  His only law book was the 1879 Revised Statutes of Texas.  But the self-styled “Law West of the Pecos” knew how to hold court. There, in his Jersey Lilly saloon in the minuscule West Texas town of Langtry, Roy Bean doled out drinks and his own brand of justice for more than 20 years.” -Smithsonian Magazine June 1998

“…Judge Bean ruled with a high handed, but appropriate brand of homespun law, outrageous humor, and six-shooter justice.”
http://www.texasoutside.com/westtexasparks/judgerbframes.htm, Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, Langtry, TX

The above statements and excerpts give you an idea why “Hanging Judge” Roy Bean is such an enduring character in the history of the old west. Born Phantly Bean, in Mason County, Kentucky, in 1825, Roy Bean has pretty much done it all. He ran a blockade during the Civil War hauling cotton from San Antonio to British ships off the coast. He helped run a shop in Chihuahua, Mexico with his older brother, Sam, until he caused too much trouble. Next he went to live with his oldest brother, Joshua, who was mayor of San Diego. Roy was jailed for dueling, broke out, and followed his brother to San Gabriel. He inherited Joshua’s saloon but moved on again in 1857 or 1858 to escape being hanged. Next he went to Mesilla, New Mexico, where Sam made him a partner in a saloon there. Things went well until the Civil War reached them. A military life wasn’t for Roy – he moved to San Antonio, where he became famous for “circumventing creditors, business rivals, and the law.”

In 1882, Bean left his wife of sixteen years, and their four children, to move with the railroad grading camps to Vinegaroon, a tent city near the Pecos River. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s The Handbook of Texas Online:  “Crime was rife at the end of the track; it was often said, “West of the Pecos there is no law; west of El Paso, there is no God.” To cope with the lawless element the Texas Rangersqv were called in, and they needed a resident justice of the peace in order to eliminate the 400-mile round trip to deliver prisoners to the county seat at Fort Stockton. The commissioners of Pecos County officially appointed Roy Bean justice on August 2, 1882. He retained the post, with interruptions in 1886 and 1896, when he was voted out, until he retired voluntarily in 1902.”

Bean didn’t stay in Vinegaroon. When the railroad moved west, Bean packed up his courtroom and saloon and moved 70 miles to Strawbridge, and a new tent city.

According to legend, Bean named the town after the British actress Emilie Charlotte (Lillie) Langtry, with whom Bean had fallen in love after seeing her picture. Bean even named his saloon The Jersey Lilly, in Miss Langtry’s honor. The truth: railroad records indicate that the town was named for George Langtry, a railroad construction foreman. [I found the photo to the left on tworobins.com]

But Bean was definitely the “law” in the town. Though he’d had no formal schooling in law, and only owned one law book, the 1879 edition of the “Revised Statutes of Texas”, he appointed himself Justice of the Peace and held court at his bar and passed down judgments until 1902. Although only district courts in Texas were legally allowed to grant divorces, Bean did it anyway–as long as the person had $10. He charged $5 for a wedding and sent the happily married couples on their way intoning “and may God have mercy on your souls.” None of the fines he collected were sent to the state.

Again from The Handbook of Texas Online:  “Bean died in his saloon on March 16, 1903, of lung and heart ailments and was buried in the Del Rio cemetery. His shrewdness, audacity, unscrupulousness, and humor, aided by his knack for self-dramatization, made him an enduring part of American folklore.”
Today, a recreation of The Jersey Lilly Saloon and Courtroom adjoins a Visitor’s Center in Langtry, Texas.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Everett Lloyd, Law West of the Pecos (San Antonio: University Press, 1931; rev. ed., San Antonio: Naylor, 1967). C. L. Sonnichsen, Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos (New York: Macmillan, 1943; rpt., Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986). http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbe08


+ posts

9 thoughts on “Judge Roy Bean–The Only Law West of the Pecos”

  1. Well done and well researched, Tracy. i remember seeing a Judge Roy Bean movie (maybe that was the title) at a drive-in movie theatre with hubby when we were dating eons ago. I love learning more about these legends. The Lily Langtry/George Langtry bit was fascinating! oxoxox

  2. Good Heavens! One hears of Judge Roy Bean all the time, but I had no idea of the real story about him. I can understand the “desperation” for law and order, but seriously, they basically hired a crook to deliver it. I guess the old saying about it takes a crook to know one or whatever applied. He seems to have been very good at self promotion and getting out of trouble (even if by just running away). One has to wonder just how much “justice” was really delivered by him. I guess he decided one way to avoid getting in trouble with the law was to become the law.

    Thanks for an interesting and informative post.

  3. Thank you, Tanya. Before doing the research for this blog, I believed that Langtry, TX had been named for Miss Lilly.

    Paul Newman played the title role in the 1972 movie “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” – could that be the one?

  4. Hey Tracy, thanks for the informative post. As I was reading, I began to wonder how many of the ‘crooks’ Judge Roy Bean hanged were actually guilty. Did he leave records of the cases? Were there lawyers involved? It sort of sounds like Bean was the type to run roughshod over anyone who stood in opposition which would mean lawyers didn’t stand a chance.

  5. The accounts I read, Patricia, said he used a lot of common sense in rendering his verdicts. Like the time he declared a man innocent because his buddies were in the saloon/bar and ready to riot. 🙂

  6. Actually, Anita, from what I read, Bean never hung anyone. One account said he sentenced one, but the man escaped. Makes me wonder where his nickname as “the hanging judge” came from.

  7. Tracy, this matches what I think is a real truth about historical America. There just weren’t a lot of rules and regulations. If a man wanted to be a lawyer, he hung out a shingle. If he wanted to be a judge, he declared himself to be one. I suspect there were precious few rules for doctors, preachers, lawman you name it.
    All the rules and regulations are modern inventions. And even if there were rules, someone had to enforce them and when a man is the only judge in the territory, who’s gonna declare him guilty of anything.
    I’ve got this running attitude in my books. And example, when Silas Harden tells Belle and her daughters, “And don’t forget your name is Harden.”

    No application for a formal name change necessary. What was it gonna do, clash with your social security card when you applied for benefits upon your retirement at age 65.


  8. I love reading stories about the Judge. He was always pictured as such a colorful caracter. Of course I also always wonder what the truth really was and wondering how much was embellishment.

Comments are closed.