Judge Roy Bean, the famous Hanging Judge from Langtry, Texas, was a larger than life Old West figure, and it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction when talking about his adventures. This is further complicated because Bean was a shameless self-promoter who made up plenty of wild tales about his exploits, and then dime novels and Hollywood came along to further muddy the waters. But there is no doubt that the old judge was the Law West of the Pecos, and many a rustler and outlaw paid the price for their deeds when brought before Judge Roy Bean.
Born in Mason County, Kentucky in 1825, Roy Bean, grew up poor and left home at age sixteen in search of a better life. Ending up in San Antonio, Texas, he went to work for his older brother Samuel, hauling freight into Mexico.
By 1848, the brothers had opened a trading post in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, but Roy Bean soon fled the area after being charged with murder for killing a Mexican outlaw. He landed in San Diego, California and moved in with another brother, Joshua. More troubled followed, and in 1852 he was charged with wounding another man in a duel. A female admirer smuggled a knife to Bean, who used it to dig through the adobe wall of his cell and escape.
There are many tales of Bean’s time in California, but again, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. He lived in San Gabriel for a time, where he inherited a saloon after his brother was murdered. One story has Bean single-handedly tracking down the killers and dispatching frontier justice.
Another story has Bean courting a beautiful young Mexican girl, who was kidnapped and forced to marry another man. Bean killed the husband in a duel, and in response, the man’s friends tried to lynch him. But the bride, who had been hiding and watching the proceedings, sprang forward at the last minute and cut him free. Bean reportedly was left with a permanent rope burn on his neck and a perpetually stiff neck Shortly after that, he left California and moved to New Mexico to live with his brother Samuel again, who had migrated there a few years earlier.
During the Civil War, Bean was reported to be busy smuggling Texas cotton from San Antonio to British ships off the coast of Mexico, and supplies back into Texas. For many years after the war ended Bean managed to make a living in and around San Antonio, always skirting right on the edge of the law.
For a time he operated a firewood business until it was discovered that he was illegally cutting the wood on someone else’s land. Than he ran a butcher shop until it was found that the meat he was selling came from rustled cattle. His next enterprise was a dairy, but that didn’t last long because he was caught watering down the milk.
By the late 1870s, Roy Bean was in a bad marriage, had several children, and was running a saloon in a run down Mexican neighborhood of San Antonio. He was so universally disliked by the rest of the business community that when he started talking about moving west, a collection was quickly taken up to help him leave town.
Bean abandoned his wife and four children and followed the railroads as they moved westward, setting up tent saloons and selling whiskey to railroad laborers. He settled in present day Langtry, Texas, squatting on land he did not own, and managed to get himself appointed as Justice of the Peace. Bean held court in his saloon, and for the next twenty years, he was the Law West of the Pecos.
Bean’s courtroom was his personal fiefdom, and he operated under his own rules, much to the dismay of the State of Texas. He chose his jurors from his saloon customers and required them to purchase a drink during every court recess. While he was known as the Hanging Judge, there is no evidence that Bean ever actually sentenced anyone to death. After all, you can’t sell whiskey to a dead man.
When an Irishman named Paddy O’Rourke shot a Chinese laborer, Bean ruled that while it was illegal to kill a human being, his law book did not say anything about killing a Chinaman.
All cases in Bean’s court were resolved with fines, usually whatever the defendant had in his pockets at the time. Bean refused to send the state any portion of the fines he took in. On occasion, he would look over the prisoners awaiting trial, and if he knew they had no money, Bean would turn them loose without a trial. “We don’t get anything if we try them, so why bother?” he is reported to say.
Bean eventually built a wooden saloon, which he named the Jersey Lilly, after a famous actress of the time named Lilly Langtry, whom he was infatuated with. Though he invited her to visit Langtry several times, her one and only brief appearance came after Bean’s death.
Always a legend in his own mind, with grandiose visions, Bean built a simple two room house next to his saloon/courtroom, which he called Roy Bean’s Opera House, Town Hall, and Seat of Justice.
He was a liar, a drunkard, a braggart, an abusive husband, a negligent father, and no doubt a thief. Though there was much not to like about Roy Bean, in his later years he spent most of his money helping the poor people who lived in and around Del Rio and Langtry. Bean always made sure that the school was supplied with firewood in the winter, and many a poor child or widow had food on their table due to Bean’s generosity.
Roy Bean never gave up his hard drinking ways, and he died March 16, 1903 in Langtry following a drunken binge. He was buried in Del Rio, and later his grave was moved to the grounds of the Whitehead Memorial Museum to protect it from vandals and souvenir hunters.
Today Bean’s Jersey Lilly saloon/courtroom and home are part of the state-owned Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center in Langtry, which is sixty miles northwest of Del Rio, just off U.S. Highway 90.
The visitor center includes displays on Judge Roy Bean, the above mentioned buildings, and a desert garden with a handsome wooden windmill. There is no cost to tour the old buildings, which have been carefully restored and are handicapped accessible.
The visitor center does not have a separate parking lot, but there is little traffic in Langtry, and the street in front of the visitor center is wide and has plenty of room for any size RV to park along the curb. The road makes a loop for easy access back to U.S. Highway 90.
Judge Roy Bean was certainly a colorful figure, and it is fun to walk inside the famous Jersey Lilly and think of all the hell raising that went on here. The next time you’re passing through West Texas, take a break in Langtry and pay a call on the Jersey Lilly. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get lucky and feel the ghost of “Ol’ Roy” brushing past you.
Congratulations Jim Garris, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of Dog’s Run, my mystery set in a small Ohio town in 1951. We had 55 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – The road to success is always under construction.