The Legend of Roy Bean

Judge Roy Bean, the self-styled "Law West of the Pecos," was by all accounts an eccentric character, and definitely the stuff of which legends are made. Born Phantly Roy Bean in Kentucky, probably around 1825, as a teenager he followed his two older brothers west, to California and then New Mexico. Although his brothers were mostly successful and respectable, Roy always seemed to be in trouble, usually related to gambling and women, and occasionally would leave town just a few steps ahead of the hangman.

During the Civil War, Bean reportedly smuggled supplies from Mexico to Confederate troops in Texas. After the war he ended up in San Antonio, where he cemented his already dubious reputation. There he married and had four children before abandoning the family about 16 years later, when he followed a rail-construction crew west to Vinegarroon. It's believed Bean then opened a saloon in a tent, before somehow getting appointed as the local justice of the peace in 1882.

Several years later Bean moved north to a small settlement along the railroad tracks that came to be called Langtry. Bean claimed he had named the town after the beautiful English actress of the day Lillie Langtry, with whom he was quite infatuated, although the town likely garnered its name earlier from a construction foreman. Bean wrote to Miss Langtry several times, asking her to visit the town "named in her honor."

Bean was elected and reelected as justice of the peace on and off for about 20 years -- he reportedly was briefly thrown out of office when it became evident that he had received more votes than there were eligible voters. Bean's Langtry courtroom, which he called the Jersey Lillie after Miss Langtry, was also his saloon and home, and he often chose his juries from the saloon's customers.

Numerous stories about Bean's sometimes bizarre rulings have been told, and it's often difficult to tell fact from fiction. When a railroad worker was charged with killing a Chinese laborer, Bean said that although it was against the law to kill your fellow man, he could find no law against killing a "heathen Chinaman," so the case was dismissed. The killer was, however, required to pay for the funeral. Another generally accepted story is the case of a dead man found to have a gun and gold coins worth about $40 in his pockets. Bean promptly fined the corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. But he gained perhaps his greatest notoriety for staging a heavyweight championship fight in 1896. At the time, prizefighting was illegal in Texas as well as in Mexico, so Bean staged the fight on a sandbar in the Rio Grande, a no man's land between the two. He also made a tidy profit at his saloon selling drinks to the spectators.

Although there are also stories of Bean being a "hanging judge," there is no proof that he ever sentenced anyone to hang. But then, Bean kept no records at all of what transpired in his courtroom. Bean died in his saloon on March 16, 1903, supposedly after a binge of heavy drinking in Del Rio. A few months later, Lillie Langtry, who was performing in the region, finally made it to Langtry, spending 30 minutes there during a train stopover.

To learn more about Bean, drive out to Langtry (60 miles west of Del Rio via U.S. 90) to Bean's restored saloon at the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center (tel. 432/291-3340), where dioramas and displays in this official state visitor center tell the story of Bean's life. The visitor center and saloon are open daily from 8am to 5pm and admission is free. Allow about an hour.

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