Judge Roy Bean: The Controversial “Law West of the Pecos”

judge roy bean
Judge Roy Bean in January 1885. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Judge Roy Bean was the worst and most colorful dispenser of justice of the Old West. To fall under his gavel was to put yourself at risk to the arbitrary whims of the self-proclaimed “Only Law West of the Pecos.”

Roy Bean was not a “Hanging Judge” like Isaac Parker since, unlike Parker, Judge Bean had no sense of the legalities of the law. Instead, what ruled in his saloon cum courtroom was an unpredictability punctuated by a more than quotable quip.

For example, in what is probably an apocryphal story, Bean was carrying out an inquest over a murdered man. He ruled, “The deceased met death at the hands of a person unknown who was a helluva good shot.”

The Mysterious Origins of Judge Roy Bean

So who was this guy? It’s pretty murky stuff. Bean’s birth year is up for debate, but it is figured to be between 1820 and 1830. He was born along the Ohio River near Lexington in Mason County, Kentucky, as Phantly Roy Bean, Jr., the youngest of five children.

Bean migrated around the South as a youth, getting into trouble in New Orleans before heading west, where he landed in San Antonio, running wagon trains to Chihuahua, Mexico. Eventually, he got into trouble after killing a man, and fled to California. It is known that in 1852 he fought a duel on horseback in San Diego. He himself claimed to have survived a hanging.

Roy Bean emerged in 1858 or 1859 impoverished in Mesilla, New Mexico, before serving in Confederate forces during the Civil War. After the war, he opened up a saloon in San Antonio, which did well, but in 1882 he moved across the Pecos River following the railroad.

Related read: 8 Murderous Facts about John Wesley Hardin

The Only Law West of the Pecos

Bean landed in the small tent city of Vinegaroon, where thousands of workers had been toiling for the Southern Pacific. He quickly erected a saloon which he named (and misspelled) the Jersey Lilly after his favorite actress, Lily Langtry. At the time, the Texas Rangers recommended establishing a legal jurisdiction for the region. He was appointed justice of the peace on August 2, 1882, of Val Verde County. 

roy bean saloon
Jersey Lilly saloon in Val Verde County, Texas, circa 1890s. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It seems that later he relocated from Vinegaroon as the railway moved, this time to a new settlement which was named Langtry — not after the actress, but rather after George Langtry, a railroad engineer. Judge Bean would send a letter to the actress claiming he arranged to have the town named after her. She replied and offered to have a drinking fountain installed in the town square.

Bean wrote back, “If there is anything these hombres of Langtry don’t drink, it’s water.” He was so smitten by the actress that he pinned portraits of her around the bar. When one patron derided Lily as looking like a cow, he fined the poltroon $20 for slander.

Judge Bean delighted at being the dispenser of law and order. He hung big signs over the saloon, like “Judge Roy Bean Notary Public,” “Only Law West of the Pecos,” and “Ice Beer.”

Thereafter, the Jersey Lilly served the dual role of dispenser of both beer and justice — sometimes at the same time. To guide the new judge in his decisions, he used an 1879 edition of Revised Statutes of Texas which he would continue to cite (and often ignore) throughout his judicial career.

Related read: Big Jim Courtright: 9 Things 1883 Didn’t Tell Us about the Old West Lawman

Habeas Corpus Were Curse Words

In the history of American courts, it would not be an understatement to state that Judge Roy Bean was probably the worst, or at least the most fickle, judge West of the Pecos.

At best, Bean did not understand the law, and at worst, he tossed aside the written law in favor of his gut instinct. Bean, while having an admirable sense of what he thought was right, was contemptuous of attorneys and legal technicalities which prevented him from administering his conception of justice. He once threatened to hang a lawyer for profanity because he said, “Habeas corpus.” An 1897 article in the El Paso Daily Herald noted that Bean received updates to his Revised Statutes of Texas which he routinely burned. 

To give a further flavor to Bean’s system of justice, one anecdote relates how a railroad contractor got into trouble and was brought before Bean’s court. Bean issued a fine, and the contractor, who had some law books with him, objected and cited that there was no law to impose a penalty. Bean reportedly said, “Well, I remit the fine in this case, but I want it distinctly understood that hereafter no law books are to brought into this court, I have my own law book here, and it is good enough for all purposes.”

Justice was Good for Business

Bean had a mind to mete out justice in a way that would help him dispense more beer and rake in more profits. One example was when a young man from the east came touring through Langtry and stopped at Bean’s saloon. The man gave Bean a $20 gold piece for a five-cent beer, and the judge took the money but did not give back any change. The man asked for change, to which Bean reportedly retorted, “Any young galoot who come out here from New York and throw down a $20 gold piece for a glass of beer don’t get any change at this bar.”

only law west of the pecos
Trial for a horse thief held at the Jersey Lilly in Langtry, Texas, circa 1900. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Naturally, the patron became enraged and started swearing at Bean. Bean then promptly leaped onto the bar, declared his court in session, and fined the man $19.95 for contempt of court. In another instance, Bean presided over a jury trial in which a rival saloon owner named Torrono was charged with assault. The jury found him guilty, and Judge Bean fined him two dozen bottles of beer to be bought right there at the Jersey Lilly.

Bean issued a more morbid decision at what may be an apocryphal story but is still delightful. It is reported that he once oversaw the inquest of a man who had fallen off a bridge and died. The man’s identity was unknown, but they found on the body a pistol and $40 in cash. Not knowing what else to do with the corpse’s effects, Bean fined the dead man $40 for carrying a concealed weapon and collected the cash.

Related read: 20 Wild West Towns Where You Can Still Experience the Frontier

Bean Shoved Guns in Squelchers’ Faces

Bean did not just merely judge cases but acted as a form of enforcement.

The Savannah Morning News reported that in 1901, a train with some tourists stopped at Langtry. Of the visitors, two Chinese men visited the bar. At first, Bean, who being not a little racist, refused to serve them because of their race and because they tried to pay with paper money.

Finally, after one of them changed their bills, he relented. In the process, one of the men walked back to the train without paying. When Bean found out, he grabbed his .45, boarded the train, and, holding the gun in his face, stated, “Thirty-five cents or I press the button.”

The terrified man gave him a dollar. Bean made the change saying to the other terrified passengers, “That’s the kind of hombre I am. I am the law west of the Pecos.”

Bean Orchestrated a Spouse Swap

Since his jurisdiction was so isolated, Bean was able to get away with exceeding his authority on multiple occasions. The most blatant example of this was when he orchestrated a spouse swap among two Mexican couples. Bean had married them; they were unhappy and wanted him now to divorce them and remarry them to the other’s spouse. Bean agreed and conducted the ceremony. 

When a district court judge heard of this incident, he chastised Judge Bean for exceeding his authority since it was not under his jurisdiction to divorce couples. Bean replied that since he had the power to marry people, he didn’t see why he couldn’t divorce them too.

He wrote, “When I give a decision in my court and am later convinced that an error has been made, I have the right to correct it. Then another thing — they paid me $10 each for marrying them and $40 each for giving them divorces.”

Bean’s Controversial Verdicts

It seems obvious by this point that Bean was an eccentric judge who had no business presiding over the law. But while much of this may seem amusing, there was a dark side to his rule.

Perhaps the case which brought the most attention to Bean occurred about the time he took up the gavel. In the case, a Chinese railroad worker assaulted an Irish foreman. The foreman, in turn, shot and killed the Chinese man. The foreman was rounded up and brought before Bean for examination.

law west of the pecos
Sign at the Jersey Lilly. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

When this occurred, a mob of about 100 white men surrounded Bean’s court looking to overrule any punishment to the foreman. They quickly partook in the Jersey Lilly’s alcoholic offerings. When Bean noticed the mob was providing flush revenue, he delayed the proceedings to the next day. 

The next day, a trial was held, and the foreman pleaded guilty since all of the evidence showed that he indeed committed murder. A guilty verdict would not have placated the angry mob, which Bean was acutely aware of.

He consulted his law book and purportedly stated, “I have heard the evidence in this case and have made a careful investigation of the law on the subject and find there is no law against a man killing a Chinaman. The prisoner is dismissed.”

Related read: 8 Famous (and Infamous) Sheriffs of the Old West

Sandbar Boxing Matches

Aside from extrajudicial activities and bad decision-making, Judge Bean was a boxing promoter. He may not have been the Don King of the West, but he certainly was creative. In the late 19th century, prize fighting was a wildly popular sport, and heavyweight Peter Maher was a formidable champ. However, he had a strong contender in Bob Fitzsimmons, who wanted the title for himself.

A championship bout was arranged to occur in Texas. The only problem? Boxing was illegal in Texas. But seeing the potential in the revenue which could be generated through liquor sales at such a match, Judge Roy Bean saw a way to circumvent the law.

He arranged for a pontoon bridge to be built to a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande just outside Langtry — and just outside Texas jurisdiction. One newspaper account called it “a great event in Bean’s life.”

Bean provided an ample supply of liquor for the fight, and even though the crowds were smaller than expected, sales were brisk. After witnessing Fitzsimmons knock out Maher and win the title, Bean invited the new champ to stay in Langtry for a month. Fitzsimmons gracefully declined though the judge kept a letter from Fitzsimmons at the bar.

The Legend Grows

Judge Bean died on March 16, 1903, and was buried in Del Rio, Texas. Ten months after his death, Lily Langtry visited the town where she was given one of Bean’s pistols. She regretted never meeting the judge who had “ready wit and audacity.” 

Since that time, Bean’s legend has grown. A biography published in the 1940s called him, “a minor immortal.” In popular culture, Bean has been betrayed on the silver screen multiple times, even once by Paul Newman in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

justice of the peace roy bean
Photo credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University/Wikimedia Commons

As in the case of this and all film depictions of Judge Bean, they are more or less entirely inaccurate. This is not surprising, however, considering that much of the historicity of Bean’s life is on shaky ground.

Bean has also passed from popular media to thrill rides. Six Flags Over Texas prominently features the wooden roller coaster, “Judge Roy Scream.” In its overview of the ride, Six Flags states that it is “Served up simple and to the point, kinda like the way Judge Bean served up justice!”

For those people who are interested in learning more about this most eccentric of judges, Langtry features the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center which maintains the building and features dioramas of the judge’s life. It also contains a lovely desert garden.

What to Read Next

References & Further Reading strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints and angles when possible.

  1. Eckhardt, C. F. (1999). Tales of Badmen, Bad Women, and Bad Places: Four Centuries of Texas Outlawry. Texas Tech Univ. Press.
  2. Milius, J. (1973). The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Bantam.
  3. Skiles, J. (1996). Judge Roy Bean Country. Texas Tech University Press.
  4. Sonnichsen, C. L. (2016). Judge Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos. Mockingbird Books.
  5. Walker, D. L. (2003). The “Law West of the Pecos.” American Cowboy, 106.

Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.

Discussion (1)

One response to “Judge Roy Bean: The Controversial “Law West of the Pecos””

  1. Did u ever see the movie with Paul newman the life and times of judge roy bean good movie good cast soundtrack newman had his role down pat to a T Good movie worth checking out a very unique movie also started a good cast anthony hopkins a young victoria principal and some other big names ned beatty etc def check it out

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