Judge Roy Bean: Frontier Justice

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1864
Judge Roy Bean

“Judge” Roy Bean was a hard bitten, tough old pioneer who became something of a legend in his own time. He dispensed rough justice in late ninteenth century

A legend in his own time, Roy Bean was a crusty frontiersman who built his own kingdom in the desert, and in the process put his own indelible mark on the state of Texas

Roy’s Bean’s Early Life

Roy Bean was born about 1825, the son of a “hardscrabble” farmer in Kentucky. Beans character was forged during this time, pounded on the anvil of wilderness poverty and backbreaking labor. Roy developed a craving for wealth and power that never entirely left him.

Bean in Mexico

Young Roy had no intention of being a farmer the rest of his life. He left home at 16, travelling down the Mississippi to New Orleans in search of adventure. By 1848 he had formed a partnership with his older brother, Sam Bean, and the two men opened a trading post in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The brothers had a very bad sense of timing—the United States had just won the Mexican War and had forced Mexico to cede California and much of the southwest. Under the circumstances, two Americans, or “gringos” they were called, were not apt to be welcomed with open arms.

Trouble soon arose. Roy Bean shot a Mexican desperado who had threatened to ”kill a Gringo.” Predictably Mexican authorities wished to charge Bean with murder, so the brothers were forced to close shop and flee. By the spring of 1849 Roy was in California living with this brother Joshua. Joshua Bean later became mayor of San Diego.

Roy Bean’s Adventures in California

Young Roy seemed to have a knack for getting into trouble. He fought a duel, wounding his rival in the process. Jailed for assault with intent to murder, he escaped by digging out of the cell wall with knives secretly supplied by admiring girlfriends. Moving to San Gabriel, he ran a saloon there and fought another duel, this time killing his opponent. Six of the dead man’s friends seized Bean, put a rope around his neck, and sat him on a horse.

The idea was to hang him, but Bean was rescued in time. He had rope burn marks and a stiff neck the rest of his life

Bean’s Marriage and family

For the next 30 years Bean was something of a drifter. In the 1860s he moved to Texas, trying his luck in a variety of occupations-saloon keeper, butcher, and teamster. He was a shady character; when he ran a dairy business, he was accused of watering down the milk.

He married a Mexican woman, Virginia Chavez, and they lived in a wretched slum named Beanville. The couple had four children, but Bean was abusive, and they separated within a few years.

Judge Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos

In 1882 Bean was in the Pecos River country of west Texas. The cactus-dotted, boulder-strewn soil provides little shelter, exposing man and beast alike to a burning sun and oven-like temperatures. The railroad was moving west, and within 20 miles of Bean’s saloon were 8,000 railroad construction workers. The nearest court was 200 miles away, so Bean was sworn in as Justice of the Peace for the region.

“Judge” Bean moved his “court” two or three times in the course of his 20-odd year “legal” career. Whatever the location, the courtroom was always attached to a bar. Jurors were expected to buy a drink. His most famous location was Lantry, named after the famous English actress Lily Langtry. His saloon, the “Jersey Lily,” was named after her.

As “judge,” Bean relied on his own often unorthodox thinking to solve cases. When a prostitute killed one of her customers, Bean ruled it “suicide.” A lawyer on the scene objected, but Bean held firm. After all, some time earlier he had warned the victim that playing around with that women would be suicide—and so it proved.

Judge Bean’s Last Years

Roy Bean was dispensing his rough justice into the early years of the twentieth century. He was a legend by then, a portly man with a bulbous nose and a snow-white beard. “Judge” Roy Bean died on March 16, 1903, after a heavy drinking spree. A short time after he died, Lily Langtry actually visited her namesake town, calling the sojourn brief but “memorable.”

Sources:

  1. Jack Skiles, Roy Bean Country (Texas Tech, 1996)
  2. C.L. Sonninschsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos (University of New Mexico Press, 1986)