Judge Roy Bean: The Law West of the Pecos

Roy Bean holding court in 1900, trying a horse thief. Bean is in the center of the photograph, sitting on a barrel and holding open his law book. The thief is sitting on a horse underneath the “Ice Beer” sign, with his hands behind his back.
Roy Bean holding court in 1900, trying a horse thief. Bean is in the center of the photograph, sitting on a barrel and holding open his law book. The thief is sitting on a horse underneath the “Ice Beer” sign, with his hands behind his back.
Roy Bean was as much a scoundrel as the men he tried.

Most everyone has heard of Judge Roy Bean, who called himself All the law west of the Pecos. Judge Bean tried many a notorious scoundrel, but — as the saying goes — “It takes one to know one,” and Roy Bean was as much a scoundrel as the men who came before him.

Born in Kentucky in 1825, the youngest of five, Roy left home at age 16 to find work in New Orleans. What he found was trouble, causing him to flee to San Antonio, Texas, to join his brother, Sam.

In her book, Historic Walking Tour of Mesilla, Vesta Siemers wrote, “Sam apparently was the son who did everything right; Roy, the son who did everything wrong.” That about sums up Roy Bean’s life.

In 1848, the two brothers had a trading post in Chihuahua. Roy killed a Mexican desperado who had threatened to kill a gringo. To escape a murder charge, Roy dragged his brother with him first to Sonora and, by 1849, to San Diego, California.

Considered a handsome lad by the ladies, Roy courted a woman who was kidnapped and forced to marry a Mexican officer. Bean challenged him to a duel and killed him. Six of the dead man’s friends put Bean on a horse, tied a noose around his neck, and left him to hang. However, the horse did not bolt and, after the men left, the bride, who had been hiding behind a tree, cut the rope. Bean was left with a permanent rope burn on his neck.

It seemed a good time to leave California. Roy migrated to New Mexico to live once again with Sam, who had been elected the first sheriff of Doña Ana County. The two brothers operated a store and saloon in Pinos Alto, advertising good liquor and a fine billiard table. Apparently, Apache depredations proved too much, and the brothers moved to Mesilla. There they opened a saloon in the building that today houses El Patio Restaurant and Bar on Calle de Parìan, across from the plaza. Being an upstanding citizen and sheriff, Sam Bean kept fellow citizens’ cash and valuables, along with his own, in his safe. Just how safe the safe was remains to be seen.

Lilly Langtry
Lilly Langtry
In 1861, Texas Confederates invaded and occupied Mesilla, leading to two Civil War battles — one at Valverde and the other at Glorieta Pass. While Sam apparently was away from the saloon on business, Roy opened and emptied the safe, joining the defeated Confederate army, now in retreat. For the remainder of the war, he ran blockades, hauling cotton to British ships off Matamoros.

For the next twenty years, Roy Bean tried to make his way running a firewood business. He cut his neighbor’s trees for timber. He attempted to run a dairy, but was caught watering down the milk. He also worked as a butcher, rendering into steaks and chops cattle rustled from area ranchers.

By the late 1870s, Bean was operating a saloon in Beanville, a shanty town near San Antonio established to serve the expanding railroad. One store owner in town was so anxious to have Bean out of town, he bought all of Roy’s possessions for $900 so he could leave San Antonio.

By the spring of 1882, Bean had established a small saloon near the Pecos River in a tent city he named Vinegaroon. Within 20 miles of the tent city were 8,000 railroad workers. The nearest court was 200 miles away at Fort Stockton, and there was little means to stop illegal activity. A Texas Ranger requested local law jurisdiction be set up in Vinegaroon and, on August 2, 1882, Roy Bean was appointed justice of the peace for the new Precinct 6 in Pecos County.

One of his first acts was to “shoot up the saloon shack of a Jewish competitor.” Bean then turned his tent saloon into a part-time courtroom and began calling himself the “Law West of the Pecos.” As judge, Bean relied on a single law book, the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas. When newer law books showed up, he used them as kindling.

Bean was known for his unusual rulings. In one case, an Irishman named Paddy O’Rourke shot a Chinese laborer. A mob of angry Irishmen surrounded the courtroom and threatened to lynch Bean if O’Rourke was not freed. After looking through his law book, Bean ruled “homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman.” The case was dismissed. O’Rourke walked free.

Roy moved west, keeping pace with the railroad and walking once again into trouble. Unable to attract customers in Strawbridge, because a competitor had laced his whisky with kerosene, Beam moved to Eagle’s Nest and renamed it Langtry, after actress Lilly Langtry, the love of his life, though it’s unlikely he ever actually met her.

The owner of the land on which Bean settled already ran a saloon. He sold land to the railroad on the condition no land be leased to Roy. Paddy O’Rourke, the man whose life he had saved, advised Bean to use the railroad right-of-way, not covered in the contract.

For 20 years, he squatted on land for which he had no legal right and built a saloon he named The Jersey Lilly, after actress Langtry. Known as the “hanging judge,” Bean tried only two men for capital offenses. One was hanged and the other escaped. Mostly, since he did not have a jail, he settled cases by fine. Instead of sending the state the fines, which happened to be to the exact amount the accused had, he pocketed it. In cases involving stealing horses, thieves were fined and allowed to go if they returned the animals.

Bean won re-election as justice of the peace in 1884 but was defeated two years later. In 1887, the commissioner’s court created a new precinct in the county and appointed Bean to be the justice of the peace. He continued in office until he was defeated in 1896. Yet, even after that defeat, he refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try all cases.

There seems always to be a soft side to the scoundrel and Bean was no exception. He spent much of his profits helping the poor in the area and always made sure the schoolhouse had firewood for winter.

After a bout of heavy drinking, Roy Bean died in his sleep in 1903. A legend of the Old West had finally joined so many others.