Texas has produced and nurtured a great number of colorful characters, but none more colorful than the prismatic Judge Roy Bean. He squeezed many showy lives into one lifetime. In fact, he didn’t become the Judge Roy Bean that Paul Newman immortalized on film until he was almost 60 years old. This proves my favorite maxim: “The greatest mistake in life is thinking it’s too late.”
In his earlier years, he was living in a poor area of San Antonio named for him. It was called Beanville. He tried and failed at many things, mostly for, ironically, running afoul of the law. He failed at selling firewood because he cut down trees that didn’t belong to him. He failed as a butcher because butchering other people’s maverick cows before you’ve bought them is frowned upon. He failed at selling milk because he watered it down. One customer complained that he found a minnow in his milk. Bean defended himself by saying, “That’s the last time I let that cow drink out of the creek before I milk her.” He eventually had some success when he opened a saloon in Beanville, but he sold out when he heard that there were rare opportunities out in west Texas where they were building the railroad.
It was in the lawless railroad camps that Bean’s vast knowledge of people, his bilingual fluency in Spanish and English, and his unique persuasion skills became prized. The Texas Rangers liked his style and recruited him to become Justice of the Peace in those parts. And he took to the role like he was sent there from central casting. Bean made it known that he was the “Law West of the Pecos.” He was actually playing on an older saying that went like this: “West of the Pecos there is no law; west of El Paso, there is no God.” So at least, now, there was law west of the Pecos. He hung out a sign saying so.
Bean was also famous for saying, “Hang ‘em first and try ‘em later.” Though it certainly worked as a deterrent, the truth is he never actually hung anybody. It’s true. There was no jail in Langtry, so Judge Bean would often keep accused criminals chained to a mesquite tree outside until he could have a trial. On a few occasions he would sentence a young man to hang for some generally unhangable offense. The night before the hanging, Bean would leave the lock open, allowing him to escape. The young criminal would never be seen in those parts again.
In time, Bean opened his famous saloon there in Langtry on the right of way of the railroad. He was actually just squatting there, but the railroad, because they liked him, eventually created a legal arrangement so he could stay. He named his bar the Jersey Lilly in honor of Lillie Langtry, of England, one of the world’s most beautiful women at the time. Bean wrote to her and asked her to visit Langtry, Texas, which he claimed was named for her (it wasn’t). She did come to see him, too, but she had to visit him in his grave. She was ten months too late. But that’s another story.
The trains would stop at the Langtry depot for water and all the passengers would get down to have a drink at the Jersey Lilly. When Judge Roy Bean served customers in his saloon, he never had change. So if a customer paid for a 25 cent beer with a dollar, he wouldn’t get back the 75 cents. If he complained, the judge would fine him 75 cents for disturbing the peace.
Stories about the abusive Judge Roy Bean got out in the world, and rather than drive people away, everyone on the trains wanted to stop and get harassed by the irascible Bean. You could say Bean’s Jersey Lilly was a precursor to Dick’s Last Resort in today’s world.
He had a law book called the “1879 Revised Statutes of Texas0.” He liked that one. Even though the legislature sent him new books every two years, reflecting new laws, he burned them. He said he liked the old book better and he like those laws better, too.
As a justice of the peace, he could marry people. He had no legal right to divorce people, but he did that anyway. He believed that if he made the mistake of marrying them he should be able to correct the mistake by setting them free. Bean also officially pronounced people “dead.” He merged his duties on occasion. He would use his official pronouncement of death as the last thing he said at a wedding: “I pronounce you man and wife. May God have mercy on your souls.”
The Jersey Lilly was also where Judge Bean held court. And so, naturally, you couldn’t be on a jury if you didn’t drink. Right in the middle of happy hour, you might say, he would assemble a jury and swear them in. The case would be presented, verdicts arrived at, and sentencing pronounced, all within an hour or two. Often the sentence for misdemeanors was to buy a round of drinks for the jury. He was very patriotic about Texas, too. He often preceded sentencing with words like: “You have offended the great state of Texas by committing this crime on her sacred soil… “
One of his most famous cases had to do with a dead man who fell off a bridge there in Langtry. Bean found $40 on him and a pistol. He fined him $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. That was enough to get him buried.
Bean rose to international prominence when he promoted the World Heavyweight Championship prizefight between Fitzsimmons and Maher. Believe it or not, prizefighting, back then, was illegal in Texas. It was considered uncivilized. At first, the fight looked like it might be held on the sly in El Paso, so the Texas governor sent 25 Texas rangers over there to make sure it didn’t happen. Then, it seemed like it might be held in Juarez, but such fighting was illegal there, too, though only a misdemeanor. Nonetheless, the governor of Chihuahua sent troops to Juarez to make sure the fight didn’t happen there, either. Finally, in steps Judge Roy Bean. He sent a telegram to the promoter saying they could have it in Langtry, right across the river on a Rio Grande sand bar. Technically, Mexico, yes, but miles from any authority that would be able to stop it.
So the whole menagerie of unlikely associates, boxers, gamblers, Texas Rangers, high-rollers from the East, and spectators of all stripes, boarded a train bound for parts unknown because the destination was kept a secret. Bean met them at his rail-side saloon, sold everybody beer at the exorbitant price of a dollar each, and then escorted them across a pontoon bridge to the Mexican side of the river. The Texas Rangers watched from the Texas side, satisfied that they had no jurisdiction in the matter. The fight ensued, and before the spectators could get settled in for a good, long match, it was over. Fitzsimmons knocked out Maher in the first round. The fight lasted 95 seconds. But the big winner was Judge Roy Bean. He sold a lot of beer and his name went out over the wires worldwide as the clever man who made the fight possible.
Judge Roy Bean lived his life in ascendancy, saving the best for last. Had he died twenty years earlier, you never would have heard of him. I wouldn’t be talking about him. His fame is still bringing some 40,000 visitors a year to Langtry, over a century after his death. Not bad numbers for a dead man. As a lifelong showman, you can be sure he’s grinning in his grave.