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Wild West Outlaws and Lawmen

Judge Roy Bean

(c. 1825 – March 16, 1903)

Judge Roy Bean, (a.k.a, The Hanging Judge") who appointed himself "the law west of the Pecos River," doled out some pretty weird and severe sentences from his combination barroom/courtroom.

According to legend, the Judge held court in his saloon along the Rio Grande River in a desolate stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas. 

He might have been so crabby because he couldn't move his head, a malady that was borne of his own harsh punishment. When young, and in California, Bean killed a Mexican official during an argument over a young woman. Friends of the official didn't take kindly to this, so they hauled Bean off and hanged him, leaving him to die. Although seriously injured, he was saved from death by the young woman in dispute.

Later, once he was "judge," he once fined a dead man in his "courtroom." After he heard the body had $40 and a six-gun in the clothing, he charged the corpse for carrying a concealed weapon and fined it $40.


The judge was born in Mason County, Kentucky, about 1825 (some records suggest 1823). At about the age of 15, Roy left home, seeking adventure in the American Old West and to follow his two older brothers, Sam and Joshua. With brother Sam, he traveled by wagon train to what would later become New Mexico, then crossed the Rio Grande and set up a trading post in Chihuahua, Mexico. After killing a local man, Roy fled to California, staying with his other brother Joshua, who became the first mayor of San Diego.

Roy worked as a bartender in his brother's saloon, "The Headquarters", and was later appointed by him a lieutenant in the state militia. On February 24, 1852, Roy was arrested after wounding a man named Collins in a duel. He escaped in April 17, and when his mayor brother was killed a few months later by a rival in a romantic triangle, Roy headed back to New Mexico, where Sam had become a sheriff.Roy tended bar in Sam's saloon for several years and supplemented his income by smuggling guns from Mexico through the Union blockade during the American Civil War.


On October 28, 1866, Roy married a Mexican woman, Maria Anastacia Virginia Chavez (c. 1845 - November 26, 1922). They settled in San Antonio, Texas. and had five children. Throughout the 1870s, Roy supported his family by peddling stolen firewood and selling watered-down milk. His notorious business practices eventually earned his San Antonio neighborhood the nickname Beanville.In 1882, the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad hired crews to link San Antonio with El Paso.

Fleeing his marriage and illegal businesses, Roy headed to Vinegaroon, an "end of track" tent city, to become a saloonkeeper, serving railroad workers whiskey from a tent.Justice of the PeaceEager to establish some sort of local law enforcement, County commissioners appointed him as the justice of the peace for Pecos County.

Roy packed up and moved north from Vinegaroon to a small tent city on a bluff above the Rio Grande named Langtry (in honor of George Langtry, a railroad boss who had run the Southern Pacific Railroad's tracks through it). The name also belonged to a beautiful British actress, Lillie Langtry with whom he became enchanted. He then built a saloon he named the Jersey Lily (her nickname) that also served as his home. He hung a tattered picture of her behind the bar. And above the door he posted signs proclaiming "Ice Cold Beer" and "Law West of the Pecos."   From there, Roy Bean dispensed liquor, justice and tall tales, including that he himself had named the town in honor of the actress.

Bean's Courtroom

He was elected to office in 1884 and re-elected many times.  His court methods were arbitrary and comical and inspired many outrageous tales. His court paraphernalia included only one revolver, one law book and a pet bear.

One story has him finding a dead Chinese man with a gun and $40 in his pocket; since he purportedly knew of no law against killing a "Chinaman", he proceeded to fine the dead man $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. He also knew next to nothing about the law; he reputedly thought habeas corpus was a profanity. It is said that, when performing marriage ceremonies, he always ended the service by saying "And may God have mercy on your soul."

In legend, Judge Roy Bean is portrayed as a merciless dispenser of justice, often called "The Hangin' Judge." But that title arguably goes to Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas, who sentenced 160 (156 men and 4 women) to hang between 1875-1896, leading to the executions of 79 men. In his book "Judge Roy Bean Country," Jack Skiles says that although Bean threatened to hang hundreds, "there's no evidence to suggest that Judge Roy Bean ever hung anybody."

 What actually happened was that some US Marshals or Deputy US Marshals, on occasion, and while serving under Judge Parker, believing that certain outlaws had not committed offenses serious enough to justify being taken all the way back to Fort Smith, would instead take their captured suspects to Bean. Since Justice Bean's court was recognized as a legitimate court for certain cases, this was tolerated, although Judge Parker frowned upon it and preferred all suspects to be brought before him.

One of Bean's most outrageous rulings occurred when an Irishman was accused of killing a Chinese American worker. Friends of the accused threatened to destroy the Jersey Lily if he were found guilty. Bean browsed through his law book, turning page after page, searching for a legal precedent. Finally, rapping his pistol on the bar, he proclaimed, "Gentlemen, I find the law very explicit on murdering your fellow man, but there's nothing here about killing a Chinaman. Case dismissed."

Boxing Bout

In 1896, Bean organized a world championship boxing title bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher on an island in the Rio Grande because boxing matches were illegal in Texas. The resulting sport reports spread his fame throughout the United States.


Judge Roy Bean died in March 16, 1903, peacefully in his bed, after a bout of heavy drinking. Later legend claimed he was shot by a Mexican outlaw in his porch.

He was buried at the Whitehead Museum in Del Rio, Texas. As for Lillie Langtry, he never actually met her – though he claimed otherwise. He did write to her many times and even received letters in reply. He claimed that she had sent him two pistols. Unfortunately, Langtry only visited the town some ten months after his death

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