Rough-Hewn Solomon Of The Southwest
The most unorthodox jurist ever to sit in judgment in the U.S. was, bar none, Roy Bean of Texas. A corpulent, bull-voiced saloonkeeper and gambler, Bean tried cases between deals of poker, and regularly recessed trials to sell liquor to counsel, jury and defendant. He read haltingly, knew only a smattering of law and ignored any statutes he personally disliked. While he never held a higher position than justice of the peace in a desert hamlet, he bannered himself, with some accuracy, as the "law west of the Pecos" - the river that ran 20 miles east of his stronghold.
Bean, a native Kentuckian with a checkered past as a trader, bartender and sometime smuggler, began his 20-year-long magisterial reign at the age of 56, shortly after setting up a saloon at a railway construction camp in the west Texas wilds in 1882. Since he ranked as the area's nearest thing to a solid citizen, and since the closest court was some 200 miles away, the Texas Rangers began bringing their prisoners to him for judgment - even before the state appointed him a justice of the peace.
From the outset, pragmatism was Bean's hallmark. When an Irish railroad hand killed a Chinese worker, 200 Irish roustabouts turned up in Bean's court to see that their countryman got fair treatment. The judge surveyed the tough crowd, thumbed idly through his lawbook and finally announced that, although there were many prohibitions against homicide, there was no specific ban against killing a Chinese. Case dismissed.
In another memorable example of improvisation, the judge doubled as a coroner. A worker had fallen from a viaduct to rocks 300 feet below. Having pronounced him dead, Bean had to bury the man - but he did not think his five-dollar coroner's fee adequate pay for the job. He reverted to his role as justice of the peace, searched the body and discovered $40 and a revolver. "I find this corpse guilty of carrying a concealed weapon," he intoned, "and I fine it $40."
Virtually all fines stayed in his pockets, and when higher authorities asked for an accounting, he responded, "My court is self sustaining." Nor was he daunted when a federal judge told him that, while he could perform marriages, his practice of granting divorces was beyond the power of a justice of the peace. Bean retorted, "Well, I married 'em, so I figure I've got the right to rectify my errors."
Law West Of The Pecos
Nothing was orthodox about Roy Bean, and little in his life qualified him to sit in judgment of others, yet this uneducated, colorful, and contrary man set himself up as the only "law West of the Pecos" in Langtry, Texas, and ruled this dust-blown hamlet with harshness and humor for twenty years. Bean's background was hazy at best, but it is known that he was born about 1823 in a crude cabin along the Ohio River in Mason County, Ky. His parents, Francis and Anna Bean, were uneducated hill people who barely scraped a living from the wildness and young Roy, having little, soon developed a taste for the finer things of life. His brothers, Sam and Josh, left home first, Sam going to Mexico where he later fought in the Mexican-American War and, still later, settling in Dona Ana County, N.M., becoming its first sheriff. Josh went further, traveling to California where he became the first mayor of San Diego. He was murdered in 1852. Roy Bean left the hardscrabble life in Kentucky while in his teens, seeking his fortune in Mexico with his brother Sam.
Both arrived in Chihuahua in 1848 and there got into an argument with a drunken Mexican cowboy who reportedly drew a knife on young Roy, who pulled a pistol and, with one shot, drilled a bullet into his antagonist's forehead. To the Americans in Chihuahua the killing was self-defense, but local authorities labeled Bean's shooting murder and Roy fled to California where he worked for his brother Josh briefly, ran a saloon, joined the California Rangers and, when his brother was slain in 1852, fled once more, this time going to Mesilla, N. M. Roy later told the tale that he had fought a duel on horseback in San Diego and left that town after killing his opponent. He also said, some years later, that he stole a beautiful Spanish girl from her Mexican lover near the Mission of San Gabriel outside Los Angeles. The boyfriend and his friends supposedly lynched Roy Bean for his transgressions and left him to dangle but he was cut down by the sweetheart and escaped with rope burns around his neck.
During the Civil War, Bean organized a guerilla band which he dubbed The Free Rovers, a group of scavengers that ostensibly robbed from wealthy landowners and converted the loot into supplies for the Confederacy. Bean's group, however, was considered to be nothing more than a band of rustlers and robbers who stole in the name of the southern cause. Following the war, Bean moved to San Antonio, Texas, where, for eighteen years, he enmeshed himself in a myriad of money-producing schemes that produced little or no money. He worked as a butcher, a dairy operator, a saloon-keeper, and a freighter. Bean was in and out of court so often, pressing claims and mostly losing, that he became a regular fixture in the San Antonio courthouse. In the course of his many suits, the unschooled, almost illiterate Bean learned much about the law, knowledge he would later put to effective use. During this long dry spell, Bean wed a child-bride, Virginia Chavez. After bearing two sons and two daughters for the hard-drinking, easy living Bean, Virginia left her failed husband.
Bean, however, saw the advance of the railroads as his opportunity and he followed the railhead as it worked across West Texas, first at Vinagaroon where he was appointed a justice of the peace by the drunken road-gang workers he befriended and who were impressed with Bean's lawspouting speeches. When Vinagaroon died, Bean moved on with the Southern Pacific, getting off at a desolate spot called Langtry. Here Bean established his little empire that was to win him fame across the state of Texas and earn him a lasting, if curious, lore as one of the strangest judges of the West. Bean later claimed that he named the tiny town of Langtry, a half-dozen broken down shacks that butted up against the rail line, after the popular British actress. Bean saw a picture of the "Jersey Lily" in a magazine and exclaimed: "By gobs, what a purty critter!" He kept the magazine clipping until the day he died, nailing it to the wall of his saloon where it faded and yellowed year after year.
Armed with a copy of the Revised Statutes of Texas, 1879 edition, Bean got himself appointed justice of the peace in Langtry on Aug. 2, 1882, occupying a twenty-by-fourteen-foot shack adorned with signs that read: "Judge Roy Bean, Notary Public;" "Justice of the Peace," "Law West of the Pecos," and "Ice Beer." The place was entitled with another prominent sign, reading: "The Jersey Lilly," named after Bean's heart-throb, Lily Langtry. The sign was misspelled by a illiterate sign-painter who worked off one of Bean's notorious fines by painting the signs while drunk.
Bean would officiate at any occasion, for a price, of course. He charged $2 for inquests, and there were many of these in Langtry where everyone carried weapons and fired first and talked later, if anyone was left alive to talk. For weddings and divorces, Bean charged $5 for each ceremony. His wedding ceremonies were somber affairs and Bean usually rushed through the traditional rites. When he finished he would invariably stare long and hard at the groom and state: "And may God have mercy on your soul," a comment usually reserved for those who had been condemned to death.
The judge was as concerned about selling his liquor as he was about dispensing justice. Before any important court hearing, Bean would suggest that everyone buy "a good snort" to liven up the proceedings. Though he was supposedly loved by children and animals, Bean was a harsh man with a dark humor who favored white citizens and considered all others worthless. Of course, Bean bent over backwards for anyone who worked for the railroad since the Southern Pacific made a regular stop at his small town. The railroad was the only source of supplies and business, especially when trains stopped long enough to allow passengers to visit The Jersey Lilly, and buy a few drinks. The inside of the place was part saloon and part courtroom with a small back room where Bean slept. If any customer got drunk in the courtroom area instead of the saloon, Bean promptly fined the offender.
Lily Langtry remained Bean's lifelong obsession. No one could bring up her name in his ramshackle saloon without buying a drink and toasting her picture which was behind the bar. When the actress toured America in 1888, Bean traveled to a San Antonio theater to see her, wearing his best suit and a battered top hat, paying a staggering price for a front-row customer. He sat bug-eyed throughout the performance but did not have the courage to visit the actress backstage later. When Bean returned to tell his tale of seeing the actress, he called for a week-long celebration. The judge's reign was interrupted twice, in 1886 and in 1896 when elections he claimed were rigged put others in his place. Bean, however, continued to win the post of justice of the peace and by the turn of the century his legendary character and judicial decisions had reached eastward, drawing hundreds of visitors to the dusty town of Langtry just to get a glimpse of Bean sitting on the porch of his establishment, meting out justice to drunks, wife-beaters, and rowdies.
Even Lily Langtry finally came to visit the famous judge in 1903 but her most ardent fan was by then dead. Bean had gone into San Antonio on Mar. 15, 1903, where he witnessed a cockfight in the Mexican quarter. So aroused by the blood sport was he that he went on an extended bender and was taken back to his shack in Langtry in an almost comatose state. He lingered in his back room for some hours, unable to recognize his own son, Sam, who had ridden a horse to death to get to his father's deathbed. He died on Mar. 16, 1903. Toward the end of the year, Lily Langtry alighted from a passenger train and toured Bean's miserable shack, which still bore her picture over the bar. The natives gave her the judge's pet bear which had been chained for years to Bean's bed, but the animal ran off once it was released. Then Lily was given the judge's revolver which she took home with her to England where she placed it on a mantle to remind her of the "strange little man in America" who loved her and who never met her.
Bean was buried in Del Rio, Texas, with little pomp. His children were present and his daughter, fifty years later, objected to the critical stories about her father, stating in his defense: "The only thing about Papa that anybody could object to was that he was a Republican and favored a high tariff ... He was a wonderfully kind, good and gentle father ... And he was a honest, fair and impartial judge." Judge Roy Bean was also one of the most unusual jurists ever seen in the annals of the West.
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