The story doesn’t record what time of the year it was but you can bet it was hot. It’s pretty much always hot in West Texas. A train stopped to take on water at the tiny town of Langtry, and a passenger stepped off to enjoy a beer at the Jersey Lilly.
Casting a wary eye at the 450-pound black bear chained to a post in the front yard, the passenger climbed the steps and crossed the porch of the ramshackle saloon. He bellied up to the bar and ordered a beer. As he was finishing it the departure bell rang at the depot. He put down his bottle and hurried back to the train. Unfortunately for him, he had forgotten to pay.
The Law West of the Pecos
The proprietor of the Jersey Lilly, a cantankerous old man with a bushy white beard and a portly stomach that flopped down over his belt, took exception to the oversight. He ordered the conductor to hold the train, took out his .45 revolver and boarded in search of the miscreant. He went through the cars, staring hard into every face. Finally he found the right one and pushed the gun into his teeth.
“Thirty-five cents or I pull the trigger,” he said.
The man fumbled for his wallet and pulled out a dollar bill.
The proprietor carefully made change. Then he lowered the pistol and stalked off. At the door of the car he turned and enlightened the passengers as follows:
“If you don’t know what kind of hombre I am, I’ll tell you. I’m the Law West of the Pecos.”
His name was Judge Roy Bean, and it may have been the first time he ever made change.
In the 1890’s the Southern Pacific Railroad ran between San Antonio and El Paso and stopped in Langtry. The town of less than 100 souls on the Mexican border was then, and still is, surrounded by hundreds of miles of rocky sagebrush desert. The undisputed king of Langtry was Judge Roy Bean.
He had come to his high station by way of the railroad camps, dusty, dangerous places where uncouth laborers gathered in great numbers to build the Southern Pacific railroad across the state of Texas. These men worked hard and wanted a good, stiff drink at the end of the day. Roy Bean provided it in the form of a tent saloon. Drunkeness and lawlessness abounded. Acts of violence were a daily occurrence. Killings were common.
By 1882 the situation was out of control. The Texas authorities took note. The problem, they said, was a lack of law enforcement. There was only one deputy sheriff in the whole God-forsaken country and no Justice of the Peace. Gamblers, robbers, pickpockets and dirt bags of every sort ran amok, and the nearest legal authority with any clout was 600 miles away at Fort Stockton. That was when Roy Bean raised his hand. The saloon keeper who operated out of a tent in the railroad camp would volunteer to become the Justice of the Peace for Pecos County if they paid him. They did, and that was that.
Roy Bean was always an opportunist. Born in 1825 in Kentucky to a pair of dirt poor squatters, Roy and his brothers were constantly on the hunt for money and weren’t particular about how they got it. Youthful adventures in cheating and thievery gave way to more sophisticated forms of malfeasance in business and politics.
At age twenty-three Roy traveled to Chihuahua, Mexico in 1848 and opened a trading post. If later actions are any indication, he cheated his customers. One day a big Mexican took exception, so Roy shot him.
After high-tailing it to San Diego where his brother Josh had gotten himself installed as mayor, Roy lived the high life. He sported around with a silver-mounted saddle and bridle, smoked cigars, and flirted with the ladies. One citizen of the town thought he was just putting on airs and called him on it. It was a mistake. Roy challenged him to a duel. They pulled on each other and Roy grazed him. Roy was thrown into jail for his trouble, and a few days later he broke out and fled to Los Angeles.
Boom and Bust
In Los Angeles he opened a saloon and prospered for a few years before getting into a jam with a bunch of desperadoes hungry from his head. He fled to Mesilla, New Mexico where a second brother was running a hotel that doubled as a saloon and gambling den. The enterprise was so successful Roy and his brother opened a second joint in a mining town in the mountains above Silver City. But the Civil War broke out, the miners enlisted, the mines shut down, and the Apaches moved in.
In 1861 Roy and his brother moved back to Mesilla but ran flat into a bunch of lawsuits brought against them by the locals they had cheated, so they ran. Roy ended up in San Antonio, which was a thriving hub of Confederate blockade running, and in a short time he had accumulated several thousand dollars’ worth of property in teams and wagons and started a freight company. It was flush times all over again. Just as before he went swaggering around in expensive clothing, smoking cigars, and boasting about his prowess as a businessman. And just as before he was beset by lawsuits from the people he cheated.
Coming into His Own
Roy remained in San Antonio, and by 1866 he had been bled dry by his creditors. After that, he tried to go into the lumber business and failed. He tried to go into the dairy business and failed. He tried to become a farmer. He tried to become a butcher. But he soon learned his real talent lay in bilking people out of their money from behind a bar. It was all a matter of finding the right people to bilk. So, when the railroad began laying track west of the Pecos River in a part of Texas so hot and dry General George Sherman remarked that if he owned Hell and Texas, he would rent out Texas and live in Hell, Roy saw an opportunity and leapt.
One thing Roy Bean knew how to do well was cheat a drunk, and there were plenty of drunks in the migratory railroad camps that kept pace with the end of the tracks. He also had a singular talent for bluster and a willingness to draw on anyone who got in his way. Both talents served him well in a world populated by gamblers, con-artists, card sharks, pickpockets and ruffians of all sorts. His tent saloon did a booming business, and Roy always took a little bit more than his share. If anyone objected, he knew how to sort them out. The Wild West was Roy’s natural habitat.
But Roy also understood that the only cheaters who got away with it in the end were the cheaters in charge. So, when the State of Texas began making noises about imposing the rule of law in West Texas, he decided he’d rather be the guy with the badge. When he volunteered to be the Justice of the Peace, seeing as there were no other takers, the State of Texas shrugged and gave in, and that’s how Roy Bean became the Law West of the Pecos.
The Birth of Langtry
Roy settled down in an arid stretch of desert just steps from the Rio Grande. He built a saloon and called it the Jersey Lilly after the wildly popular English stage actress Lilly Langtry. The town that sprung up around it was christened Langtry at his direction. The railroad constructed a depot there, and it became a water stop on the Southern Pacific railway.
Roy fashioned himself a judge. He bought a law book and figured that was enough of a credential. He consulted his book often, usually right before a trial. He handed down verdicts (usually fines) and would brook no appeal. His decision was binding. As everyone in the neighborhood would soon learn, getting crosswise with Roy and his minions could be costly.
Roy was known to be generous with those down on their luck. One day a tramp came into the Jersey Lilly with a leg wrapped in bandages. The man claimed he needed to see a doctor but had no money. Roy collected what the man needed and gave it to him. The man went away but was overheard later bragging about how he had conned Judge Roy Bean. Roy sent his boys to bring him back to the Jersey Lilly. They forced him down into a chair.
“Now let me see that leg,” Roy said. “I’m a kind of doctor myself.”
When the man hesitated, Roy had his subordinates wrestle off his shoe and sock. They cut away his pant leg to the crotch. Roy bent down to take a look and said, “Why, that leg’s got to come off.”
Someone brought a rusty saw. The boys held the man down on the pool table and stretched him out.
“We better make the cut about here,” Roy said and gave the leg a good rasp.
The man howled in terror.
The others disputed the location of the cut and took turns rasping the leg in different places. When at last they loosened their grip on the man, he shot from the table and burst through the door. He went up the side of a boxcar like a squirrel and was never seen in Langtry again.
Always the Winner
Stories like this abound. There’s the one where Roy Bean fined a corpse forty dollars for carrying a concealed weapon. It just so happened the fine matched the amount of money in the dead man’s pocket. Or the one where a customer gave Roy a five dollar bill for a thirty-five cent bottle of beer and objected loudly when Roy failed to make change.
“The only change you’ll get around here”, said Roy, reaching for his gun, “is a change of heart.”
Anyone who knew Roy Bean knew enough not to give him more than was strictly necessary. Change was out of the question, and any protest about being bilked was almost certain to result in a fine for disorderly conduct, a fine that would amount to the same sum as the change being withheld. Roy always came out the winner.
The Bully and the Bear
By our modern lights Roy Bean was a bully. Yet people loved him. He was considered a “rascal” to use an expression of the time. The term connotes a fun loving troublemaker. It does not imply that no harm was done but that the harm was leavened by a degree of impish humor, something both the victim and the observers might have a chuckle over later. Indeed, as Roy’s legend spread near and far, people traveled to Langtry just to be cheated by him.
And Roy gave his visitors other things to talk about when they returned home. Facing the railroad along the front of his property was a row of cages housing bears, wildcats, panthers, coyotes, and other animals he kept in a makeshift zoo. Of all these animals his favorite was Bruno, a 450-pound black Bear that Roy considered one of the boys. Bruno drank beer and hung around the saloon. Being too highly respected to be confined to a cage, he was chained to a post in the front yard. Anyone who gave Roy trouble was sure to be introduced to Bruno.
The Big Fight
The newspapers of the day ate up tales of Judge Roy Bean, and Roy kept them supplied with a steady stream of anecdotes. Perhaps the most famous of Roy’s exploits was when he brought the world heavyweight boxing match to Langtry in 1896. Originally scheduled to take place in Dallas, it was chased out of town by ministers, suffragettes and reformers. This was the high watermark of Victorian era snootiness and boxing was considered vulgar and offensive. The fight was then rescheduled for El Paso, but the reformers struck there as well.
At last Roy Bean invited the promoters to bring their fight to Langtry. To stay on the correct side of the law, he had a temporary bridge built over the Rio Grande, and the fight took place outside of U.S. jurisdiction in Mexico. The fight lasted all of about two minutes but the publicity Roy got from it lasted for years.
Roy Bean died in 1903 much grieved by those who knew him. Twenty years later the Southern Pacific moved its facilities away from Langtry and the population dwindled to almost nothing. The town would have vanished altogether if the legend of Roy Bean hadn’t kept it alive. In 1968 the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center opened in Langtry.
It is surely one of the weirdest government run visitor centers in the United States. It consists of an orientation film that hasn’t been updated since 1968. Amateurish dioramas that were replaced in the eighties by hinky holograms that are almost impossible to view unless you catch them at the right angle. And some rusty artifacts.
The highlight by far is the original Jersey Lilly saloon which still stands on the property. You can go inside and walk the same floor Judge Roy Bean strode in his heyday. Adjacent to the old saloon is a cactus garden that’s interesting in its own right, if not a bit incongruous. One can’t imagine Roy Bean having any interest in a cactus garden. But whatever.
Judge Roy Bean Reassessed
Judge Roy Bean was a character of the sort modern Americans have little use for anymore. With our thin-skinned sensitivities, petty grievances and ever present resort to victimhood, a person like Roy Bean would be considered a thug today, someone in dire need on counseling.
But Roy Bean was not of our time. He grew up in a different era, one where the going was tough, and the pampered and entitled were few. He had to rely on his wits to make a go of it in a hardscrabble, unforgiving world, and he did so with courage and good humor.
Much as we may hate to admit it, he was one of us, and we wouldn’t be the same without Judge Roy Bean and people like him. Courage, ambition and good humor are still qualities that matter in America, even if means stepping on a few toes.
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Sonnichsen, C.L. Judge Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, Mockingbird Books, 1943
Judge Roy Bean, Public Domain
The bridge over the Pecos River, Malcolm Logan
Railroad train at the depot, Vintagraph.com
Thirty-five cents or I pull the trigger, Hellinahandbasket.net
Langtry in the 1890’s, SMU University Digital Collection
Hundreds of miles of rocky sagebrush desert, Malcolm Logan
San Diego in the 1850s, San Diego History Center
The Duel in San Diego, Legends of America
Roy Bean during his New Mexico years, Daly
Building the railraod, PBS.org
Men drinking in a tent saloon, WesternMiningHistory.com
Lily Langtry, Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center
Judge Roy Bean holding court on the porch of the Jersey Lilly, Public Domain
Judge Roy Bean and the boys, Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center
Interior of the Jersey Lilly, Malcolm Logan
Judge Roy Bean astride his horse, Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center
Bruno the bear, Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center
Bridge to Mexico, Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center
The prize fight at Langtry, Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center
Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, Malcolm Logan
The Jersey Lilly today, Malcolm Logan
Judge Roy Bean in 1903, Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center