I’m writing a fictional work on Judge Roy Bean. What do you know about him?
My father grew up in the judge’s town of Langtry, Texas, so I heard plenty of stories about the old boy.
Contrary to novels, movies and television, Roy Bean never hanged anyone. He was a colorful, old shyster.
If we are to believe the stories he told (and he told a bunch of them, some of which may have been true), Bean led a fascinating life on the frontier. He claimed to have participated in both the Mexican and Civil Wars, the former as a teamster and the latter as a Texas irregular. During the 1850s he was nearly hanged in California for killing a man in a duel.
He ran a saloon in San Antonio, Texas, for some 20 years, then in 1882 moved out to Vinegaroon, on the Pecos River along the new Southern Pacific Railway tracks. He opened up a saloon called the Jersey Lilly (which a drunken sign painter misspelled) for his heroine, British actress Lily Langtry, and re-named the town Langtry.
He was either appointed or named himself justice of the peace, the “Law West of the Pecos.” His saloon doubled as the courthouse. The legend began with some of his creative rulings—such as fining a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. Ironically, the dead person had that same amount of money on him! Without authority, he divorced couples he’d previously married, saying he had a right to “rectify his errors.” When acting as a coroner, he once ruled that a man who’d been shot between the eyes had met his death at the hands of a “good pistol shot.”
Among his other tricks, he’d put broken glass in the drinks during hot summer months to create the illusion of ice in the glass. He also delayed making change for tourists as the train was pulling out, causing the visitors to leave without their money.
The legends about him grew, and by 1903, he’d become a national celebrity.