Judge Roy Bean Was he really a “Hanging Judge?”

Judge Roy Bean True West
Judge Roy Bean

My father spent part of his youth living in Langtry, Texas. His first wife, Leta, was the daughter of the town constable, Bart Gobble. My grandpa, Walker Trimble, was an engineer on the Southern Pacific Railroad. I assume frequented Bean’s saloon, the Jersey Lillie.

As a youngster dad regaled me with stories of the old judge. There are so many stories told about Roy Bean that it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. Movies, novels and television shows have tried to depict him as a hanging judge, confusing him with Judge Isaac Parker, the famous “Hanging Judge” in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

In reality, Bean was more of a scoundrel and blowhard with an uncanny ability to know how much money an offender was carrying then fine him accordingly. He once fined a corpse forty dollars for carrying a concealed weapon. Coincidentally the same amount found in the dead man’s pockets. He also took possession of the pistol.

The nearest the self-described “Law West of the Pecos” ever came to hanging a man was a prank and he pulled more than once. He used the death sentence as a device to put the fear of God into lawbreakers, especially the young ones. Once, when a trio of itinerants pilfered a railroad official’s pistol and wandered into Langtry afoot. They were apprehended and brought before the judge. Two were repentant, were fined and released. The third, was a surly, cocky lad and as a result the judge sentenced him to “death by hanging.”

Since there weren’t any trees around Langtry that were tall enough to stage a traditional hanging, they stood him up against a railroad boxcar. A noose was placed around his neck then the other end was thrown over the top of the boxcar. On the other side a cowboy dallied it around his saddle horn and prepared to uplift the lad. By this time the terrified young man became repentant.

“Too late!” said the judge.

Bean’s good friend and part time assistant, Billy Dodd, was adjusting the noose. He whispered in the condemned man’s ear, “When we ain’t looking, slip that noose off your head and run like hell and don’t ever come back to these parts.”

The “doomed” man nodded and at that moment, Judge Bean and the others in the hanging party looked skyward and closed their eyes in prayer for the soon-to-be deceased. The kid slipped out of the noose and was last seen running for his life. The boys went back into Bean’s saloon, and had a good laugh.

A similar story is told about the time a down-on-his-luck man on a crutch climbed off a freight train, limped into the saloon on a crowded Saturday night and passed the hat. He was such a sorry looking soul the customers filled it with dollar bills. He thanked them graciously and limped out the door and back to the train. Two youngsters saw him toss the crutch into the boxcar and hop in. They crept closer and overheard him boasting to his pals about hoodwinking the locals in the saloon.

They went back and told Judge Bean what they’d heard. He quickly deputized several patrons who rounded up the hobo and drug him back to the saloon to stand trial. The man quickly confessed to his scam.

The judge declared that since he’d conned them by acting like a cripple his sentence would be to amputate one of his legs and turn him into an authentic one.

They stretched him out on the pool table and while the jury held him down one took a pair of scissors and cut off his pant leg just below the knee while another marked the spot with pencil. Bean’s handyman, Domingo, produced a rusty old saw to do the cutting.

“That’s not high enough,” the jury declared.

So the process was repeated and each time they shouted “higher,” until the pencil mark was at the upper part of his thigh. Old Domingo held the saw wearing a big, unsympathetic grin.

Bean then suggested they all pause and belly up the bar for another round before performing the amputation.

When the boys had their back to the pool table, Billy Dodd, with a reverent countenance, pleaded, “Run, run, run!”

The hobo leaped off the table and ran for the door, then up the street, disappearing into the darkness as the boys fired a few rounds over his head.

What do you think?

Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian, board president of the Arizona Historical Society and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen; History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu