Today, Langtry, Texas, a cliffside town on the Rio Grande, is the residence for merely 12 people and plenty of vacant and dilapidated homes. However, it’s also where tens of thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage each year to the saloon from which one of the Old West’s most storied characters carried out his duties as the “Law West of the Pecos.”
Born in Kentucky around 1830, Phantly Roy Bean, the youngest of five children, followed his older brothers, Samuel and Joshua, west. He first joined up with his brother Samuel to operate a trading post in Chihuahua, Mexico, before showing up in San Diego, and then San Gabriel, where his brother Joshua had established himself as a leader in these early communities. For Phantly though, each destination led to trouble.
Leaving Mexico after shooting a man, Phantly was involved in another gun-wielding duel in early 1852, for which he was arrested. These San Diego court documents mark the last time Phantly was known as such, or even signed his name with the initial “P” before Roy. From his arrest—and subsequent escape—forward, he was known as Roy Bean.
In San Gabriel, Roy Bean’s involvement in a love triangle earned him a hanging. As legend tells it, Bean was strung from a tree and left atop his horse. Some stories claim the horse stood fast, while others portray a stretched rope that left scars that marked Roy for the rest of his life, despite his lover cutting him loose. Regardless of the details, the fact remains that Roy Bean escaped yet another close call, and high-tailed it to New Mexico to again meet up with brother Samuel, who had become the sheriff of Mesilla.
When the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War inspired a move to San Antonio, Bean took a young Mexican wife, fathered four children while adopting a fifth, and engaged in particularly shady business practices that earned his neighborhood the moniker Beanville. The marriage didn’t last and when, in the early 1880s, the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in West Texas on its mission to complete the Sunset Route from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Bean moved west with the tent camps, offering services from his canvas-sided saloon.
As is most often the case with railroad tent cities, law and order were lacking and the Texas Rangers became hard pressed to quell the disruptive behaviors emerging from these train-stop desert towns. In response, for reasons none too obvious, Roy Bean was appointed Justice of the Peace in then-Pecos County on Aug. 2, 1882.
In the soon-established town of Langtry (named for George Langtry, a railroad foreman), Judge Roy Bean built a proper saloon and named it the Jersey Lilly, after Lillie Langtry, an English actress the judge was quite fond of. The saloon, and really anyplace the judge saw fit, became his courtroom, and it was not long before the “Law West of the Pecos” became known for his wild and loose interpretations of the law.
In one widely told tale, the judge fined a dead man $40 for carrying a firearm—the exact amount found in the man’s pockets. A lesser-known story from author and Langtry resident Jack Skiles, recorded many years after the event, recalls a crippled stranger who, while at the Jersey Lilly, took up a collection for his ailment. When the kids in town realized the stranger’s handicap was a farce, Judge Roy Bean deputized a few bar patrons to fetch the man, return him to the bar, and splay him over the poker table to cut off his legs and provide him with an actual handicap. After much discussion with the crowd as to where the legs should be cut, while one menacing man stood over the stranger with a rusty saw, the group decided to break for a drink, allowing the anxiety-ridden stranger to “escape” and never return.
Despite often being referred to as Hanging Judge Roy Bean, the fact remains the judge never carried out a sentence in which a man was to be hanged, preferring instead to threaten those found guilty with the idea of it, by way of having them leave town for good. And though he did once rule a murderer innocent because he could not identify a law regarding killing a Chinese laborer, mostly he is remembered for blurring the lines between saloon owner and judge.
For instance, when a train stopped to take on water and its passengers came to the saloon for a drink, the judge would quickly serve their beverage and collect the money owed. If change was to be returned, however, he would linger until the train was ready to depart, causing the traveler to cuss over their missing change, at which point the judge would fine them the exact amount he owed them.
It was also in Langtry that Judge Roy Bean was able to orchestrate one of history’s greatest (and perhaps, shortest) prizefights, between “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher. As prizefighting was banned in both the United States and Mexico, the judge built a fight ring on a sandbar in the Rio Grande canyon, where the Texas Rangers had no jurisdiction and Mexican officials could not access.
Despite his creative perception of the law, Judge Roy Bean is remembered as the man for the job—the one who didn’t follow the rules, but knew the law of the land well enough to introduce his own brand of justice, or, “Law West of the Pecos.” And, as for his crafty collection of fines, Langtry residents generally acknowledge that the funds collected directly supported their community. In the case of the dead man, for example, the $40 collected are believed to have purchased him a proper burial in the cemetery and paid the gravedigger’s wages. As such, he was, at times, referred to in the papers as “King Bean.”