Saturday, May 20, 2017

Judge Roy Bean: the law west of the Pecos

Judge Roy Bean's saloon and "courthouse"

If Roy Bean were a judge today, he’d probably be kicked off the bench faster than you could say “the law west of the Pecos.”

He held court in his saloon, the Jersey Lilly, or outside the porch. He would interrupt court sessions to serve customers drinks.  His decisions were often quirky, such as fining an offender $30 and a round of drinks for the house, with the admonition to pay for the drinks first.


Judge Roy Bean

He had one book of Texas statutes in his law library, but rarely consulted it. Instead he made up law as he went along. He nicknamed himself “the law west of the Pecos,” and became a legend in his own time.

After his death, he was nicknamed “the hanging judge,” though he only sentenced two men to hang.  Perhaps the moniker is due more to his almost having been hanged

Lilly Langtry

himself. Prior to landing in west Texas, Bean wasn’t the most law abiding citizen.  Once friends of a man he killed strung him up and then left. The horse didn’t bolt and the bride of the man Bean killed  cut him down.

But Roy Bean also had a softer side. For years he corresponded with the British actress and femme fatale, Lilly Langtry. He named his saloon, Jersey Lilly, after her, He also claimed to have named the town where he lived, Langtry, after her, though other accounts suggest it was named for a railroad employee with the same last name.  He was always inviting her to visit “her” town, but she never made it until a few months after he died.

Bean was born in 1826 in Kentucky and died in 1903 in Texas.

The saloon where he held court can be visited in Langtry. It’s located behind a Texas tourism office and shares space with a garden devoted to Southwest desert plants.  A small museum about Bean shares space with tourism information. The site is open daily; from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

The bar where Roy Bean dispensed booze and justice

Photos by Cheryl Probst and Jon Teal

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