Congressman Ted Poe (TX-02)
Way out west, Texas that is, where the tumbleweeds roll and the sunsets paint the sky, is the sleepy little town of Langtry, Texas. Here lives the legend of Judge Roy Bean, the only “law west of Pecos.” And like many of the mavericks in Texas history, his life is of legend and lore.
Before the good judge earned his place in Texas history and the Hollywood big screen, he had a hankering for fighting, romancing and gambling that landed him on the wrong side of law more often than not. Born in Mason County, Kentucky, he came to Texas following his two older brothers, Samuel and Joshua. Sam tried to tame his little brother and the two set up shop in Chihuahua, Mexico. But trouble wasn’t far behind and shortly after, Roy skipped town. This was the first of many disappearing acts.
Brother Joshua gave little brother Roy a job in his saloon in San Diego, but soon wore out his welcome with the law there as well. With the sheriff on his heels, he met up again with his brother in San Gabriel and was back to work in the new family saloon. He inherited the Headquarters Saloon after Joshua was murdered in late 1852, but couldn’t seem to escape trouble. Ironically, this time he was to be hanged.
After escaping his near death experience, he caught up with Sam in Mesilla, New Mexico. Sam was sheriff of the county and like his late brother Joshua was also in the saloon business. Broke and tired of running from the law, Roy managed to behave himself and prospered in the family business.
During the Civil War, Roy moved to San Antonio where he became known around town, so much so that the area was named “Beanville.” Several years, a wife and four children later, he left home and headed west along the Sunset railroad. Moving along with the rail construction, Bean reached Pecos, Texas. Lawlessness was a way of life in west Texas. It was said, “West of the Pecos there is no law; west of El Paso, there is no God."
The Texas Rangers served as the law, but a Justice of the Peace was needed. You didn’t have to be a lawyer to serve as a Justice of the Peace, which was a good thing because there weren’t too many lawyers around those parts.
On August 2, 1882, there was a new judge in town – Judge Roy Bean. (Although some say he wasn’t really a judge, but who was going to tell him that?) At the time he was living in Eagle’s Nest Springs, but when they got a post office, they changed their name to Langtry, Texas. While records show otherwise, Bean claimed the naming rights of the town and said it was in honor of his childhood love, actress Lillie Langtry. Whatever the real story may be, Langtry, Texas, is synonymous with Judge Bean.
His courtroom doubled as the Jersey Lilly Saloon and was never short on drama. While the cast of characters in the courtroom changed, there was never any doubt that Judge Bean was running the show. His verdicts were based on his unique version of the law and the unfortunate individual that landed before him was often found “illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of the State of Texas, particularly in my bailiwick," regardless of the actual offense.
There are tales of him keeping a pet bear in his courtroom and sentencing dozens to the gallows, saying: "Hang 'em first, try 'em later." A saying that reflected his nickname: “the hanging judge.” However, there are no records of him actually ever hanging anyone.
Aside from his notoriety on the bench, Judge Bean gained national recognition for orchestrating the Fitzsimmons-Maher heavyweight championship fight. As prize fighting was illegal in most western states during those days, the fight was set on a sandbar in the Rio Grande River - conveniently located just out of the jurisdiction of Mabry’s Texas Rangers. It was a one-hitter quitter and Fitzsimmons won in less than a minute. About the same amount of time it took to seal the fate of Roy Bean in Texas folklore history.
In 1936, the Texas Centennial Fairgrounds had a popular exhibit featuring a replica of Judge Roy’s saloon/courtroom. Judge Bean has been the subject of a Larry McMurtry novel, television series and movies; even earning Walter Brennan an Academy Award for his portrayal in the Westerner. And of course, who can forget Paul Newman as Bean in the 1972 movie, The Life and Times of Roy Bean.
He served as judge until he voluntarily retired in 1902, (with the exceptions of 1886 and 1896 when he was temporarily voted out of office). Judge Roy Bean died in his saloon in March of 1903. Today, the Jersey Lillie Saloon and courtroom is a museum in honor of the Texas legend. I have been there and sat on his porch. So if you ever make it out west of the Pecos, make a stop in Langtry and take in a little part of Texas history.
And that’s just the way it is.