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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Roy Bean, the Hanging Judge

     Hanging Judge Roy Bean, who held court sessions in his saloon along the Rio Grande River in a desolate stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, was one of the Old West's most fascinating characters. According to myth, his saloon was named after the love of his life, Lily Langtry, a British actress he'd never met.
    Judge Bean didn't call himseld the Hanging Judge though; he called himself the Law West of the Pecos and is reputed to have kept a pet bear in his courtroom and sentenced dozens to the gallows, saying "Hang 'em first, try 'em later." Separating fact from fiction though proves very difficult.
    Bean was born in Mason County, Kentucky about 1825. At age 15 he left home to follow two older brothers west seeking adventure. With Brother Sam, he joined a wagon train into New Mexico, then crossed the Rio Grande and set up a trading post in Chihuahua, Mexico. After killing a local man, he fled to California, to stay with his brother Joshua who would become the first mayor of San Diego.
    While living in San Diego, Roy had a reputation for bragging, dueling and gambling on cockfights. As mayor, his brother appointed Roy a lieutenant in the state militia and bartender of the Headquarters, the mayor's saloon. In 1852, Roy was arrested after wounding a man in a duel, but he escaped and after his brother, the mayor, was killed a few months later by a rival in a romantic triangle, Roy headed back to New Mexico where brother Sam Bean had become a sheriff and also owned a saloon.
     In New Mexico, Roy tended bar in Sam's saloon for several years while smuggling guns from Mexico through the Union blockade during the Civil War. Afterward, he married a Mexican teenager and settled in San Antonio, Texas where throughout the 1870s he supported 5 children by peddling stolen firewood and selling watered-down milk. His nefarious business practices eventually earned his San Antonio neighborhood the nickname Beanville.
     Then in 1882, the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad hired crews to link San Antonio with El Paso, Texas across 530 miles of the scorching Chihuahuan Desert. The desert was a miserable place that was infested with bobcats, rattlesnakes and scorpions, called vinegaroons by the locals.
    Fleeing his marriage and illegal businesses in San Antonio, Roy headed to to the area, known as Vinegaroon to become a saloonkeeper, serving railroad workers their whiskey from a tent. Bean was his own best customer and was often drunk and disorderly.
    Because the nearest courtroom was a week's ride away the County Commissioners, wanting to establish some sort of local law, appointed Roy Bean as Justice of the Peace for his precinct in Pecos County, Texas. Roy accepted the appointment and packed up and moved north from Vinegaroon to a small tent city on the Rio Grande named Langtry in honor of a railroad boss who had run the Southern Pacific's tracks through it.
    The name Langtry also happened to be the name of a beautiful British actress that Bean had read about and become enchanted with. He built a saloon and named it the Jersey Lilly, as Ms. Langtry was known. He hung a picture of her behind the bar, and above the door, posted signs proclaiming "ICE COLD BEER" and "LAW WEST OF THE PECOS." From his bar Bean dispensed not only liquor, justice and tall tales which included the fact that he had named the town for actress Lillie Langtry.
    When it came to “justice” Bean wasn't too concerned with legalities. He was more concerned with things like greed and prejudice mixed in with a little common sense and a lot of colorful language.
    One of Bean's most outrageous rulings occurred when an Irishman was accused of killing a Chinese worker. Friends of the accused threatened to destroy the Jersey Lilly if he was found guilty. After thumbing through his law book, Bean proclaimed he found the law very explicit on murdering one's fellow man, but there was nothing in the law books about killing a Chinaman and the case was dismissed.
    According to legend, Judge Bean was merciless and was called "The Hangin' Judge." But that title goes to Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas, who sentenced 172 men to hang although in fact, only 88 of them actually ended up swinging. Bean threatened to hang hundreds, but one researcher claimed there's no evidence to suggest that ever hung anybody. One or two were sentenced and taken to the gallows, but allowed to escape.
    Like many politicians of questionable repute today, Bean was elected to the office in 1884 and often reelected, so that between 1882 and 1902, most of Roy's bizarre rulings stood. Except for an occasional murder, his cases consisted mostly of misdemeanor offenses such as drunkenness and crimes committed by petty criminals.
    Most days found him sitting on the porch of his saloon with rifle in his lap. In the saloon his favorite customers were railroad passengers who wanted a drink while the train took on water. His favorite trick was not to give them change and then when the train's warning whistle blew, customers asked for their change which was refused. The result was that there were usually a few curse words utter and then Bean would fine them for swearing. The fine was the exact amount of their change. There was nothing customers could do except “pay” the fine and hustle back to the train.
    In 1896, prizefighting was illegal, as it was in Mexico, and promoters couldn't find anywhere to hold the world championship title bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher.
    In February of 1896, Bean's saloon was packed with 200 fight fans and after a few rounds they followed Bean over a bridge he had built to a sand bar in the Rio Grande River. While Texas Rangers watched from shore, Fitzsimmons knocked out Maher in only 95 seconds. After returning to the saloon for more drinks, the fans and sportswriters headed for El Paso, where news stories were filed to papers throughout the US. It was after this that Bean became a national legend and his exploits were recounted in newspapers and dime novels. Many of the “details” came from Bean himself.
Dime novels were popular

    For years, Roy boasted of his acquaintance with Lillie Langtry and promised that she would one day arrive and sing in in town. 1896, after his first saloon was destroyed by fire, Roy rebuilt the Jersey Lilly and constructed a home for himself across the street, which he called the Opera House, anticipating the day when Lillie would perform there. Roy never met Miss Lillie, but he often wrote her, and she is purported to have written back, even sending him 2 pistols.
    Some novels and the movie Streets Of Laredo portrayed Bean as being gunned down by a Mexican outlaw on the steps of the Jersey Lilly, but his end was anti-climactic. In March 1903, he went on a drinking binge in Del Rio, Texas and was found dead in his bed the following morning.
    Lillie Langtry finally did take Judge Bean up on his invitation to visit. Unfortunately, it was tem months after old Roy died. Traveling on the Southern Pacific Railroad on her was from New Orleans to San Francisco she made a stop and visited the saloon and listened as locals told her how Judge Bean had fined a corpse, freed a murderer and lined his pockets by shortchanging train passengers. She wrote of the visit in her autobiography calling it, “...a short visit, but an unforgettable one."
    There's a whole lot of nothing on those west Texas roads, but you can still visit Langtry, Texas which in 2016 had a population of...twelve people. You probably won't want to visit the museum during the months of Jun, July and August though; the average daytime high approaches 100 degrees.

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