The Story Of Judge Roy Bean, The Eccentric Wild West Judge Known For His Outrageous Verdicts

Published October 30, 2023
Updated December 8, 2023

Despite having no legal experience, Roy Bean was appointed a justice of the peace in Pecos County, Texas to help establish law and order there in the 19th century — and he did so in the most Wild West way imaginable.

Judge Roy Bean

Wikimedia CommonsJudge Roy Bean in his later years.

Judge Roy Bean lived a colorful childhood and young adulthood. The adventurous spirit he had as a teenager getting into trouble translated well to his time as a judge in the Wild West of West Texas.

A Bloody Early Life

Bean was born in Kentucky in the 1820s and moved to Mexico with his brothers in 1847. The trio frequently got into fights, and Bean had to flee to California after shooting a man in a bar. Old habits died hard, and Bean had to leave San Diego because he shot and killed some people, even though his brother Joshua was the first mayor of San Diego. In Los Angeles, the future judge had the same problem when he shot and killed a Mexican military officer.

Friends of the officer tried to hang Bean, but the rope was too long. A lady friend came to his rescue and cut the rope down, thereby sparing his life. The rope scars around Bean’s neck remained there the rest of his life, but they helped him mete out justice.

The rogue finally moved a bit more easterly to a relatively stable life in Texas. Bean became a prosperous businessman in San Antonio for 16 years. When he had enough money on hand, he headed westward in 1882 to find his fortune with the railroads.

The expanding railroad lines needed to build tracks from San Antonio to El Paso, a distance of 530 miles through the scorching desert. Bean headed out to become a saloon owner in the town of Vinegaroon where he served whiskey to railroad workers in a tent. Bean called his saloon Jersey Lilly, after actress Lillie Langtry.

Judge Roy Bean Saloon Sign

Wikimedia CommonsA sign posted outside of the present-day saloon in Langtry, Texas. The building is a faithful replica of the original.

Roy Bean Becomes A Justice Of The Peace In West Texas

Because this area needed some kind of law and order, county commissioners appointed him judge even though Bean had no previous legal experience. His brother was a sheriff in New Mexico, but that was all Bean knew about the law. Still, Texas needed lawmen in the Wild West of Pecos County.

Judge Roy Bean’s rulings were a mix of annoyance, humor and common sense with a side of absurdity. He once fined a dead man $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. He threatened to hang a lawyer for using profane language like the words “habeas corpus” when referring to a client.

Perhaps Bean’s most outrageous moment came during a murder trial. An Irishman was accused of killing a Chinese railroad worker. Bean let the Irishman go on the grounds that “homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman.”

Judge Roy Bean's Courthouse

Wikimedia Commons The courthouse of Judge Roy Bean, circa 1900.

Bean’s rulings became the stuff of legend to the point where many rumors circulated that he was a hanging judge. He often staged hangings to scare criminals into sobriety. Accused criminals who saw the fake hangings often never got in trouble in Langtry, the town Bean founded and named after his beloved actress, ever again.

Despite his unorthodox style, Bean was elected judge time and again until his last election in 1902. Roy Bean passed away on March 16, 1903, after falling ill in San Antonio.

Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About Judge Roy Bean

There are three ironies to this story. First, people often mistook Bean for Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Parker actually was a hanging judge who executed 88 out of 172 men he sentenced to die.

Bean, in truth, never hanged anyone.

Most of the cases Bean oversaw in his 20 years as a judge were misdemeanors. Very rare cases involved murder. As penance for peoples’ crimes, Bean often put them to work in the town as community service rather than keep them in jail.

Bean’s reputation as a hanging judge grew very quickly at a marquee event in 1898 when Langtry hosted a world championship prizefighting bout. The crowd of 200 fight fans, dignitaries, and journalists all heard legendary stories of Bean’s judgments, and the tall tales grew from this point.

In a sad twist, Lillie Langtry, the popular actress that Roy Bean loved and the namesake of his town and saloon, visited the town ten months after the judge’s death as a tribute to the lawman.

Perhaps most poignant revelation was Bean’s quiet kindness despite having a tough-as-nails reputation in court. In public, he spent most of his time drunk while sitting on his porch when not meting out harsh sentences. Behind the scenes, Bean was a charitable man who helped the less fortunate.

Judge Roy Bean used fines and goods collected as evidence to help the poor. He even spent the profits from his saloon, the Jersey Lilly, to buy medicine for the sick and destitute of his town. The reason Bean helped people was his deep religious convictions. He believed that God would store up credit for him in the afterlife.

Now you know the story of the hanging judge who never hanged anyone. His true love was an actress he never met, and in secret, his heart was the size of Texas.

William DeLong
A graduate of Missouri State University with a degree in English and creative writing, William DeLong is a freelance wordsmith who has written approximately 40,000 articles since 2009.