You’d be hard-pressed to find a courtroom as strange or humorous as Judge Bean’s

Quick Notes:

  • Judge Roy Bean wasn’t your traditional court judge.

  • He conducted trials inside his western saloon, making him one of the most unique judges of all time.

When you think of court trials, you assume they only occurred inside courtrooms. A judge wears a formal robe and the trial consists of the prosecutors, defendants, lawyers, and jurors. However, this wasn’t the case inside Judge Roy Bean’s court. He was an eccentric American saloon keeper and Justice of the Peace in Val Verde County, Texas, in the 1880s.

Yes, he held court inside his saloon. Can you imagine going to court inside a saloon? Like many figures of American history, Bean’s story has been mostly hidden. Now, it’s time to tell his story and learn about the man who referred to himself as “The Law West of the Pecos.”

Fighting from the very beginning

Born in Kentucky sometime in 1825, Bean started getting into trouble when he was a young child. Eventually, in 1847, he moved to Mexico with his two brothers. The trio frequently got into fights, and Bean fled to California after shooting a man inside a bar. He later had to leave San Diego because he shot and killed more people. He ultimately traveled to Los Angeles, where he killed a Mexican officer in a duel over a woman.

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For his actions, Bean was tried to a hanging, but the rope was too long. A friend came to his rescue and cut the rope down. Scars from the rope remained around his neck for the rest of his life. Knowing he had to flee California, Bean moved to San Antonio, where he worked as a successful businessman for 16 years. When he had saved up enough money, he headed west in 1882 to work with the bustling railroad industry.

Opening a saloon

In 1882, Bean moved to southwestern Texas and opened his famous saloon, Jersey Lilly. In addition, he founded the hamlet of Langtry, named after the English actress, Lillie Langtry. Bean supposedly had an abiding affection for the actress. He followed her career for the rest of his life.

Bean served whiskey to railroad workers in a tent. By then, the expanding railroad lines stretched a distance of 530 miles from San Antonio to El Paso. Certainly, railroad workers would have been thirsty and needed a break by the time they reached Bean’s saloon. Bean was always there to help.

Appointed justice of the peace

If you have read stories about the “wild West” or watched western movies and television shows, you know that the west always needed some kind of law and order. Because of Bean’s popularity in his community (due to his saloon), county commissioners appointed him judge. He didn’t have any prior legal experience, but that didn’t seem to matter in Pecos County, Texas. The community needed lawmen, and Bean had enough common sense to serve.

Even though Bean was considered a peculiar judge, he was elected to the position time and time again until his last election in 1902.

Bean conducted trials inside his saloon. He became notorious for being humorous and bizarre in his rulings. For example, he fined a dead man $40 for still carrying a concealed weapon. How could the man pay the fine when he was dead? Once, Bean threatened to hang a lawyer for using profane language.

Bean’s most outrageous moment was during a murder trial, in which an Irishman was accused of killing a Chinese railroad worker. However, Bean ruled that the Irishman didn’t have to suffer any consequences, on the grounds that “homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman.”

By the 1890s, people traveled to Langtry to visit Bean’s saloon and to meet the famous judge. He became a legend, particularly because there was a rumor that he was a “hanging judge.” He would stage hangings to scare criminals to confess their wrongdoings. Some criminals were so scared that they ran away from Langtry.

Even though Bean was considered a peculiar judge, he was elected to the position time and time again until his last election in 1902. He passed away on March 16, 1903. His admirer, Lilly Langtry, visited the town named after her 10 months after Bean’s death in honor of the unforgettable judge.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

There are many legends of the Wild West, including the pistol-toting Belle Starr and the James Gang. Learn more about these bandits.

The Transcontinental Railroad, consisting of 1,912 miles of track, was mostly completed by Chinese migrant railroad workers. These workers are now receiving proper credit.