Any six-year-old boy can tell you that when it comes to cowboys, good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats. If that’s true, then the man who is the topic of today’s Campfire Chronicle story probably should have worn a gray hat. You may think you know a lot about one of the Old West’s most infamous characters, Judge Roy Bean, who declared himself to be “The Law West of the Pecos” . . . but when it comes to the real Judge Roy Bean, chances are that you don’t know Bean(s)!
They Said He Wouldn’t Amount to a Hill of Beans
Roy Bean was born in Kentucky sometime around 1825. From an early age, it looked as if he wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans. He came from a dirt-poor sharecropping family and Roy was a natural troublemaker. Now, trouble-making kids born to wealthy families might have been called mischievous, but trouble-making poor kids were called bad eggs . . . and, Roy Bean was a very bad egg. Throw in a hound dog and you’ve got the makings of a really fine Country and Western song!
Roy followed his older brothers westward when he was 15 and by 1847, he was living in Mexico. He beat a hasty retreat to San Diego, California after he shot and killed a man. There, his brother Joshua was serving as the first mayor. Roy enjoyed being related to such an upstanding member of society and all of the privileges it brought. But, when Joshua moved to Los Angeles, Roy’s privileges ended. So, when he shot a man in a duel, he found himself in jail. Lucky for Roy, he was an excellent digger and he managed to tunnel his way out in a mere two months.
Roy needed a fresh start and he found it in Texas. First, he settled in San Antonio and eventually he landed in Langtry where he secured his position in Western folklore. It was 1882 when Roy Bean first became known as Judge Roy Bean.
Spill the Bean
Now it’s time to play a little game I like to call it “Spill the Bean!” It’s really just some fun facts about Judge Roy Bean, but you’ve got to admit, that’s a pretty catchy title! Here we go:
- The phrase “sober as a judge” did not apply to Judge Roy Bean. He was known as a heavy drinker. He even conducted court in a saloon he owned, The Jersey Lilly. He wasn’t even an actual a judge! At most, he was a Justice of the Peace, or perhaps more like a notary public with a flair for public relations.
- Before he was a “judge” in Langtry, Roy Bean sold milk in San Antonio. Being a shrewd businessman, he knew that water was cheaper than milk and he started adding dirty creek water to the milk. When customers started finding minnows swimming in their milk, Roy was ready with an answer. He told them he would have to stop the cows from drinking out of the creek. That sounds logical!
- Judge Bean never actually sentenced anyone to hang, even though he is sometimes confused with the “hanging judge,” Isaac Parker of Arkansas. Hollywood has always liked to play up his erroneous reputation as the hanging judge. He may not have hanged anyone, but he wasn’t above staging hangings, in order to scare criminals. These staged hangings were not terribly unlike the Wild West shows that can be seen on the streets of Six Flags. There were scripts and everything! This dramatization always ended with the prisoner managing to escape. He must have lost more “criminals” than Deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show!”
- Not only did Judge Bean not sentence anyone to hang, he never even sentenced anyone to the penitentiary. Instead, he used the prisoners as the town of Langtry’s own private workforce. It’s possible that he inspired the men in orange jumpsuits that pick up trash on the side of the roads, today! The town of Langtry didn’t even have a jail, so when a convicted criminal wasn’t working for the judge, he would find himself chained to a tree.
- He ended all of his wedding ceremonies with the phrase, “and may God have mercy on your souls.”
- Judge Bean wasn’t actually authorized to grant divorces, but that didn’t stop him from doing so. According to his way of thinking, if he could marry them, he could divorce them!
- When he wasn’t operating his courtroom/saloon, Bean could also be found serving as coroner for the railroad.
- In one of his more repugnant rulings, he freed a man who was accused of killing a Chinese rail worker. It wasn’t because the man was found not guilty; it was because Judge Bean said he wasn’t aware of a law making it a crime “to kill a Chinaman.”
- There was a softer side to Judge Bean. He often used court fines to run his own welfare system for the poor of Langtry. Don’t tell anyone, because he would have hated it if word had gotten out, but he sometimes used his own private funds to buy medicine for the poor.
- He enjoyed the story about how he fined a dead man $40, which happened to be the amount of money in the man’s pocket. That was true enough, but most people don’t realize that the money was used to cover the man’s funeral expenses.
Judge on His Own Merits
Judge Roy Bean died in 1903 after a night of heavy drinking. It is said that he couldn’t stand the fact that he felt the world was passing him by. Construction was about to begin on a power plant that would bring electricity to the area. Time was marching on, but it would have to march on without him. He was buried in Del Rio, Texas. I would like to think the fascinating character that was neither all good guy nor all bad guy was buried in a gray hat!