Judge Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos

Pecos River

Pecos River

As the railroad spread westward across Texas it was often said, “West of the Pecos there is no law; west of El Paso there is no God.” The Texas Rangers were called in to quell the criminal element that followed the railroad crews through the desolate Chihuahuan Desert of southwest Texas.  The rangers had been hauling prisoners to the county seat at Fort Stockton—a 400-mile round trip—and they needed a local justice of the peace in Vinegarroon, a town just west of the Pecos River.  It was August 1882 and Roy Bean,

Judge Roy Bean

Judge Roy Bean

who had left his wife and four children in San Antonio earlier that year, won the appointment.  He kept the job with only two off years, when he lost elections, until 1902.

Bean’s training in the law consisted of a talent for avoiding it.  He was in his early twenties when he made a quick exit from the law in Chihuahua, Mexico.  He made a jail break in San Diego and avoided being hanged in San Gabriel, California.  He prospered for a time in the saloon business in Mesilla, New Mexico, with his older brother.  After the Civil War he settled in a part of San Antonio that became known as Beanville.  He married in 1866 and spent several years in various jobs—a firewood business until he was caught cutting his neighbor’s timber; a dairy business until he began watering down the milk; and a butcher shop that sold meat from cattle rustled from nearby ranches. When he began operating a saloon, a rival saloonkeeper was so eager to see him out of the business, that she bought out his entire operation for $900, all the money he needed to head west and set up his own tent saloon along the new railroad construction in Vinegarroon.

Postcard--Jersey Lilly Saloon

Postcard–Jersey Lilly Saloon

With his new position as justice of the peace, Bean acquired an 1879 edition of the Revised Statues of Texas and undertook his first action—he shot up the saloon shack of a Jewish competitor.  His tent saloon served as a part-time courtroom where his jurors were selected from an array of his best bar customers.  When an Irishman named O’Rourke killed a Chinese railroad laborer, a mob of O’Rourke supporters surrounded Bean’s court and threatened to lynch him if he didn’t free O’Rourke.  After looking through his law book Bean said homicide was killing of a human being; however he could find no law against killing a Chinaman.  He dismissed the case.

As railroad construction moved westward, Bean followed the line to a town that became known as Langtry, which Bean claimed he named for the English actress Emilie Charlotte (Lillie) Langtry whom he fell in love with after seeing her picture in a newspaper.  In truth, the town, sitting on a bluff above the Rio Grande, was named for George Langtry an engineer and foreman who supervised the Chinese immigrants who constructed the railroad.

Apparently Bean’s reputation preceded him because the landowner sold to the railroad on the condition that no part of the land could be sold or leased to Bean.  O’Rourke, the gentlemen Bean acquitted, suggested Bean establish his saloon on the railroad right-of-way because that land was not covered in the railroad contract.

Bean built his saloon, which he named The Jersey Lilly in honor of Lillie Langtry who was born on Jersey, one of the islands in the English Channel.  He claimed to know Miss Lillie and wrote to her several times inviting her to visit his town.  When his saloon burned, he built a new home and called it an opera house where he insisted Miss Lillie would come to perform.

Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry

Her visit actually came ten months after Bean’s death.

Bean’s creative court decisions in The Jersey Lilly included the time he fined a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon.  It just so happened that in addition to his gun, the dead man had $40 in his pocket, which paid for his burial and court costs.  Bean was known as “the hanging judge,” despite never hanging anybody.  Whereas horse thieves were hanged in other jurisdictions, in Bean’s court, they were let go if the horses were returned to their owners.  Since there was no jail, all cases ended with fines, which Bean kept, refusing to send the money to the state. Usually the fine consisted of the amount of money found in the prisoner’s pockets.  Although a justice of the peace was not authorized to grant divorces, Bean did it anyway, charging $10 for the service.  He charged $5 for performing a wedding and ended each ceremony with “and may God have mercy on your souls.”  Bean was noted for his colorful language such as, “It is the judgment of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of the State of Texas, particularly in my bailiwick,” and then he added, “I fine you two dollars; then get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again.  That’s my rulin’.”  But he also maintained tight control of the language used in his courtroom, even threatened a lawyer with hanging for using “profane language” when the lawyer referred to the “habeas corpus” of his client.

When Bean heard that Jay Gould was on a train heading toward Langtry, Bean used a danger signal to flag down the train.  Thinking the bridge over the Pecos River was out, the train stopped and Bean entertained Gould and his daughter at The Jersey Lilly during a two-hour visit.  The delay sent tremors through the New York Stock Exchange when reports circulated that Gould had been killed in a train wreck.

While the trains stopped to take on water, passengers poured into The Jersey Lilly where Bean served them quickly and then became very slow giving them their change.  When the warning whistle blew announcing the train’s departure, the rush was on with passengers demanding their money and Bean eventually fining them the amount they were owed.  His reputation grew as the passengers ran cursing back to the waiting train and future travelers could not resist stopping to visit the ramshackle saloon and its famous proprietor.

Prizefighting became illegal in most of the Southwest and in Mexico, which prompted Bean to open a side business promoting fights on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande.  In 1898 when promoters could not find a place to hold the world championship title prizefight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher, Bean welcomed the event to Langtry.  An excursion train arrived with 200 spectators on February 22 and Bean entertained them for a time in The Jersey Lilly before leading them to a bridge he had constructed to reach the makeshift ring.  The Texas Rangers watched helplessly from a bluff on the Texas side of the river while Fitzsimmons beat Maher in 95 seconds.  The fans and sportswriters enjoyed a few more drinks at The Jersey Lilly before the train carried them to El Paso to spread the news throughout the United States.

Books, movies, TV shows, and Roy Bean himself spread the legend of Judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos,” with tales true and tainted.  Despite failing health, Bean he went on a drinking binge in Del Rio in March 1903 and died in his bed the following morning. The Texas Department of Public Transportation has restored The Jersey Lilly Saloon in Langtry and created a Visitors Center just south of US Hwy. 90

Jersey Lilly Visitors Center

Jersey Lilly Visitors Center

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Transcontinental Railroad Through Texas

The outbreak of the Civil War forced the U.S. Congress to change its plans for the first Transcontinental Railroad to be built along the 32nd parallel, which extends across Texas roughly from Shreveport, Louisiana, to El Paso.  Instead, Congress selected a northern route along the 42nd parallel.  In 1869 the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento,

The Original Golden Spike

The Original Golden Spike

California met the Union Pacific from Council Bluffs, Iowa/Omaha, Nebraska, and drove the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, just north of the Great Salt Lake. In a never-to-be-forgotten ceremony, a transportation network of railroads linked for the first time both coasts of the United States.

The northern route created a major improvement in east-west transportation but the need remained for a southern route.  The Southern Pacific started construction eastward from San Diego, California, the same year that the northern route was completed. The U.S. Congress chartered the Texas & Pacific Railroad in 1871 to build a line westward from Marshall, Texas, to meet the line from San Diego.  The Texas Legislature, eager to have the rail line stretch across the state, accepted the only federally chartered railroad in Texas and paid Texas & Pacific twenty sections (a section is one square mile or 640 acres) of land for every one mile of track that it laid—a total of fourteen million acres.

The construction progressed piecemeal due to contract disputes until the fall of 1879 when Jay Gould and his syndicate bought an interest in the project and with solid financial backing reached an agreement with the Southern Pacific to meet at Sierra Blanca, ninety-two miles east of El Paso.  Construction pitched forward at a furious rate as each line worked to be first to complete the designated mileage.  The Southern Pacific used Chinese workers for most of its labor force as it crossed rugged terrain that required water to be hauled in to its crews.  The grueling work halted for the Southern Pacific on November 25, 1881, when the railroad reached Sierra Blanca.  With the arrival of the Texas & Pacific on December 15, the second Transcontinental Railroad spanned the nation.

For “further study” see Collis P Huntington, one of the Big Four Railroad men who worked to get the railroad across the United States.

Texas & Pacific Railroad

Texas & Pacific Railroad