Roy Bean left home at sixteen in 1841 for New Orleans hoping to find work there, but got into trouble and fled to his brother Sam in San Antonio, Texas.
In 1848, the two brothers opened a trading post in Chihuahua, Mexico. He shot dead a Mexican desperado while protecting a white non-Hispanic man. The brothers had to escape to Sonoro in Mexico.
In 1849, he joined his older brother Joshua in San Diego, California. Here, he was jailed after getting into a shooting-duel with a Scotsman Collins to impress the local lasses.
He was a ladies’ man, and among the many gifts he received from female admirers was a knife which he used to dig through the prison wall and escape to San Gabriel in California.
In San Gabriel, he served drinks at his brother Joshua’s saloon, known as the Headquarters Saloon. After Joshua was murdered, he took over the saloon. There, he fell in love with a Mexican girl.
He migrated to New Mexico to live with Sam who had been elected the first Sheriff of Doña Ana County. In 1861, the two brothers ran a merchandise store and saloon in Pinos Altos.
In 1862, he stole money from his brother's safe, and joined the retreating Confederate army. For the rest of the war, he towed cotton from San Antonio to British ships near Matamoras, Mexico, and brought provisions.
For twenty years, he lived in San Antonio working as a hauler, peddling stolen firewood, running a dairy business and working as a butcher.
In the late 1870s, he began a saloon in Beanville. He prepared to go west, after selling his possessions to a storeowner who was happy to get rid of the unscrupulous character.
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By 1882, he established a small saloon in Vinegaroon. With 8000 railroad workers in the vicinity and the nearest court being 200 miles away, it became a hub of illegal activities.
A Texas Ranger requested that a local law jurisdiction be set up in Vinegaroon, and on August 2, 1882, Bean was appointed Justice of the Peace for the new Precinct 6 in Pecos County.
In 1890, he stopped the special train carrying Jay Gould and his daughter and invited them for a drink at his bar. Gould was a wealthy robber baron, railroad developer and speculator.
He was re-elected to the post of Justice of the Peace until his defeat in 1896. Even after that he refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try cases.
A law unto himself, he let go horse thieves if the horses were returned. He granted divorce, which only district-courts were empowered to do, pocketing $10 per divorce. He charged only $5 for a wedding.
Towards the end of his life, he used a major part of his profits to help the poor of the area, and ensured that the schoolhouse had free firewood in winter.
Roy Bean ran the Jersey Lilly Saloon in Langtry, in 1882. He administered ‘justice’ from his tavern - asserted himself as "Law West of the Pecos". He collected fines and kept the money for himself.
He became well-known in 1896, when he staged the Fitzsimmons-Maher heavyweight championship on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, where Texan rangers had no jurisdiction. Boxing was illegal in Texas and Mexico.
Personal Life & Legacy
Roy Bean married 15 year-old Virginia Chavez in1866. They had four children- Roy Jr., Sam, Laura and Zulema. They also adopted a son named John. They divorced a decade and half later.
He died peacefully in his bed, after a bout of heavy drinking in San Antonio to celebrate a new power plant’s construction. He is interred at the Whitehead Memorial Museum in Del Rio.
In 1940, Walter Brennan received an academy award for his portrayal of Roy Bean in the film, ‘The Westerner’. The movie gives the judge an entirely fictitious death scene.
The 1972 Western film, ‘The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean’, directed by John Huston, and starring Paul Newman was loosely based on the real-life of this self-appointed frontier judge.