This Day in Texas History: Law Arrives West of the Pecos

This Day in Texas History:

Law Arrives West of the Pecos

August 02, 1882

On this day in 1882, the commissioners of Pecos County officially appointed Roy Bean justice of the peace. He retained the post, with short interruptions, until he retired voluntarily in 1902.

Judge Roy Bean
Judge Roy Bean

Roy Bean, a frontier justice of the peace known as the “Law West of the Pecos,” was born in Mason County, Kentucky, the son of Francis and Anna Bean. The only sources of information about his boyhood and youth are stories told by friends in whom he confided and the reminiscences of his older brother Samuel, published in the Las Cruces, New Mexico, Rio Grande Republican in 1903. Sam came home after serving in the Mexican War and took Roy with him down the Santa Fe Trail to Chihuahua, Mexico, where the brothers set up shop as traders. Roy got into trouble, however, and had to make a quick exit; he turned up a short time later in San Diego at the home of his oldest brother, Joshua, who was mayor of the town and a major general of the state militia. Roy was jailed for dueling in February 1852 but broke out and moved on to San Gabriel, where Joshua by this time had established himself as owner of the Headquarters Saloon. Roy inherited the property when Joshua was murdered in November 1852, but made another hasty departure after a narrow escape from hanging in 1857 or 1858.

His next stop was Mesilla, New Mexico, where Sam was sheriff of a county that stretched at that time all the way across Arizona. Roy arrived destitute, but Sam took him in as partner in a saloon, and he prospered until the Civil War reached the Rio Grande valley. Bean may have had some unofficial military experience, but he found it prudent to leave the country and began a new life in San Antonio. In an area on South Flores Street that soon earned the name of Beanville, he became locally famous for circumventing creditors, business rivals, and the law.

On October 28, 1866, he married eighteen-year-old Virginia Chávez, who bore him four children. The couple were not happy together, however. Early in 1882 Roy left home, probably at the suggestion of his friend W. N. Monroe, who was building the “Sunset” railroad toward El Paso and had almost reached the Pecos. Moving with the grading camps, Bean arrived at the site of Vinegarroon, just west of the Pecos, in July. Crime was rife at the end of the track; it was often said, “West of the Pecos there is no law; west of El Paso, there is no God.” To cope with the lawless element the Texas Rangers were called in, and they needed a resident justice of the peace in order to eliminate the 400-mile round trip to deliver prisoners to the county seat at Fort Stockton. The commissioners of Pecos County officially appointed Roy Bean justice on August 2, 1882. He retained the post, with interruptions in 1886 and 1896, when he was voted out, until he retired voluntarily in 1902.

Law West of the Pecos

By 1884 Bean was settled at Eagle’s Nest Springs, some miles west of Vinegarroon, which acquired a post office and a new name, Langtry. Bean claimed credit for naming the town after English actress Emilie Charlotte (Lillie) Langtry, whom he greatly admired. Actually, railroad records indicate that the town was named for George Langtry, a railroad construction foreman. Bean’s fame as an eccentric and original interpreter of the law began in the 1880s. There was, however, a sort of common sense behind his unorthodox rulings. When a track worker killed a Chinese laborer, for example, Bean ruled that his law book did not make it illegal to kill a Chinese. Since the killer’s friends were present and ready to riot, he had little choice. And when a man carrying forty dollars and a pistol fell off a bridge, Bean fined the corpse forty dollars for carrying a concealed weapon, thereby providing funeral expenses. He intimidated and cheated people, but he never hanged anybody. He reached the peak of notoriety on February 21, 1896, when he staged the Fitzsimmons-Maher heavyweight championship fight on a sandbar just below Langtry on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, where Woodford H. Mabry‘s rangers, sent to stop it, had no jurisdiction. Fitzsimmons won in less than two minutes.

Bean died in his saloon on March 16, 1903, of lung and heart ailments and was buried in the Del Rio cemetery. His shrewdness, audacity, unscrupulousness, and humor, aided by his knack for self-dramatization, made him an enduring part of American folklore.

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