Bean was born in the Kentucky hills of Shelby County and christened Fauntelroy or Phantly Roy, names he early jettisoned in favor of just plain Roy sometime before 1835. About the age of 15 he left home with his brother, Sam, to drive a team of oxen in a wagon train wending from Missouri to New Mexico. In 1851 Roy showed up in California where his oldest brother, Joshua Bean, lived. Josh, a political figure in Southern California, ran The Headquarters Saloon in San Gabriel and he put Roy to work there as a barkeep.
In November 1852 Josh was murdered while riding to his saloon and Roy, still in his teens, took over its management. After getting in trouble with local authorities in San Gabriel, he later left for Mesilla, New Mexico, where brother Sam had parlayed his wagon train earnings into owning a combination store, restaurant, saloon, hotel and gambling parlor. He put Roy to work in the establishment. In 1861, Sam and Roy were described as “dealers in merchandise and liquors and had a fine billiard table.”
When Bean found out that 3,000 workers were building the Southern Pacific railroad through a region where the Pecos River meets the Rio Grande, he left California for Texas. By now an experienced saloon operator, Roy knew that those workers would be making good wages and spending much of it on booze, so he bought a stock of liquor and headed for the camp. In 1882 he opened a tent saloon three miles west of the Pecos. A postcard indicates the rugged nature of the country.
Bean’s establishment did a brisk business as did other saloons in the camp, giving rise to unrest and lawlessness. The railroad requested that the Texas Rangers bring order to the site and a ranger detachment was sent. Their commander reported: “There is the worst lot of toughs, gamblers, robbers and pickpockets collected here I ever saw.” Compounding the problem was a lack of any court of justice within 200 miles. The Rangers put out a call for the appointment of a justice of the peace for the area. Roy Bean answered and was appointed.
He was, to say the least, an unusual choice, known as a gambler and a drunk, but he had the confidence of the Texas Rangers and that was enough. As the railroad work ended, business at the worker camp dried up, but a depot had been established 15 miles west and a town was growing up around it called Langtry. Railroad executives let Bean built a saloon on railroad property just behind the station.
As shown above, it was from the front porch of the saloon that Bean dispensed justice. Note that he is sitting on a barrel, wearing a sombrero, under signs that proclaim him “Judge Roy Bean Notary Public - Justice of the Peace - Law West of the Pecos.” The men on horseback at left are said to include a prisoner on trial and his captors.
Another sign, “The Jersey Lilly,” represented Bean’s obsession with Lillie Langtry, a British actress who had been the mistress of Prince Edward, later the King of England. Born on the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands, she was known worldwide by that name. Bean always bragged that he would bring her to town to perform. Married with children, he built a home for his family across the street from the saloon, calling it the “Opera House” and contending it was a concert hall for Langtry’s appearance.
In 1896 Judge Bean’s original saloon, one with living quarters in the rear, burned. A replica of the interior shows the rough-hewn nature of the interior that would be subject to fire. Bean immediately saw to the construction of a smaller replacement. A replica of the bar area on display at the Whitehead Memorial Museum in Del Rio, Texas, purports to show a grizzled Bean serving drinks to a cowboy and a miner. Above his head is a book, likely a replica of the outmoded compendium of Texas laws on which he reputedly based his legal decisions. The two bottles on the bar bear little resemblance to what might have been there. For example, the handed jug is a miniature that no respecting barkeep let alone Roy Bean would display.
As the judge’s business flourished, sometimes by intimidating the accused into buying drinks for the house, he opened a second saloon in a town about seventy miles from Langtry in a Texas town called Sanderson. The San Antonio Daily Express opined: “Roy Bean has opened a fine saloon in Sanderson…where he has the finest of liquor and cigars…Passengers by rail will do well to call ahead for themselves, at either place, Langtry or Sanderson.” Bean’s saloon at the latter location did not endure. A rival saloonkeeper had an employee pour kerosene into Bean’s whiskey barrel. Knowing he could not control the situation there as he could in Langtry, Bean shut up his place and left.
As a result of his colorful career, many stories have grown up around Judge Bean. Some have called him a “hanging judge.” Others aver that over his career in office he never hanged anyone, arranging for the condemned to escape. Some dismiss him only as foul-mouth bully, drunk and gambler, as in the photo of him (center, white beard) playing cards. Others counter that he was a generous benefactor, using the fines he levied and even some of the profits of his saloon to buy medicine for the sick and poor of Langtry.
Roy Bean died in March, 1903, after a heavy drinking spree in Del Rio, returning to Langtry in the morning and passing away that night. Some say he feared that developments in Texas meant that the Old West of his ascendancy was disappearing and the times were passing him by. Today Judge Bean lies buried on the grounds of the Whitehead Museum. Buried next to him is a son, Sam Bean. A kind of memorial was provided by Lionstone Distilleries Ltd. in 1973 when it issued a figural whiskey ceramic of Judge Bean.
Shown below is the way Bean’s saloon, restored as a tourist attraction, looked in 2005. About a year after Roy’s death, Lillie Langtry, traveling by rail, did indeed stop in Langtry, Texas, while making appearances in America. She had heard of the judge’s devotion and asked for him. Instead, she had to be satisfied with seeing his saloon, one that still bore her “Jersey Lilly” name.