Judge Bean

Of all the justices of the peace in the frontier west, the most publicized was Roy Bean, who held court in a rickety saloon in the arid chaparral country of southwestern Texas. Bean, of Kentucky birth, had been a trader in Mexico until settling at San Antonio. In the early 1800’s the Southern Pacific began building westward from the town, and Merchant Bean followed the construction camps to sell food, cigars, and liquor to the workers. Bean had little book learning, but his beard and his dignified appearance led some to bring their disputes to him for decision. Before long, with the nearest court nearly two hundred miles away, even the Texas Rangers began bringing prisoners to him for judgment. Late in 1882 the Rangers obtained his appointment as a justice of the peace. When the rail line was completed, Roy Bean settled at a dusty village named Langtry, near the Rio Grande and at the eastern edge of the mountainous Big Bend area. In 1884 his status as justice of the peace was continued by election. He obtained a blank book in which he wrote he “statoots,” along with his poker rules. With no jail at hand, Bean kept prisoners chained to a nearby mesquite tree and let them sleep in the open, with gunnysacks for pillows. Trials regularly opened and closed with drinks at his bar, and any long session probably would be interrupted with recesses for quenching thirst. Once an Irishman was brought before him on a charge of having killed a Chinese railroad worker and some of the defendant’s husky friends came along and made it plain to Bean that a wrong decision would lead to the boycotting or wrecking of his bar. Faced with this threat, the justice gravely thumbed through his law book and announced that he found no statute against the killing of a Chinaman. The drinks, he quickly added, would be on the Irishman. Bean lived comfortably from his sale of beer and from his fines, which he pocketed. Even a dead man was not immune from being fined. When the body of Pat O’Brien, killed by falling from a high bridge, was brought before Bean, the judge found that the dead man had a six-shooter and forty dollars. Quickly he confiscated the gun and fined the dead man forty dollars for carrying a concealed weapon.