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Judge Roy Bean: The Law, the Lies, and Lillie

Written by Gene Fowler. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.
It’s not hard to imagine the crusty judge dispensing law and liquor at the Jersey Lilly. According to writer C.L. Sonnichsen, “Nothing pleased the old man so much as public attention, and he displayed himself conscientously on his porch at train time so people would see him.”

When it comes to tales about Judge Roy Bean, “the Law West of the Pecos,” it’s dern near impossible to stomp out a whopper, once it gets into circulation.

Visit the Texas Travel Information Center at Langtry (Judge Roy Bean) and  read more about Langtry.

The latest downright “lie” told about the Old West’s most notorious justice of the peace concerns the manner in which his ornery honor departed this earthly realm.

It’s a documented fact that Bean died of natural causes in 1903. That’s what folks tell you at the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, in the village of Langtry on the Rio Grande, which preserves Bean’s wooden courtroom/saloon building, called the Jersey Lilly, and his one-room adobe Opera House. Nowadays, some Langtry visitors insist on believing another version of the judge’s demise. They’ve all seen the TV movie based on Larry McMurtry’s 1993 novel, Streets of Laredo. In the film, a young desperado dispatches Bean (played by actor Ned Beatty) to his final reward with a hail of gunfire.

That’s an artistic “lie,” all right, but on the other hand, some might argue that the judge needed shooting. His peculiar rulings, usually aimed at fattening his office coffers, rubbed many folks the wrong way. And there was no appeal when the Law West of the Pecos banged the gavel, which in Bean’s case happened to be a six-shooter. Buying a round of drinks for the judge and jury served as a handy punishment for minor offenses.

In one oft-told story, the judge fined a corpse $40 (the amount in the man’s pocket) for carrying a concealed weapon. Then there was the time several workers fell while building the 321-foot-high Pecos River bridge. Though a couple of the men clung to life, Roy, anxious to get his paws on the $5-per-body inquest fee, pronounced them dead.

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From the January 2000 issue.

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