Short Stories

The Strange Judgments of Judge Roy Bean

By Peter Grace


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                                    The Strange Judgments of Judge Roy Bean

     In the 1890s in Pecos County in Texas a Paddy O’Rourke killed a Chinaman. He was brought to a hamlet called Langtry and held in the saloon known as the Jersey Lily. Judge Roy Bean owned the premises, and he used it as a saloon, a home and a hall of justice.                                                                                    

     Some friends of the Irishman were concerned. If, as seemed likely, O’Rourke were found guilty, the consequences would be serious. So they let it be known that, if a guilty verdict was returned, they would destroy the Jersey Lily.

     Destroy the Jersey Lily! Judge Roy Bean was horrified. The place was his pride and joy. 

     The judge was no fool. When the case commenced, he browsed through a Texas law book, seemingly searching for a legal precedent. This process took a long time before he at last pushed the book aside. It was time for the decision. So he rapped his pistol on the bar of the saloon.

     ‘Gentlemen,’ he declared, ‘Homicide is the killing of a human being. I’ve been through all the laws of Texas, up to last year anyway, and I’m damned if I can find any law saying it’s a crime to kill a Chinaman. Case dismissed.’

     A man named O’Brien fell to his death from a bridge. When the judge found $40 and a six-shooter in the man’s pockets, he announced, that ‘justice is justice and law is law, and I shall be obliged to fine him $40 for carrying a concealed weapon.’                                                          

     Roy Bean was born in Kentucky. He travelled west and, after years in which he committed crimes including murder, he built a saloon at Langtry to serve railway workers. Because the nearest courthouse was a week’s ride away, he was appointed a justice of the peace. Calling himself the ‘Law West of the Pecos ‘ (a river in south-west Texas), he dispensed his own form of justice and soon gained headlines, not just in Texas, but throughout the U.S.A.

     Usually his best customers were the jurors and were expected to buy drinks during every court recess. Langtry had no jail, and fines settled almost all cases. In most instances the fine corresponded with the exact amount on the person of the accused.

Horse thieves were let go if the horses were returned. Bean charged $10 for a divorce and $5 for a wedding. He ended each marriage ceremony by saying ‘and may God have mercy on your souls.’ Incidentally all fines and charges went into his personal pocket.

     He spent most days sitting, rifle across his knees, in the saloon porch. When a train arrived, he went behind the bar. Many passengers came specially to see him. The railroad operators complained that passengers fascinated by Bean’s justice and entangled with his whiskey were delaying trains.

     He served drink to all but never hurried to give them their change. When the train’s whistle blew, the customers would demand their change but, maintaining that they had been less than respectful to him, he would impose a fine on each person, the fine corresponding to the exact amount he or she was owed. When the train had gone, he would go back out to the porch to await the next train.  

     While Roy Bean was gaining immortality for himself in America, Lily Langtry was making quite a name for herself in Britain. In 1874, at the age of 21, she married Edward Langtry (who, among other things, was the absentee landlord of some Irish estates). She was astonishingly gorgeous, with reddish hair and deep blue eyes, and was being asked by artists to their studios and by eminent men to dinner. Often she attended two or three parties a night and was being called the Jersey Lily.

     She was introduced to Edward, the Prince of Wales and son of Queen Victoria. Their affair lasted three years. She then became infatuated with his nephew and had a son by him, but her luck was changing. The land agitation in Ireland greatly reduced her husband’s income. So she decided to capitalise on her looks by going on the stage.

     To the surprise of many, Lily became a success in her new career and she went to America where her fame had preceded her. The Americans of the upper classes shunned her, but ordinary Americans could not get enough of her. Many of them travelled long distances to watch her performances.

     Few fans travelled further than Judge Roy Bean. Having seen a picture of her in a magazine, he developed an abiding affection for this woman who was about 25 years younger. He named the hamlet and the saloon after her and, although he went to Chicago and other places to see her, they never met.

     Lily came on a visit to the saloon, but it was ten months too late. After a drinking binge in 1903, Roy was found dead in bed next day.