Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903) was known as the “Law West of the Pecos.” He didn’t like to be appealed, and his decisions (as can be imagined) were not always fair.
The land west of El Paso is hot and has little water. It’s not known who originated the saying “West of the Pecos there is no law; West of El Paso there is no God,” but the first half of this saying was well known by the 1890s.
Handbook of Texas Online
BEAN, ROY (ca. 1825-1903). 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.
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, in honor of the English actress Emilie Charlotte (Lillie) Langtry, whom Bean greatly admired. 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.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Everett Lloyd, Law West of the Pecos (San Antonio: University Press, 1931; rev. ed., San Antonio: Naylor, 1967). C. L. Sonnichsen, Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos (New York: Macmillan, 1943; rpt., Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986).
C. L. Sonnichsen
4 December 1892, Washington Post, pg. 15:
LAW WEST OF PECOS.
An Odd Character Who Administered Jus-
tice for the Forty-niners.
The bonanza days of ‘49 developed some very queer characters in the West and Texas comes in for her share of them. Most of these old-timers are under the sod long ago, but there are a few of them left, and about the most original is old Ray Bean, “Law West of the Pecos,” as he called himself. Ray was elected justice of the peace along in the fifties and he still administers justice to all according to his own method, which is one that would cause one of our modern lawyers to have palpitation of the heart were they to practice in his court. But withal Ray generally sized up the case about right, and once let him be satisfied of the guilt of the culprit and all the statutes, technicalities ,and precedents from the time of Adam down could not save him, and it came to be a pretty well understood thing that appeals from ‘Squire Bean’s court didn’t go, at least that is the impression which Ray tried to convey, and his language was always remarkably clear on this point, as young aspirants for legal glory discovered one day when, after a case had been decided against him ,he gave notice of appeal. In a second ‘Squire Bean had him covered with a six shooter, and in a voice thunderous tones declared: “Sir, there is no appeal from this court,” and the lawyer concluded that if the ‘squire said so it must be that way. Ray was the proprietor of the only saloon in the place and quite frequently when some one was brought before him charged with some minor offense, Ray would sentence him to pay for the drinks for the crowd. Such sentences were always executed to the letter.
Ray was a very illiterate man, in fact, he could not read or write. He often boasted that he had the cleanest docket in the State, “there not being the scratch of a pen on it.”
During the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad through West Texas, Ray became famous for his knowledge of law.
A white railroad laborer had some difficulty with a Chinese co-worker, and killed him with a pick. The murderer was taken before ‘Squire Bean, and pleaded not guilty. Without taking a word of testimony, Ray went to his library and got a volume of Patent Office reports, or something of the sort, and examined it very carefully, holding the book upside down. Finally, his decision was as follows: “Gentlemen, I find a law here against killing a white man or a nigger, but damme if this book says a word about a Chinaman, and the sentence of this court is that you (the prisoner) be fined the drinks for this crowd, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
23 April 1897, Naugatuck (CT) Daily News, pg. 7:
A Texas Judge Whose Influence Is Widespread.
Texas is a big state and has a large population, including many men of great prominence. But there is no man in that whole sovereignty with a more repulgent glory than Judge Roy Bean, of Langrty, who declares that he is the “law west of the Pecos.” And he is. West of the Pecos river in Texas, there are no limitations to Judge Bean’s jurisdiction, and he does not, it has been hinted, let mere statutes, “as in cases made and provided,” influence him to any great extent in his desire to make the punishment fir the crime. There is an anecdote told of him when he sat as coroner and held an inquest on the body of a man who had met a violent death by falling from the great railway bridge that spans the Pecos river. An examination showed that the man had a revolver and $40 in cash in his pockets when he was killed. After swearing in a jury and looking over the effects of the dead man, Judge Bean said: “Gentlemen of the jury, there ain’t no doubt how this man came to his death; that’s all plain; but what I would like to know is why in the name of thunder he carried that gun. Now, gentlemen, it’s agin the law to carry a concealed and loaded gun in the state of Texas, and jist because this gentleman took it into his head to get killed I don’t mean to let him offend the peace and dignity of Texas. I fine him $40.” This is an example of Judge Bean’s efficient administration. Some day his decisions will be published, and then we will have for the first time a clear understanding of the law of the frontier.—Leslie’s Weekly.
13 January 1946, Chicago Daily Tribune, “The Lily and the Bean” by Delos Avery, pg. F1:
The boundary line between civilization and the rest of Texas in the pre-Bean period was the Pecos river, which flowed--and still does--into the Rio Grande. There was an undisputed saying:
“West of the Pecos there is no law, and west of El Paso there is no God.”
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