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This Week in Texas History: Roy Bean not always legendary judge

By Bartee Haile

Roy Bean inherited a California saloon on or about Nov. 22, 1852 after the murder of his oldest brother Joshua.

The legendary “Law West of the Pecos” did not just drop out of the sky into Lone Star folklore.  For the better part of 40 years, he knocked around the West sponging off his brothers and blowing every chance at success.

The youngest of the three Bean boys, Roy was born in Kentucky in 1825.  Following the lead of brother Sam, a Mexican War veteran, he left home at age 23 to sample the good life south of the border.  For a time Mexico lived up to his standards satisfying the lazy youth’s basic needs without him breaking a sweat.

But when Sam tied the knot with a local senorita and showed signs of becoming respectable, Roy joined the Forty-Niner rush for the California gold fields.  At San Diego he discovered something even better, namely that none other than his brother Joshua was the top dog in town.

The eldest Bean was generous to a fault and provided his shiftless sibling with room, board and fine clothes, the pockets of which he kept full of spending money.  Fortunately, he expected nothing in return because that was exactly what he got.

Josh moved up the California coast to Los Angeles, but Roy was having too much fun in San Diego to tag along.  Like most baby brothers, he thought he was finally big enough to take care of himself, a rash assumption he soon proved wrong.

Roy’s troubles started innocently enough.  A barroom acquaintance suggested a manly test of shooting skill, and Roy came up with the idea of a duel on horseback in the center of town.  Only after he wounded his playmate and shot his mount out from under him did the sheriff intervene and haul both of them off to jail.

Roy anticipated a token night or two behind bars, but a month went by and he was still confined to a cell.  Although he insisted decades later that he tunneled his way to freedom with tools secretly supplied by a female fan club, the facts indicate Roy merely took advantage of a mass escape staged by other prisoners and walked away in the confusion. 

The fugitive headed straight for Los Angeles and a reunion with his closest kin.  While Josh was again willing to take Roy under his wing, this time he insisted that he earn his keep.  So Roy agreed to tend bar in his brother’s saloon, the wildest watering hole for miles around.

In a matter of months, he inherited the profitable enterprise under very tragic circumstances.  Odd man out in a love triangle, Josh was killed in a midnight ambush.  Though seemingly set for life, the new owner managed to run the business into the ground by being his own best customer.

Deep in debt and on the verge of losing the saloon, Roy succeeded in making a bad situation worse.  Stumbling into a romantic entanglement over a Mexican maiden, he fought and won a duel for her affection.  But the friends of the dead suitor took his death so hard that they strung up Roy and left him dangling from a tree limb.

Either the branch was too low or the rope stretched allowing the victim to stand on his tiptoes until a passerby took pity on Roy and cut him down.  The close call left Roy with a permanent crick in his neck that forced him to rotate his shoulders in order to look from side to side.

Deciding a change of climate would be good for his health, Roy wandered back east in search of his surviving brother.  Sam like deceased Josh had done right well for himself, becoming the wealthiest member of a frontier community in New Mexico and the county sheriff to boot.  Never one to wait for an invitation, Roy moved right in.

The Civil War spoiled this cozy arrangement.  According to one of his many yarns spun for the entertainment of Vinegaroon visitors, Roy committed himself body and soul to the Confederate cause.  In this thrilling fantasy, he cast himself as spy and scout for the ill-fated invasion of New Mexico by Rebel Texans and accompanied them back to the former Lone Star State after the bold gamble went bust.

While Roy’s war record is open to question, his arrival in San Antonio at the height of the conflict is a documented fact.  Also, the subsequent story of smuggling cotton and other contraband back and forth across the Rio Grande is certainly more consistent with his character than selfless sacrifice for the Confederacy.

In middle age Roy at last put down roots.  He married a San Antonio woman and, after a fashion, raised and supported a family for nearly 20 years.  But there is no known cure for wanderlust, and at 56 he came down with a bad case of the itch.

The rest is history or, to be more precise, legend.  No figure in Texas history ever tried harder to carve a memorable place for himself than Judge Roy Bean, the crusty clown prince of the Pecos.  That he pulled it off was his only real achievement in life. 

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