LANGTRY, Texas – Down in Southwest Texas along the border of Mexico is a majestic landscape leading the way to the west, and once you cross the Pecos River, you’ll find yourself in a notorious section of our state.
This is where the West gets wild and the story of the infamous Judge Roy Bean, a lawman who also happened to be a saloon owner, still resonates off the rocks of Langtry.
“Well, Langtry’s kind of special. It has a very interesting history. We have almost as many historical markers as we have population,” said Jack Skiles, retired manager of the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center.
Skiles is another legend of Langtry whose grandfather came to this part of the Lone Star State in 1905.
“[I remember] growing up as a kid hearing about Judge Roy Bean but, most of what the local people said was rather derogatory. Often referred to him as that old scoundrel, that old scalawag, or that old reprobate. I didn’t even know what reprobate meant until I started writing about it and had to look it up in the dictionary,” said Skiles.
Skiles left Langtry to pursue his career as a school superintendent, but in the late ‘60s he heard TxDOT was looking to build the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, so he did what any proud native would do – he checked in to see what was happening to his hometown.
“I was at a superintendents meeting in Austin one day and right across the street from us was a highway department office. So I went over there to find out what was going on and what they were planning and by George, before it was over with, they offered me a job to come back home and operate this Judge Roy Bean Visitors Center,” Skiles said.
In 1968 he opened the doors to the new center to help tell a story he knew by heart – heck, he wrote the book on it – Judge Roy Bean Country.
“I interviewed those that were still living, oh, I believe it was in about in 1960. I wanted to get their story straight about Judge Roy Bean,” said Skiles. “There’d been so many magazine articles, a couple of books, and other things written about Judge Roy Bean that were not true. So, I was determined that I wanted to find out the truth about Judge Roy Bean.”
It all started when Roy Bean decided to build a saloon in a rowdy railroad town that was booming with workers from every part of the world.
“That had about 7000 workers and half of those were Chinese. Then there was about 3500 of Americans and Italians and Germans and Mexicans and Irishmen and, of course, most all that bunch likes their whiskey, so Roy Bean set up a saloon, that Vinegaroon,” Skiles said.
As the railroad moved west, so did the town, eventually landing in Langtry. By this time the amount of arrests for disorderly conduct – whether it be fights or drunkenness – was getting out of control and the Texas Rangers got tired of taking the charged all the way to Fort Stockton. So, they appointed one Roy Bean as Justice of the Peace to help maintain order and make criminal cases a bit easier to handle.
“There was a federal judge in El Paso – T.A. Falvey was his name. And he was quoted as saying that Judge Roy Bean was the right man at the right place at the right time. So, he did the job that needed to be done here,” said Skiles.
Of course, this Justice of the Peace just so happened to own a saloon, which was his courtroom and notary. Known as The Jersey Lilly in honor of English actress Lilly Langtry for whom Judge Bean had quite the affinity, his barcourt notary became a Texas hall of tall tales.
During his time as a Judge, Bean only sentence two men to hang, a popular misconception considering some called him the hanging judge. Clearing up some misnomers about Bean’s law enforcement is something Skiles has been working to change. But, this by no means suggests that Bean was a good guy.
“I interviewed several of the people who had known the old judge and I always remember what one person, Mrs. Beulah Birdwell Farley, told me,” Skiles said. “I asked Beulah, I said, ‘Well, what did you think about Judge Roy Bean?’ She said, quote, ‘He might have been a murderer and a robber and a thief but he was good at heart.’”
While Bean did what he had to in order to keep the peace in town, the story that put his name in the marquee all started thanks to a world heavyweight prizefight that couldn’t find a venue anywhere in the United States. Being so close to the border, Judge Bean invited the promoters to have the fight down south – and out of reach of U.S. officials.
“Judge Roy Bean’s prizefight held in 1896 was right down there where we see the water of the Rio Grande. At that time that was a big gravel bar and wide open space, and they erected a little footbridge upstream a little ways. Went across, walked down to the fight. Of course, many of people that watched the fight did not pay anything because all they had to do is go down there and sit on top of the bluff,” said Skiles.”
The Texas Rangers weren’t too thrilled to see Bean find a loophole around the professional fight. But, if you can’t stop it, you might as well enjoy it.
“That’s what Roy Bean told the Rangers when they arrived to stop the fight. He said come on down, you can’t do a damn thing about it, so come on down and watch,” Skiles said.
The fight only lasted two minutes as Bob Fitzsimmons defeated Peter Maher on Feb. 21, 1896, to take the world title, but those two minutes sealed Roy Bean’s place in the history books.
“Those eastern reporters really ate that up, you know,” Skiles said. “He was really a tough old western character, so that’s where legends about Judge Roy Bean really got started, I think.”
Independent, all-knowing, stubborn, and fair as long as you were on his good side, it’s no wonder Texans can resonate with his wild spirit. So, if you want to get an idea of what life was like back in the old West, just pull into Langtry and learn about Judge Roy Bean’s method of Texas Justice.
“It’s a part of history that needs to be preserved, and they’re doing a good job preserving it,” said Skiles.