Much has been written about Judge Roy Bean, both good and bad. The legend of how he maintained Law West of The Pecos, has inspired a television series and a wonderfully entertaining (If not exactly accurate) movie, as well as numerous short stories.
An extensive search of the internet reveals an appalling lack of historically accurate information about this controversial figure in American History. The few sites which mention him paint a picture of an ignorant self appointed judge who dispensed justice recklessly and only in his own self interest.
Is this an accurate picture? Do we simply write Judge Bean off as another crackpot in the annals of american folklore? Just who is this man who has caught the imagination of so many?
When young Roy left home, he headed for Mexico then on to California where he began his law enforcement career as a California Ranger.
After his brother Josh died, Roy headed for Texas, and served briefly as justice of the peace in Vinegaroon.
An entrepeneur at heart, Roy left Vinegaroon to open a saloon in a small texas town which would soon be named "Langtry".
In recognition of his previous experience with the law, The State of Texas appointed Roy Bean as Justice of The Peace for Langtry in 1882.
Judge Bean was continually re-elected to that office by the citzens of Langtry til his death in 1903.
No doubt about it, Public Opinion remembers Judge Roy with a great deal of skepticism. Before going into specific reasons for why this is the case, I think we need to address the issue of judging a historical figure by todays standards. In my opinion this is patently unfair. A person living 100 years ago was raised with an entirely different set of values than those which have evolved into todays norm, and, in fact, lived in a very different world than the one we currently know. To judge him by our present standards is both ridiculous and a travesty of justice.
Admittedly though, Roy Bean was a tad bit unique even by the standards of his own day.
Some of the reasons he is so misunderstood today are
Roy Bean did indeed use his saloon as a court-house, as well as a jail and his own home. Let's not forget that this was the badlands of Texas, not downtown Boston. People on the frontier made due with what they had. The fact that Judge Bean made his place of business available, rather than burden the young town with erecting a court-house, speaks well of Roy Bean's generosity and is a trait woefully lacking in most of todays public servants.
Much has been made of The Judge selling alcohol during court. Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. Alcohol does tend to loosen the tongue, and perhaps His Honor was able to get to the heart of the matter a little more quickly if the parties involved weren't quite sober. Please recall also that Judge Bean had already generously given his saloon for the public good, should he also sacrifice his livelihood?
At the time Judge Bean sat on the bench, Capital Punishment was an acceptable method of dealing with outlaws. The community demanded this form of punishment and if the courts didn't hand it down, the populace was likely to take matters into their own hands which would lead to the breakdown of law and order. Roy Bean presided over a judicial district in the Badlands of Texas: A region full of desperadoes, gunslingers, and thieves. Was he strict? Sometimes harsh? DAMNED RIGHT! And that's exactly what was needed in a judge west of The Pecos in the 1880's.
Finally, were Roy Beans views on the law unorthedox? Perhaps they were a bit out of the mainstream, but one must bear in mind that Judge Bean was tasked with taking law written in a large, tame city and applying that law in the wildest and most uncivilized area of the frontier. A certain amount of lattitude must be granted a judge in those circumstances, and traditionally is.
I know the law...I am it's greatest transgressor.Of course Roy Bean had his faults and peculiarities.(Who amongst us doesn't?) But He is also remembered for his wisdom, humor, and pragmatism.
The good people of Langtry re-elected this judge for twenty years. Lest we run the risk of being arrogant, we must trust their judgement of Judge Roy Bean to be sound. They apparently Believed Roy Bean to be exactly the type of judge needed west of The Pecos River in the late 1800's.