Roy Bean not always legendary judge

By Bartee Haile

Roy Bean inherited a California saloon on or about November 22, 1852 after the assassination of his eldest brother Joshua.

The legendary “Law West of the Pecos” didn’t just fall out of the sky into Lone Star folklore. For nearly 40 years, he’s trundled around the West, brushing off his brothers and squandering any chance of success.

Roy, the youngest of the three Bean boys, was born in Kentucky in 1825. Following the example of Brother Sam, a Mexican war veteran, he left home at the age of 23 to experience the good life south of the border. For a time, Mexico lived up to its standards and met the basic needs of lazy youth without breaking a sweat.

But when Sam tied the knot with a local senorita and showed signs of growing respectable, Roy joined the forty-niner rush to the California goldfields. In San Diego he discovered something even better, namely that none other than his brother Joshua was the city’s top dog.

The eldest Bean was generous beyond measure, providing his helpless brother with board, lodging, and fine clothing, always keeping his pocket full of pocket money. Luckily, he didn’t expect anything in return, because that’s what he got.

Josh moved up the California coast to Los Angeles, but Roy was having too much fun in San Diego to come along. Like most little brothers, he thought he was finally big enough to fend for himself, a hasty assumption that was soon proven wrong.

Roy’s troubles started quite innocently. An acquaintance from the pub suggested a male shooting test, and Roy came up with the idea of ​​a duel on horseback in the center of town. It was only after he wounded his playmate and shot his mount from under him that the sheriff stepped in and dragged them both to jail.

Roy was expecting a symbolic night or two behind bars, but a month passed and he was still locked in a cell. Despite decades later insisting that he had tunneled his way to freedom using tools secretly supplied by a female fan club, the facts indicate that Roy was merely taking advantage of a mass escape orchestrated by other prisoners and walked away in the confusion.

The fugitive headed straight to Los Angeles and a reunion with his closest relatives. While Josh was again ready to take Roy under his wing, this time he insisted he made a living. So Roy agreed to run the bar in his brother’s saloon, the wildest bar around.

Within a few months he inherited the profitable company under very tragic circumstances. Josh, a strange man in a love triangle, was killed in a midnight ambush. Despite seemingly being hired for life, the new owner managed to ruin the business by being his own best customer.

Deep in debt and about to lose the saloon, Roy managed to make a bad situation worse. He stumbled into a romantic entanglement with a Mexican girl, fought and won a duel for her affections. But the dead suitor’s friends took his death so hard that they hung Roy, dangling him from a branch.

Either the branch was too low or the rope was taut, allowing the victim to stand on his tiptoes until a passerby took pity on Roy and struck him down. The close call left Roy with a constant pang in the back of his neck, forcing him to rotate his shoulders to look from side to side.

Deciding that climate change would be good for his health, Roy migrated back east in search of his surviving brother. Sam, like the late Josh, had done a fine job of becoming the wealthiest member of a frontier community in New Mexico, as well as being the county sheriff. Roy never waited for an invitation and moved in immediately.

The Civil War spoiled this cozy establishment. According to one of his many yarns spun to entertain Vinegaroon-goers, Roy has devoted his heart and soul to the Confederate cause. In this suspenseful fantasy film, he takes on the role of a spy scout for the ill-fated invasion of New Mexico by rebel Texans and escorts them back to the former Lone Star State after the gambling dare went bust.

While Roy’s war record is in 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 in keeping with his character than that of selfless sacrifice for the Confederacy.

In middle age, Roy finally took root. He married a woman from San Antonio and raised and supported a family for almost 20 years. But there’s no known cure for wanderlust, and at 56 he developed a bad case of itching.

The rest is history, or rather legend. No character in Texas history has ever tried harder to carve out a memorable spot than Judge Roy Bean, the Pecos’ crispy clown prince. That he made it was his only real achievement in life.

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