The Story of Phantly Bean

Kentuckian by birth in 1825, Phantly Roy Bean, Jr. was the youngest of five children born to Phantly Roy Bean, Sr., and the former Anna Henderson Gore.  Poverty combined with little hope for useful employment near the homestead sent young Roy to New Orleans where he hoped to find a source of income.  What he found in New Orleans was trouble, which prompted him to flee to San Antonio to avoid prosecution.  In San Antonio, Roy joined his brother Samuel Gore Bean (1819-1903). Sam had earlier migrated to Texas through Independence, Missouri where he worked as a teamster and bullwhacker [1].  Sam hauled freight out of Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico.  After the Mexican-American War, Sam freighted from San Antonio –and this is where Roy joined him.

In 1848, the two brothers opened a trading post in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.  It wasn’t long after that when Roy Bean shot and killed a Mexican desperado who, in a state of drunkenness, threatened to kill a gringo.  Roy Bean seemed to be handy for this purpose and Roy ended up shooting the desperado in self-defense.  This isn’t how Mexican authorities saw it, however, so to escape a murder charge, Sam and Roy fled westward to Sonora.  By the spring of 1849, Roy was living in San Diego, California with his older brother, Joshua.  San Diego town had existed as a political entity since July 1770.  Between 1770 and 1838, San Diego operated as a presidio under the command of Mexican military officers.  After San Diego became a pueblo [2] on 1 January 1835, the senior most official was the Alcalde (Spanish for mayor).  Eventually, the population of San Diego waned and it lost its status as a pueblo and fell under the jurisdiction of the city of Los Angeles and was governed by a Juez de Paz [3]. The first mayor of San Diego, California under the laws of the United States was Joshua Bean.

While in San Diego, a randy Roy Bean competed for the attentions of local women, and by all accounts, he was quite successful in this endeavor.  However, a Scotsman by the name of Collins challenged Bean to a marksmanship demonstration with pistols, on horseback.  Collins assigned Bean the responsibility for choosing the targets.  Bean decided they should shoot at one another.  The horseback duel took place on 24 February 1852.  It ended with Collins receiving a gunshot wound to his right arm, and both men being placed under arrest.  San Diego ladies concluded that Roy was very gallant and while awaiting trial, many of these women sent him bouquets of flowers, good wine, and cigars. His final gift was a set knives cleverly encased in tamales, which Roy used to dig through a wall and escape pretrial confinement. After his escape on 17 April 1852, Bean went to San Gabriel where he became a barkeep in his brother’s saloon. After Joshua’s murder [4], Roy inherited the saloon.

Mission Valero 001

Mission San Antonio de Valero, 1854

In 1854, Roy Bean was courting a young woman whose parents did not approve of her fascination with him.  Unknown persons kidnapped the woman and forced her to marry a Mexican military officer.  Outraged, Bean challenged the officer to a duel and killed him without giving much thought to the fact that the Mexican may have friends.  Six of these friends assailed Bean, sat him upon a horse with a noose around his neck and left him to hang.

Fortunately for Bean, the horse was not skittish and did not walk away from the tree; the young widow freed Bean from his predicament, but he did not survive unblemished; the rope left a permanent scar around his neck, and he thereafter complained of chronic stiff neck.  Bean’s near-death experience convinced him to leave California and he returned to New Mexico to live with his brother Sam.  While Roy was in California, Sam became the first sheriff of Doña Ana County, in the territory of New Mexico.  In 1861, Sam and Roy operated a dry goods store and saloon on Main Street in present-day Grant County, New Mexico.  The saloon advertised good liquor and a fine billiards table.  Outside the store sat a field cannon belonging to Roy.  It came in handy when a band of Apache Indians attacked the good citizens of Pinos Altos.

During the American Civil War, the Confederate Army successfully invaded New Mexico, but ended up losing their supply train, forcing them to retreat to San Antonio.  After taking money from Sam’s safe, Bean joined the retreating army and for the remainder of the war, Roy Bean bullwhacked cotton from San Antonio to British ships off the coast of Matamoros, Mexico and then returning with much needed supplies.

Bean made San Antonio his home for twenty years, working variously as a teamster, lumberjack, dairy hand, and the butcher of stolen cattle. On 28 October 1866, Bean married an 18-year-old woman named Virginia Chavez, with whom he had four children. The family lived in a poverty-stricken Mexican barrio everyone called “Beanville” [5] located just west of the San Antonio River.

By the late 1870s, Bean was operating a saloon in Beanville.  He learned that several railroad companies were extending their track westward and that  there were several construction camps opening along the route.  Taking advantage of this opportunity, Bean decided to sell his saloon and capitalize on the demand for whiskey in the middle of nowhere.  A store owner/neighbor was anxious enough to have Bean move away that she bought all of Bean’s possessions for $900.00.  By this time, Virginia Bean had left her husband, so Bean deposited his children with his friends and headed out west.

Jersey Lilly 001

Artist’s rendition of Judge Bean’s courtroom and saloon.

Thus far in this story, there appears very little to recommend Mr. Bean as a role model. Nevertheless, Bean purchased a tent, wholesale supplies, and ten barrels of whiskey.  By the spring of 1882, Bean established a small saloon near a tent city he named Vinegaroon, adjacent to the Pecos River.  More than 8,000 railway men were working a short distance away.25

At this remote location, the nearest court was 200 miles away at Fort Stockton and there were few resources to deal with lawlessness.  On 2 August 1882, Roy Bean received an appointment as Justice of the Peace for Precinct 6, Pecos County [6]. The date of his appointment notwithstanding, Bean heard his first case, Texas v. Joe Bell, on 25 July 1882.  To help him through the arduous task of meting out justice to the good folk in Pecos County, Bean relied exclusively on the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas.  It was the only law book he ever used because he judged all newer editions as superfluous.  He used the newer revisions as kindling.

Roy Bean preferred to simplify Texas law.  He did this by disallowing hung juries and appeals.  Bean selected his jurors from among his best saloon customers.  Whenever he ordered a recess, he expected all customers to buy a drink.  In one case, a railway worker named Patrick O’Rourke allegedly shot and killed a Chinese laborer.  A mob of 200 angry Irishmen surrounded the courtroom/saloon; they told Bean rather directly that if he did not release O’Rourke, they intended to lynch “Judge” Bean. After consulting his law library (which consisted of one book), Bean concluded, “… homicide is the killing of a human being.  I can find no law against killing a Chinaman.  Case dismissed.”

In December 1882, railway construction had progressed further west; bean moved his courtroom and saloon 70 miles further west to Strawbridge.  A whiskey merchant already well-established there destroyed Bean’s whiskey supply by adding kerosene.  Thus unable to attract customers, Bean moved to Eagle’s Nest, 20 miles west of the Pecos River. Bean named this new place Langtry.

The original owner of the land, who also ran a saloon, sold 640 acres to the railroad, adding this one caveat: the railroad could not sell or lease any part of that land to Roy Bean.  Patrick O’Rourke, whose case Bean previously dismissed, advised Bean to use the railroad right of way —land not covered by that provision.  Bean thus squatted on land that he had no legal right to use.  He named this establishment The Jersey Lilly in honor of a British Actress whose stage name was Lillie Langtry (born Emile Charlotte Le Breton).  Infatuation is always a bit strange, but in this case, Bean’s subsequent fascination with Lillie Langtry was a bit daft.  He never met the woman, but after  Bean’s death, Miss Langtry visited the Jersey Lilly.

Roy Bean 001

Justice of the Peace Roy Bean, Jr.

As Langtry did not have a jail, Bean imposed fines —sharing nary a one of them with the State of Texas.  In most cases, Bean imposed fines that equated to the exact amount of money found on the accused’s person.  Despite the depictions of him in Hollywood films, Judge Bean only sentenced two men to hang and one of those managed to escape.  The Bean Court always released horse thieves when the accused agreed to return the horses to their rightful owners.  Roy Bean also granted divorces —but had he seriously consulted the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas he might have noted that this power was reserved to Texas district courts.  Judge Bean pocketed $10 for each divorce hearing, charged $5 for weddings, and always ended marriage ceremonies by saying, “… and my God have mercy on your souls.”

Roy Bean won reelection as Justice of the Peace in 1884 but lost in 1886.  In 1887, the commissioner’s court created a new precinct in the county and appointed Bean to serve as that jurisdiction’s justice of the peace.  He continued to win elections until 1896.  After his defeat in that year, Bean refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try all cases “north of the tracks.”

In 1890, Bean received word that railroad developer and land speculator Jay Gould was planning to pass through Langtry on a special train.  Bean flagged the train down with a danger signal; thinking the bridge was out, the engineer stopped the train and Bean invited Gould and his daughter to visit the saloon as his guest.  He entertained them for two hours.  Gould’s sudden and mysterious disappearance caused a panic on the New York Stock Exchange.

My opinion is that the one actor who came closest to accurately portraying Roy Bean was Walter Brennan in the 1940 film, The Westerner.  Bean’s biography seems to suggest that there is a very thin line between a bona fide scoundrel and an officer entrusted with the law.  Bean’s story is nothing if not interesting.

In his later years, Bean spent his time and his money helping the poor in his area; he always made sure that the schoolhouse had firewood in the winter.  On 16 March 1903, after a bout of heavy drinking in San Antonio, Roy Bean passed away in his sleep.  He and his son Sam are interred in Del Rio, Texas.


  1. Davis, J. T. Legendary Texians, Volume II, Austin: Eakin Press, 1985
  2. Sonnichsen, C. L. Roy Bean: The Law West of Pecos.  Mockingbird Books, 1943
  3. Skiles, J. Judge Roy Bean Country.  Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996
  4. Roy Bean Biographical Summary, Texas State Historical Society


[1] A bullwhacker was one who drove teams of oxen pulling heaving wagons.

[2] A pueblo is a nucleated Spanish village; one of the primary settlement patterns associated with Spanish townships.

[3] Justice of the Peace

[4] While serving as Mayor of San Diego, Joshua Bean illegally sold City Hall and pueblo lands to himself and a drinking companion by the name of Cave Couts.  Citizens later reclaimed City Hall through judicial action.  In 1851, Joshua relocated to Los Angeles County were he established a saloon and a store in the city of San Gabriel.  On the night of 7 November 1852, unknown assailants ambushed and killed Joshua on account of his over-familiarity with a local woman.

[5] The use of the word was intended as an ethnic slur directed against people of Mexican or Spanish ancestry.

[6] There are eight levels of judicial courts in Texas; Justice of the Peace Courts are the lowest of these.  The number of JP Courts within a given county depends on the county’s population.  Each county will have at least one JP Court, which under current law is limited to Class C misdemeanor cases, civil matters of less than $10,000 in value, evictions, liens, and foreclosures.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Story of Phantly Bean

  1. kidme37 says:

    Interesting fellow. Liked to keep things simple.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    Wow! Quite a bio of an old rascal!


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