Minnows in the Milk

My favorite con-man is Judge Roy Bean, Law west of the Pecos. Not to be overly romanticized, Bean had a long history of petty crimes. (Thieving, cattle rustling, fraud.) His brothers were men of reputation and so Roy Bean always carried himself boastful. Roy’s brother, Josh Bean, was the first mayor of San Diego, CA. (Which explains some things about San Diego.)

What catches my attention is how Roy Bean changed as a man. During the first part of his life Bean was a real sum’ bitch. His character was exposed when patrons of his San Antonio dairy found minnows in the milk. Roy had been watering down the milk without filtering the water. To which Roy replied, “I’ll have to stop them cows from drinking out of the creek.”

And while particulars of a man’s character is difficult to judge after a century, I’ve always found that money is more telling than opinion. When Bean had a chance to strike out on another venture, a local businessman paid $900 on the spot for all of Bean’s possessions so that he would leave town. By every definition, Bean was a scoundrel of the first sort.

It was 1882 when duly appointed Judge Roy Bean built a saloon, The Jersey Lilly, about 20 miles west of the Pecos River. But that seems to be where his character changes. The con-man in Bean still thrived, but his greed was tempered. While it’s true that none of the fines imposed by his court were ever turned over to the county, most of the money didn’t end up in Bean’s pockets either. Bean was re-elected again and again because he would personally help many of the down and out residents of the area. He was truly the first Robin Hood of con-men.

Even though he was often referred to as “the hangin’ judge,” records show he never hung anyone. Those few that were found guilty of “hommyside” and sentenced to the hangin’ tree were allowed to escape. There was no jail. According to legend, the only recourse they had other than fining offenders was to throw the man in the cage with “Bruno” the bear.

Judge Roy Bean was the quintessential small time con man and while his legacy is mostly wrapped up in some of his most outrageous rulings from his bench – (like the time he fined a corpse or freed a man for killin’ a Chinaman after deciding there wasn’t a law against it.) – it was Bean’s small time (nickle and dime) scams that demand my admiration.

An honorable con-man

Bean found his calling as he began specializing in finable cases. On that rare occasion when he sentenced a confessed horse thief to death the crime quickly turned into a fining offence when the man was found to have $400 in cash. Not wanting to leave the man destitute, Bean only fined him $300.

Judge Bean loved to fleece the railroad passengers. He had a long tradition of delaying the return of change from purchases in the Jersey Lilly just before the train blew it’s whistle at departure. When patrons would swear in disgust at not yet receiving their change, Bean would fine them for cursing. In the end patrons would be forced to sprint back to the train without recompense.

Just as today, only district courts in Texas were allowed to grant divorces, but Bean had no problem granting $10 divorce decrees. Weddings cost $5. For free he’d thrown in his famous blessing for the couple, “and may God have mercy on your souls.”

Typical Bean rulings:

It is the judgment of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offences against the peace and dignity of the State of Texas, particularly in my bailiwick, to wit: drunk and disorderly, and being Law West of the Pecos, I fine you two dollars; then get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again. That’s my rulin’”
“Hear ye! Hear ye! This honorable court is now in session, and if anybody wants a snort before we start, step up to the bar and name your poison.”
“Carlos Robles, you been tried by twelve true and good men, not men of yore peers, but as high above you as heaven is of hell; and they’ve said you’re guilty of rustlin’ cattle.”

Jury selection as restricted to his good drinking customers only, and were forced to buy at least one drink during every court recess.

For a short time in 1896 Bean was in a tough position when the county commissioners fired him after election results recorded more people than were eligible to vote. Without an income Bean’s con-man ingenuity flowered again. Opportunity came knocking when boxing was declared illegal in Texas, Mexico and many other states. The Judge gained national recognition when he hosted the world championship boxing match between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher on a sand island in the middle of the Rio Grande. Brilliant.

Bean also distinguishes himself from other con men by his romantic streak – which I adore. He was in love with Lilly Langtry and a poster of her adorned the wall of his saloon which was named after her. It was a pure love. They never met.

Explaining why he had helped so many people, Roy Bean said, “I haven’t been any gol-dang angel myself and there might be a lot charged up to me on Judgment Day; and I figure what good I can do-the Lord will give me credit when the time comes.”

In case you didn’t know, Bean’s saloon is still there. The Jersey Lilly is about 50 miles from Del Rio, Texas.

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