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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Roy Bean's
Bad News Bear

by Clay Coppedge
One of the ways Judge Roy Bean made people respect his authority as the Law West of the Pecos in the late 1800s, was to occasionally let them answer to a beer-guzzling bear named Bruno for their crimes. Some say Bruno's name was Sarsaparilla but the bear never expressed a preference so we're going to call him Bruno because we think it's a more appropriate name for a bear.

Bruno served as a tourist attraction at the Jersey Lilly, Bean's saloon and courthouse in Langtry, Texas. The saloon was named to recognize the alleged judge's deep infatuation with actress Lillie Langtry, who was nicknamed the Jersey Lilly. Langtry, the town, was not named for the actress, as we might assume, but for George Langtry, a railroad employee who helped bring the railroad to town.

Bean did a brisk business at the Jersey Lilly, mainly because his was the only saloon within a hundred miles. Thirsty train passengers who stopped in Langtry made tracks for the saloon's liquid libation and would soon meet the acquaintance of Bean-and Bruno. Bean would toss Bruno a beer and Bruno would catch it with his huge mitts, uncork it with his teeth, and down the whole thing in a single swallow.

Passengers, enthralled and perhaps jealous of the bear's carrying capacity, bought Bruno beer after beer. Judge Roy Bean kept the money and Bruno kept the beer, at least for a while. We assume Bruno peed a lot, and not necessarily outdoors, because Bean kept Bruno on a long chain that allowed the bear to mosey around, looking for beer to drink and a place to pee.

The Judge knew exactly how long the chain was, and he sometimes tied passed-out drunken miscreants just beyond Bruno's reach. The drunks awoke from their binges to see Bruno standing on his hind legs, teeth bared and claws slashing inches from their no doubt terrified faces. Bruno was the most effective bouncer the Old West ever saw.

One hot July day a drummer (traveling salesman) named Sam Betters alighted from the train in Langtry and headed straight to the Jersey Lilly where the Judge charged the outrageous price of one dollar for a beer. Betters paid with a twenty dollar gold piece. While waiting for his change, he took a sip of his the beer, gagged and almost spit it out. "Good God, don't you keep your beer on ice?" he complained to the judge.

"Ice in July? Ha! That's a good 'un, tenderfoot. Haw!"

Betters waited in vain for change from his twenty dollars but it never came. In fact, Bean seemed to have lost all memory of the recent past. The engineer blew the train's whistle loud and long to let people know the train was about to leave.

"Good God, man, aren't you going to give me change? Hurry up! The train's leaving!"

Judge Roy Bean stared absently out the window at the shimmering beauty of the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains in the distance, perhaps fantasizing about Lillie Langtry.

Betters cussed Bean up one side and down the other. Bean was so offended by the foul language and aspersions on his character that he fined Betters twenty dollar for profanity and demeaning remarks to a judge in his court of law. "But the beer's on the house!" he added cheerfully.

A minute later the train chugged out of the station with Betters hanging on from the platform, shaking his fist at Roy Bean and vowing revenge. The Judge waved back and tossed Bruno a beer.
* * *
We flash forward a couple of years. Roy Bean is in El Paso tending to some business and tossing 'em back like he was Bruno. Betters happens to be there, too. He ambles up to Bean at the bar and slaps him on the back.

"Howdy, Judge," Betters says, all friendly like. "That was quite a little joke you played on me at Langtry. Well, I've got a great sense of humor. No hard feelings, Bean. Let me buy you a drink."

Bean and Betters end up downing multiple concoctions, enjoying each the other's company all the more as the evening progresses.

"Say, Roy," Betters says at one point. "I just come from your place. That bear of yours is dead."

"What?!" the Judge screams. "That can't be. He was fine when I left him a week ago!"

"Gone over the range, I tell you. I saw him laying there. Poisoned, they told me."

Bean vows revenge on any scoundrel who would do such a thing to his beloved Bruno.

"Tell you what," Betters says. "Wouldn't you like to have him stuffed, so you could still see him standing by the swinging doors and bringing in customers, even in death?"

The Judge agrees that would be a fine idea.

"Why don't you send a telegram to forward his skin? I know a great taxidermist. Cheap, too. We could have it done while you're still in town."

Bean sent a telegram to his assistant, Oscar, who was stunned to hear that the Judge wanted Bruno skinned, but he knew better than to disobey an order from his boss, so he shot Bruno, skinned him and sent the skin to El Paso.

Back in Langtry, with what was left of Bruno in tow, Bean described to Oscar what he would do to the lowdown varmint who poisoned Bruno. Poisoned? Oscar insisted that he shot Bruno, pointing out that a dead bear is much easier to skin than a live one.

Just before Bean could do to Oscar all the terrible things he said he'd do to the man who poisoned Bruno, the awful truth dawned on the Judge. He'd been had.
* * *
This story, first recorded by J. Marvin Hunter in Frontier Times magazine in 1948 and recently retold in Tales From the American Frontier by Richard Erdloes, is one of those stories that's just "too good to verify." But another story contradicts it, whether we want it to or not.

In this alternate ending, the Judge bequeathed an alive-and-well Bruno to his heartthrob Lillie Langtry on his deathbed in March of 1903. Ten months later, when the actress finally passed through Langtry on the train, she found out that crazy old admirer of hers had left her a bear.

"I saw the strange sight of a huge cinnamon bear careening across the line, dragging a cowboy at the end of a long chain," she later wrote in her autobiography while indicating that she had no use for a bear. "Happily, before I had time to rid myself of this unwelcome addition, without seeming discourteous, he broke away, scattering the crowd and causing some of the vaqueros to start shooting wildly at all angles."

For years afterwards, cowboys swore they heard Bruno at night, roaming the Trans-Pecos and howling ferociously for beer. Poor Bruno. He might have lived out his final years as a free bear, but he probably died thirsty.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" March 15 , 2019 column

More about Judge Roy Bean:

  • Ten Things You Should Know About Judge Roy Bean by John Troesser

  • Ten More Things You Should Know About Judge Roy Bean by John Troesser
    The Jersey Lilly: Where 'sidebar' has a very literal meaning

  • “Law West Of The Pecos” by Murray Montgomery
    The Moulton Eagle – March 21, 1924

  • The Death of Judge Roy Bean by Mike Cox

  • Langtry: A West Texas Love Story by Michael Barr

  • Jersey Lilly and Judge Roy Bean by Mike Cox

  • Roy Bean Before His Law West Of The Pecos Days by Lois Zook Wauson

  • Roy Bean's Bad News Bear by Clay Coppedge

  • Langtry, Texas

  • Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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