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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Death of
Judge Roy Bean

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Even in the early 1900s, some doctors realized that smoking was bad for a person's health.

Trained at Hospital College of Medicine in Louisville, KY, Canadian- born Dr. Donald Taylor Atkinson came to Texas in 1902 after graduation. The 28-year-old physician spent some time in Hopkins County in the piney woods of East Texas, a brief interlude in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and by 1905 had a medical practice on the border at Del Rio.

One of his patients there was Sam Bean, son of the famous Judge Roy Bean of Langtry. In "Texas Surgeon," his autobiography, Atkinson told the story:

The old judge, "beard lying thick upon his chest, at either hip a Colt .45," showed up at the doctor's office with his son, Sam. The younger Bean had been in Louisiana for a year. Now he was having daily chills, fever and sweats. He also had a cough, and the judge thought his boy might have "consumption," or tuberculosis.

While the doctor continued to examine the patient, the younger Bean asked if he could take a break to roll and smoke a cigarette. Atkinson asked him if he smoked a lot.

"That boy of mine," the judge answered for his son, "smokes them coffin nails like a chimney. Only time he ain't smoking's when his face is filled with food."

The doctor reached a diagnosis: In addition to a blustery father, Sam Bean suffered from chronic malaria, not TB. He gave the judge's son a prescription for the standard malaria treatment of the day, a mixture of arsenic and quinine, and a little medical advice-lay off the cigarettes.

The judge, known for his impatience with cattle thieves and even misdemeanor offenders, proceeded to lay down the law to his son.

"Sam, y'hear? If I catch you with one [a cigarette] in your mouth, I'll beat your brains out."

Not that the judge's son was too easily cowed. In 1898 he had gunned down a man named George Upshaw following an argument over a saddle blanket. A jury in Del Rio went on to acquit Sam of murder.

Atkinson did not write how Sam Bean had reacted to his father's warning about smoking. But the next time the doctor saw the judge's son, he clearly had improved.

The young Bean saw the doctor several more times after that first visit with his father, and on each occasion, he seemed to be doing a little better. But several months later, Sam took a sudden turn for the worse that had nothing to do with malaria or smoking cigarettes. Someone took a knife to him in a Del Rio saloon and he bled to death.

Despite Judge Bean's tough love approach with his son, the death of Sam must have hit the old man hard. But the loss of his boy did not dull his fealty to justice.


While riding with two Val Verde county sheriff's deputies in pursuit of cattle thieves, a severe norther blue in. None of the men had thought to bring coats. The deputies urged the judge to return to Langtry for warm clothes, but he would not hear of it.

When sleet began to fall, the three men settled in for an uncomfortable night, warmed only by their sweaty saddle blankets.

The next morning, the judge was sick. His temperature shot up and he became delirious, babbling about his boyhood in Kentucky. The two deputies slung the judge across a saddle and took him into town.

Back in Langtry, they wired Del Rio for a doctor. The doctor they requested was busy with another patient, so Atkinson was notified. He grabbed his bag and took the westbound Southern Pacific for Langtry.

When Atkinson got to the Jersey Lilly Saloon, he found the judge sitting at his desk. As Atkinson later recalled, "his hard old face was stained with a mulberry flush from fever. When he hawked and spat into his battered spittoon, I saw the saliva was rust-colored. The judge had pneumonia."

Atkinson did all he could for him, which was to give him a shot of codeine and some digitalis for his obviously weak heart. When Atkinson walked out of the room, the judge had his head down on his desk. A few days later, on March 16, 1903, the legendary Law West of the Pecos was as dead as his late son. They are buried next to each other in Del Rio.

Their doctor later moved to San Antonio, where he continued practicing medicine until his retirement. He died there at 84 in 1959.



© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 22, 2017 column


More on 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
  • Jersey Lilly and Judge Roy Bean by Mike Cox
  • “Law West Of The Pecos” by Murray Montgomery
    The Moulton Eagle – March 21, 1924
  • Langtry: A West Texas Love Story by Michael Barr
  • Roy Bean Before His Law West Of The Pecos Days by Lois Zook Wauson
  • Langtry, Texas

  • More Columns | People

     

     

     

     

     

     

     


    More on 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
  • Jersey Lilly and Judge Roy Bean by Mike Cox
  • “Law West Of The Pecos” by Murray Montgomery
    The Moulton Eagle – March 21, 1924
  • Langtry: A West Texas Love Story by Michael Barr
  • Roy Bean Before His Law West Of The Pecos Days by Lois Zook Wauson
  • Langtry, Texas
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    COLUMNS:
  • Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
  • Clay Coppedge - "Letters from Central Texas"
  • Murray Montgomery - "Lone Star Diary"
  • Wanda Orton - "Wandering"
  • Michael Barr - "Hindsights"
  • Maggie Van Ostrand - "A Balloon in Cactus"
  • David Knape - "Once Upon A Line" Poems
  • Roger Todd Moore - "Moore Texas" Cartoons
  • John Troesser
    More columns

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