is well worth a journey to the middle of nowhere to spend some time
– an unincorporated community in Val
Verde County. Langtry
almost died of neglect long ago, but it is kept alive by a pair
of nineteenth century characters who never met but whose lives are
connected forever by a powerful western legend.
In 1882 the
Southern Pacific Railroad established a grading camp on the Rio
Grande River eight miles west of the mouth of the Pecos.
Seizing the opportunity to sell liquor to thirsty railroad workers,
a cantankerous character named Roy
Bean left San Antonio
and put up a tent saloon on railroad property at an “end of the
tracks” tent city that came to be called Vinegarroon.
Two years later Bean
built a permanent drinking establishment farther west along the
railroad near a place known as Eagle’s Nest. Bean named his saloon
The Jersey Lilly after British stage actress Lily Langtry. Bean
never met Miss Langtry but fell in love with her picture in a magazine.
He followed her career the rest of his life, sent letters to her,
and even built an Opera House near his saloon in the unlikely event
that she would accept his invitation for a visit and need a place
to perform. When a town grew up there it was called Langtry.
Bean claimed to have named the place after his lady love, but
evidence suggests that the town got its moniker from George Langtry
(no relation to Lily), a supervisor of the Chinese workers who laid
the rails for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
| The Jersey
Photo courtesy Bryan D Reynolds, 2007
Other than an
itinerant Texas Ranger there was no law in that part of Texas in
the 1880s, so Roy
Bean set himself up as Justice of the Peace as well as saloon
keeper. He did bring some order to Langtry
although the fairness of his methods was open to debate. That he
was a certified character there is no doubt.
ability to read and write was rudimentary at best, he had a keen
understanding of the free enterprise system and its practical applications.
Bean was first and foremost a capitalist. He once added an “information
bureau” to his saloon and billiard hall, but unsuspecting visitors
discovered they had to pay for the information. If they refused,
they found their horses missing.
In 1896 Bean
wanted to stage a world championship prize fight between Robert
Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher in Langtry,
but the state and federal governments declared the contest illegal.
held the event on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande. And
Bean, as usual, made out like a bandit. When Fitzsimmons knocked
out Maher after ninety seconds of the first round, there was nothing
for the spectators to do but drink Bean’s
beer at inflated prices while they waited hours for the train to
take them back to El
As more visitors came through Langtry
on the railroad, Bean
did a lively business selling drinks to tourists, but he was deliberately
slow about giving change to his customers. The stop in Langtry
was a short one, so when the train got ready to pull out, most patrons
chugged their beer and politely left their change behind so as not
to miss the train. If a customer put up a fuss, Bean
fined him the difference for disturbing the peace.
reacted differently when it was he who was being stiffed. On May
26, 1901 Bean strolled quickly through the Southern Pacific Pullman
car searching for the Eastern tourist who ordered a beer at the
Jersey Lilly but left without paying for it. Bean found the man
and placed the business end of a Colt .45 against the man’s nose.
“Thirty-five cents or I’ll press the button,” Bean
told the man.
With a trembling hand the tourist handed Bean
a dollar. Bean
took it and gave correct change.
“That the kind of man I am,” Bean
announced to the startled passengers as he left the train. “I’m
the law west of the Pecos.”
| Lily Langtry
never met her most ardent admirer, but she did visit the town of Langtry
about six months after Roy
Bean died. On January 5, 1904, Miss Langtry stepped from the Sunset
Limited as it stopped in Langtry
on its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Twenty-five cowboys in
starched white shirts and a hundred or so country folk met the train.
The daughter of a prominent cattle rancher made a welcoming speech.
After a quick tour of the town, Miss Langtry received several gifts
including a live tarantula in a silver filigree case, a pet bear,
a pair of mules, and Roy
Bean’s six-shooter. She declined the mules, but kept the gun and
the tarantula. The bear made a break for it, scattered the spectators
like leaves in the wind, and escaped amid the cactus and sagebrush.
And long after Miss Langtry died the citizens of Langtry
remembered the Grande Dame of the British theater and her place in
the history of their town. In 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged,
the town of Langtry
offered itself as a haven from German bombs to Lily Langtry’s daughter
and granddaughter living in London.
Bean died a West Texas
rancher named Bill Ike Babb bought Bean’s property including the Jersey
Lilly Saloon and the Opera House. For a time the Babbs lived in the
Opera House and used the saloon as a hay barn. When Bill Ike died,
his wife Alice donated the Jersey Lilly Saloon, the Opera House and
several acres of land to the state of Texas. Today that donation is
part of the Judge Roy Bean Museum and Visitor’s Center in Langtry.
© Michael Barr
20, 2015 Column
“Judge Roy Bean Lives on in the Town He Named for Lily,” New York
Times, April 5, 1970.
“Langtry Meets Mrs. Langtry,” New York Times, January 6, 1904.
“Langtry, Tex., Where Judge Roy Bean Was the Law,” New York Times,
February 25, 1979.
“Used Pistol To Get 35 Cents,” New York Times, May 28, 1901.
“Texas Town Invites Kin of Lily Langtry,” New York Times, August 20,
Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country (Lubbock: Texas Tech University