As the railroad spread westward across Texas, the common saying was, “West of the Pecos there is no law; west of El Paso there is no God.” Texas Rangers were called in to quell the criminal element that followed the railroad crews through the desolate Chihuahuan Desert. The
rangers had to haul prisoners to the county seat at Fort Stockton—a 400-mile round trip—and they needed a local justice of the peace in Vinegaroon, a town just west of the Pecos River. It was August 1882 and Roy Bean, who had left his wife and four children in San Antonio earlier that year, won the appointment. He kept the job with only two off years––when he lost elections––until 1902.
Bean’s training in the law consisted of a talent for avoiding it. He was in his early twenties when he made a quick exit from the law in Chihuahua, Mexico. He made a jail break in San Diego and avoided being hanged in San Gabriel, California. He prospered for a time in the saloon business with his older brother in Mesilla, New Mexico.
After the Civil War, he settled in a part of San Antonio that became known as Beanville. He married in 1866 and spent several years in various jobs—a firewood business until he was caught cutting his neighbor’s timber; a dairy business until he began watering down the milk; and a butcher shop that sold meat from cattle rustled from nearby ranches. When he opened a saloon, a rival barkeeper was so eager to see him out of the business, that she bought out his entire operation for $900, all the money he needed to head west and set up his own tent saloon along the new railroad construction in Vinegarroon.
With his new position as justice of the peace, Bean acquired an 1879 edition of the Revised Statues of Texas and undertook his first action—he shot up the saloon shack of a Jewish competitor. His tent saloon served as a part-time courtroom where his jurors were selected from an array of his best bar customers. When an Irishman named O’Rourke killed a Chinese railroad laborer, a mob of O’Rourke supporters surrounded Bean’s court and threatened to lynch him if he didn’t free O’Rourke. After looking through his law book, Bean announced that homicide was killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman. He dismissed the case.
As railroad construction moved westward, Bean followed the line to a town that became known as Langtry, which Bean claimed he named for the English actress Emilie Charlotte (Lillie) Langtry with whom he fell in love after seeing her picture in a newspaper. In truth, the town, sitting on a bluff above the Rio Grande, was named for George Langtry an engineer and foreman who supervised the Chinese immigrants who constructed the railroad.
Apparently, Bean’s reputation preceded him because the landowner sold to the railroad on the condition that no part of the land could be sold or leased to Bean. O’Rourke, the gentlemen who had been acquitted, suggested Bean establish his saloon on the railroad right-of-way because that land was not covered in the railroad sales contract.
Bean built his saloon, which he named The Jersey Lilly in honor of Lillie Langtry who was born on Jersey, one of the islands in the English Channel. He claimed to know Miss Lillie and wrote to her several times inviting her to visit his town. When his saloon burned, he built a new home and called it an opera house where he insisted Miss Lillie would come to perform. Her visit actually came ten months after Bean’s death.
Bean’s creative court decisions in The Jersey Lilly included the time he fined a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. It just so happened that in addition to his gun, the dead man had $40 in his pocket, which paid for his burial and court costs. Bean was known as “the hanging judge,” despite never hanging anybody. Whereas horse thieves were hanged in other jurisdictions, in Bean’s court, they were let go if the horses were returned to their owners. Since there was no jail, all cases ended with fines, which Bean kept, refusing to send the money to the state. Usually, the fine consisted of the amount of money found in the prisoner’s pockets.
Although a justice of the peace was not authorized to grant divorces, Bean did it anyway, charging $10 for the service. He charged $5 for performing a wedding and ended each ceremony with “and may God have mercy on your souls.” Bean was noted for his colorful language such as, “It is the judgment of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of the State of Texas, particularly in my bailiwick,” and then he added, “I fine you two dollars; then get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again. That’s my rulin’.” He also maintained tight control of the language used in his courtroom, even threatened a lawyer with hanging for using “profane language” when the lawyer referred to the “habeas corpus” of his client.
When Bean heard that railroad tycoon Jay Gould was on a train heading toward Langtry, Bean used a danger signal to flag down the train. Thinking the bridge over the Pecos River was out, the train stopped, and Bean entertained Gould and his daughter at The Jersey Lilly during a two-hour visit. The delay sent tremors through the New York Stock Exchange when reports circulated that Gould had been killed in a train wreck.
While the trains stopped to take on water, passengers poured into The Jersey Lilly where Bean served them quickly and then became very slow giving them their change. When the warning whistle blew announcing the train’s departure, the rush was on with passengers demanding their money and Bean eventually issuing a fine in the amount of their change. His reputation grew as the passengers ran cursing back to the waiting train, and future travelers could not resist stopping to visit the ramshackle saloon and its infamous proprietor.
Prizefighting became illegal in most of the Southwest and in Mexico, which prompted Bean to open a side business promoting fights on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande. In 1898, when promoters could not find a place to hold the world championship title prizefight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher, Bean welcomed the event to Langtry. An excursion train arrived with 200 spectators on February 22, and Bean entertained them for a time in The Jersey Lilly before leading them to a bridge he had constructed to reach the makeshift ring. The Texas Rangers watched helplessly from a bluff on the Texas side of the river while Fitzsimmons beat Maher in 95 seconds. The fans and sportswriters enjoyed a few more drinks at The Jersey Lilly before the train carried them back to El Paso to spread the news throughout the United States.
Books, movies, TV shows and Roy Bean himself spread the legend of Judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos,” with tales true and tainted. Despite failing health, Bean went on a drinking binge in Del Rio in March 1903 and died in his bed the following morning. The Texas Department of Public Transportation has restored The Jersey Lilly Saloon in Langtry and created a Visitors Center just south of US Hwy. 90.