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Texas | Columns | "Hindsights"

Looking back at
Langtry:
A West Texas Love Story

by Michael Barr
Michael Barr

It is well worth a journey to the middle of nowhere to spend some time in Langtry – 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.

Roy Bean
Roy Bean
TE postcard

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. Roy 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.

Langtry - Jersey Lilly saloon
The Jersey Lilly Saloon
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.

Although Bean’s ability to read and write was rudimentary at best, he had a keen understanding of the free enterprise system and its practical applications. Roy 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. So Bean 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 Paso.

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.

But Bean 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.”

Lilly Langtry 1885
Lily Langtry 1885
Wikimedia Commons
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.

After Roy 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
"Hindsights"
July 20, 2015 Column

References:
“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, 1940.
Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996).

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