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Jersey Lilly and
Judge Roy Bean

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Some people remain forever faithful to their partners, some have affairs and some have torrid liaisons only in their minds.

Judge Roy Bean, for example, pined for a woman he never met. The famed "Law West of the Pecos" and owner-operator of the Jersey Lilly Saloon had a fantasy fling with British-born actress Lilly Langtry. He fell in "love" after seeing images of her in print.

The beautiful Langtry, however, had affairs of the real kind. In fact, she had affairs while having affairs. Whether Bean knew his imaginary sweetheart was two-or-three-timing him, her propensity for connecting with more than one man at a time was common knowledge abroad. And there is no shortage of evidence.

In the fall of 1978, a long-lost trove of her love letters sold at auction in London for the U.S. equivalent (at the time) of $16,000. Her correspondent was one Arthur Henry Jones, later described as a "gentleman of leisure." More recently, a scrapbook filled with photos of Langtry came to light. The original owner, the Prince of Wales (and future king of England) had been one of Langtry's paramours. Several other lovers of the twice-married Langtry also have been identified.

While the actress clearly entertained no serious obligation to monogamy, she certainly had ladylike standards. The men she chose to spend quality time with all possessed good looks, healthy physiques and money. Being of nobility made a gentleman all the more attractive.

Alas, the lovelorn Bean was no catch, at least not by the time he opened his bar and general store at a remote coal and water stop along the southern transcontinental railroad in far West Texas. To catalog some of his more prominent characteristics, he was a bigot, a boozer, a con man, and a gambler. In addition, he was fat, hairy, unkempt, unmannered and essentially interested in the rule of law only when it benefited him. Oh, and he could be as mean as a rattlesnake with a bellyache. On the plus side, at least from a woman's standpoint, he did have a job.

Bean derived his main source of income from selling beer, whiskey and general goods to rail workers, cowhands and passengers just passing through, but he also profited from holding public office. Since Aug. 2, 1882, he had served as a justice of the peace, the first rung in the state judicial system. In administering justice to those accused of misdemeanors or in performing the duties of coroner (he once fined a dead man for carrying a pistol after he found money in the pocket of the deceased), he made money off court costs and other fees. Contrary to legend, as a JP he had no authority in felony cases to do anything more than issue arrest or search warrants, set bond and bind a case over for grand jury consideration. In other words, though it has been claimed, he could not order a man hanged.

Legend also holds that Bean named Langtry, Texas in honor of Lilly Langtry, but more likely, the town was named after a railroad official. What Bean did do was name his saloon after the actress, who having been born on the Isle of Jersey in 1853 had come to be called the Jersey Lilly.

No missives from Bean were found in the collection of the love letters that came to light in the 1970s. "He (Bean) claimed he had written her and gotten letters, but we can't find the letters," Jack Skiles, then superintendent of the Judge Roy Bean Visitor's Center in Langtry said the day after the London auction.

But the museum in Bean's restored saloon does have on display a letter from Langtry, but it was written to W.H. Dodd, Bean's successor. The letter, penned in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1904, underscores the fact that even imaginary affairs can take heart-breaking turns.

His desire for Lady Langtry unrequited, in the early spring of 1903 Bean took sick on a visit to San Antonio. He returned to Langtry, where he died in his billiard room that March 16. On tour in the states, the famed actress passed through her supposed namesake town 10 months later.

"Miss Langtry visited Langtry a few months after the judge passed away," Skiles said.

Her letter to Dodd was to thank him for the nice reception he had arranged. Dodd had turned over to her Bean's "fancy" revolver, and later sent her some resurrection plants, a type of fern that looks dead but revives when placed in water.

"I thank you most heartily for all your kindness," she wrote. "I shall be so interested in the future of Langtry and I hope it will go on thriving..."

Langtry the lady continued to thrive until her death at 75 in 1929. By that time, in a figurative sense Langtry the town lay toes up, commercially comatose in the desert of Val Verde County. Thanks to the Judge Roy Bean Visitor's Center the town technically still exists, but that Texas Department of Transportation facility is the only thing keeping Langtry from full ghost town status.

Today it doesn't even have a post office, but then people don't mail love letters like they used to, either. Love and lust, of course, endure.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February 16, 2017 column
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