One of the most colorful characters to come out of the Old West was Judge Roy Bean, the self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos.” As Justice of the Peace, Bean had a reputation as a tough hanging judge. However, while he was known to occasionally stage hangings to scare away criminals, he never actually hung anyone.
Bean settled in Vinegaroon, Texas in 1881 at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers where he set up a tent saloon to sell liquor at exorbitant prices to railroad workers (mostly Chinese laborers.) Two years later with the construction of the Pecos High Bridge the rail lines shifted away from Vinegaroon and Bean relocated to the town of Langtry where he built the Jersey Lily Saloon and Judge Roy Bean’s courtroom on the railroad right of way.
Western legend holds that the town was named after the British stage actress, Lillie Langtry. Bean is said to have fallen in love with a portrait of the lady though he never actually made her acquaintance. Nonetheless, he followed her career, wrote her letters inviting her to visit the West Texas town, and even constructed an Opera House adjacent to his saloon in the hope that she would one day perform there.
As Justice of the Peace, Judge Roy Bean’s methods and rulings were often questionable, mainly carried out to line his own pockets. One of the more humorous judgments handed down was fining a dead man $40, the exact amount found in the deceased’s pockets! Judge Roy Bean died in 1903 after a particularly heavy drinking spree.
Lillie Langtry did visit the town six months after Bean’s death during a brief stop of the Sunset Limited on its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Among the gifts presented to the actress by the townspeople was Judge Roy Bean’s six-shooter. The Jersey Lily Saloon and the Opera House were sold to a wealthy Texas cattleman and later donated to the state of Texas.
Judge Roy Bean’s story has often been portrayed on the silver screen, most notably in William Wyler’s 1940 movie, “The Westerner” (Walter Brennan won an Academy Award for his portrayal) and in John Huston’s 1972 film, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” starring Paul Newman.