WEST OF THE PECOS THERE IS NO LAW; west of El Paso there is no God.” So went the saying in unsettled West Texas—until the day in 1882 when Roy Bean became a justice of the peace in dusty little Langtry, where the sign over the Jersey Lilly, his combination courthouse and barroom, promised “Ice Cold Beer and Law West of the Pecos.” After his death, in 1903, Langtry began to languish, but in 1939—following renovations by the Texas highway department—the Jersey Lilly became a tourist attraction, particularly for Big Bend–bound summer vacationers. The enduring popularity of the state’s most famous saloon might have coaxed a smile from the old curmudgeon himself.
Bean’s exact birth date is unknown. He was born in Shelby County, Kentucky, probably between 1825 and 1834. “Roy” was his middle name; his first name was “Phantly.”
He left home at about age fifteen. According to legend, his adventures included cattle rustling, slave trading, and blockade running. In various years and locales he was charged with (but never convicted of) theft, assault, and murder. He also claimed to have narrowly escaped being hanged, lynched, and scalped.
In 1882 Bean, then living in San Antonio, moved west with railroad workers laying the first track to El Paso. He eventually settled in Langtry and opened a saloon. Despite his dubious past, he somehow persuaded local officials to appoint him justice of the peace. He dealt with cases in a novel and often outrageous manner, once releasing an accused murderer (and steady customer) after determining that no law specifically forbade “killing a Chinaman.” When a drunk drowned in the Pecos River, the judge—discovering $40 and a pistol on the corpse—fined the dead man $40 for carrying a concealed weapon.
Although prizefighting was then illegal in Texas, in 1896 Bean announced plans to host a match between two heavyweight champions from Australia and Ireland. Governor Charles Culberson dispatched Texas Rangers to halt the proceedings, but Bean foiled them by staging the event on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
He greatly admired British actress Lillie Langtry, and often wrote her, pleading with her to visit Texas. Despite his assurances that she was the town’s namesake, Langtry was in fact named for a railroad engineer. Bean did, however, christen his saloon the Jersey Lilly, a misspelling of the actress’s nickname (after her Channel Island birthplace). By the time she visited at last, in 1904, Judge Roy Bean was dead.