How Judge Roy Bean made Lillie Langtry into a famous Texan

Time Before Now – October 1853 –  Millard Fillmore was serving his final year in the White House, assuming the office in 1850 upon the death of President Zackery Taylor.   President-elect Franklin Pierce and his wife suffer the loss of their12-year-old son in a tragic train crash on their way to Washington in January.  German immigrant, Heinrich Steinweg, began hand-crafting pianos in New York City, changing the name of his company to Steinway & Sons. (Left)  And inventor Gale Borden discovered a commercial method to condense milk.  Immigrating to Texas in 1829, he cofounded a newspaper, prepared the first topographical map of Texas and helped write the state’s first constitution.

October 13, 1853

On this day, English actress, mistress to royals and sometime vaudeville performer, Lillie (sometimes Lily or Lilly) Langtry was born on the Island of Jersey, an unlikely candidate to become a legend in the American West.

The celebrated British beauty may owe her frontier fame to pure coincidence and another self-promoter, “Hanging Judge” Roy Bean.

Hard to say which of the two had the most notorious past.  Langtry was the only daughter of philandering cleric, William Corbet Le Breton, and his lover, Emily Martin Davis.  Born on the Isle of Jersey, the lone girl among six brothers, she reportedly proved to be too much for her nanny and was turned  to her brothers’ tutor, luckily receiving a better-than-average eduction for girls of her day.

Scenic Isle of Jersey

Her rise to fame began with her 1874 marriage to a modestly wealthy Irish land-owning widower named Edward Langtry.  He was apparently rich enough, however, to provide a yacht for his beautiful 20-year-old bride and she insisted they sail away from the Channel Islands.

Taking up residence in a fashionable section of London, society artist George Frank Miles (left) spotted Langtry at the theatre and went on a month-long quest to discover her identity.  It didn’t take much coaxing by Miles to convince Langtry to sit for a portrait and the rest, as they say is history.  The portrait was sold to Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany.

The artist and his subject shared a roster of famous friends including celebrated Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde and the woman who would one day eclipse Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt.  But it was her affair with England’s future king, Queen Victoria’s heir, Albert Edward “Bertie,” Prince of Wales (left), , that made her notorious.  Bertie’s list of lovers rose to 55, according to historians, and included Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of future Prime Minister Winston Churchill. 

The Langtry/Bertie liaison ended abruptly with the birth of Jeanne Marie Langtry, thought to be the daughter of Prince Louis of Battenberg.  The scandal and shook the family tree of the Royal  family.  Prince Louis was   husband to Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Elisabeth Mathilde Marie of Hesse.  Prince Louis’s father, Prince Leopold, owner of the first George Miles portrait of Langtry, was also one of Queen Victoria’s sons. 

Her fall from grace with the Royals led  to a career on the stage, (right) first in England and then in 1883, with an American tour.  Enter Judge Roy Bean.  Supposedly smitten with Langry, so the story goes, he renamed his southwest Texas frontier saloon, Eagle’s Nest,”  to “Jersey Lilly” in honor of the celebrity.  Claiming a friendship with the English beauty he promised she would visit the saloon and sing for the locals.  He also is credited with changing the name of the town to Langtry.  Both boasts proved to be untrue.

According to the historically reliable “Handbook of Texas,” the town was actually christened “Langtry” for George Langtry, an engineer and foreman in the employ of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Bean pictured in front of his famous saloon

Bean’s notoriety may have eclipsed Langtry’s, however.  In and out of scrapes on both sides of the Mexican boarder, by the late 1870s Bean was operating a saloon in the impoverished border town of Beanville.  A local  business owner was so anxious to “have this unscrupulous character out of the neighborhood,” she bought him out for $900, more than $20,000 today.

Bean (right) took the proceeds and moved his operation to the Pecos River tent city of Vinegaroon.  It was an attractive location, in easy reach of  8,000 thirsty railroad workers.  At the suggestion of a Texas Ranger, Bean was made a Justice of the Peace and a law onto himself.  

When railroad construction moved on, so did Bean, landing at Eagles Nest by Christmas, 1882.  Squatting on railroad land for the next 20 years, his rent-free watering hole also became the courthouse for a wide swath of the state.  The self-styled judge pocketed fines and dispensed some common-sense justice along side many outrageous rulings motivated purely by money.

The crooked judge and the notorious lady never actually met.  After being supplanted by Sara Bernhardt (right) as Europe’s diva du jour, Langtry moved to the United States permanently, becoming an American citizen in 1897.  She married a very rich much younger man, bought a California winery and invested in horse racing enterprises.

She died in Monaco in 1929 at the age of 76, her butler’s widow, Mathilde Marie Peate, at her side.  She is buried at St. Saviour’s Church in Jersey

Her Old West legacy was burnished in several western novels including “Slocum and the Jersey Lilly” by Jake Logan and several movies about Roy Bean.  She was portrayed by Lillian Bond in the 1940 film, “The Westerner” and by Eva Gardner (left) in the 1972 “Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”  In the movie Gardner steps off the train in  the town of Langtry after Bean’s death, one of the few factual events depicted in the film and declares, “He must have been a real character.”

In spite of his sordid past, Judge Bean died peacefully in his bed at age 84. It was preceded by a night of heavy drinking to celebrate the construction of a new power plant, however.  He is interred at Whitehead Memorial Museum in Del Rio.

The town of Langtry fell on hard times after 1900 when both the highway and the railroad missed it by several miles.  By 1970 the population had dropped to 40 but tourists visiting the Jersey Lilly managed to keep it on the map into the 21st Century.

In 1955, while flying a F-86 fighter jet, former Air Force Reserve pilot Robert Willingham claimed he witnessed the crash of an unidentified flying object outside Langtry.  His story could never be verified but some speculated it may have been the ghost of Roy Bean.

Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, Hwy 90 West Loop 25, Langtry, Texas, is way more than a stop along the Interstate.  In addition to free maps and travel information for the entire state, it features interpretive exhibits of Bean’s checkered career, Bean’s Jersey Lilly Saloon and opera house and a beautiful desert landscape and cactus garden. Closed only on major holidays, it’s open  from 8 to 5 daily.  The fully air conditioned center also provides wireless internet access. For more information call (432) 291-3340 of visit for a list of the state’s 80 Safety Rest Areas.

Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center

In addition, as part of the Pecos Trail Region, the area is rich in heritage destinations including Seminole Canyon State Park,,, one of the leading pictograph sites in Texas.  With 46 primitive to modern camp sites, hiking and bike trails, park store and easily accessible rest rooms, it’s known for its remarkable geologic history and stunning views. 

As home to the Rock Art Foundation,  tours of the White Shaman Preserve and its unique white pigment figure above the Pecos River are also available. The region’s Crockett County Museum in Ozona and the Whitehead Memorial Museum in Del Rio also offer an in-depth look at the rock art legacy left by some of the earliest residents. 

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.