Have you ever heard of a corpse being fined for carrying a concealed weapon? Or how a stunt pulled in a middle-of-nowhere town in Texas threw the New York Stock Exchange into a panic?
If not, you might not be familiar with Judge Roy Bean’s unique version of “justice” in the Old West. It’s one of the stories my grandfather told me about the notorious lawman – and I’m using the term “lawman” pretty loosely here – that has stayed with me.
When I was a kid, I found an old postcard of The Jersey Lilly on my grandfather’s desk. That’s when he told me some of the stories about Bean. I decided then and there I would see it for myself someday. It took me a l-o-n-g time, but I never forgot about it and finally got there.
Judge Roy Bean. The name that should bring to mind the colorful history of the Wild West, might actually bring to mind the image of Paul Newman in his role playing the famous figure. O.K., well that’s not bad, but the original Bean is a pretty interesting fellow too. Known as the “Law West of the Pecos,” Bean created his own brand of justice with decisions and decrees that came out of the courtroom he called the “Jersey Lilly” inspired countless books and stories.
But let’s back up just a little.
The silver spike that joined the transcontinental tracks of the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Route in 1883 was driven into the ground at nearby Dead Man’s Gulch, connecting train service from New Orleans to San Francisco. The new towns that sprung up along the tracks quickly filled up with rowdies like gamblers, thieves, painted ladies and more. And chaos reigned.
That was a big problem, since the nearest Texas Rangers were 100 miles away. They suggested the townspeople in Langtry appoint a local justice of the peace.
In nearby Vinegarroon, a town named after a whip scorpion by the way, a man named Roy Bean ran a store out of a tent. The locals must have thought he had enough common sense to be in charge, because they appointed him the first Justice of the Peace of Pecos County (now Val Verde County). His brother Joshua, after all, was the first mayor of San Diego.
Now, Bean wasn’t your ordinary representative of the law. His “law library” only included one book: the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas. Not that he every consulted it. In fact, pretty much the only law he represented was his own. Need an example?
When a railroad workman fell from a high bridge over the Pecos River (and folks…that’s a l-o-n-g drop), his corpse was brought to Bean’s courthouse, since he also acted as the local coroner. A quick search of the deceased’s pockets revealed that he was carrying a pistol and $40 when he met his demise. The judge rendered a verdict of accidental death, and then promptly fined the corpse $40. You see, there was a $20 fine for concealed weapon, and Bean tacked on a burial fee of $10 and $10 in court costs. Well…guess there was no one to argue about it.
He operated his courtroom in his saloon and chose juries from his best customers. Jurors were expected to buy a drink at each recess, which never seemed to be an issue.
Minor offenses might bring a “fine” of having to buy a round of drinks for Bean, the jurors and anyone else in the bar.
There was no jail in town, so prisoners awaiting trial or serving a sentence were simply chained to the only tree in Langtry.
The governor of Texas in Austin wrote to Langtry calling attention to the fact that no funds ever came to Austin from the judge’s court proceedings. Bean’s response: “Governor, you run things there in Austin and I’ll run things here. My court never cost the state any money.” It was true. The costs of Bean’s and officer salaries were all taken from fines from the court. The matter was never addressed again.
The judge had been on the “receiving end” of Wild West justice as well. In 1854 he courted a woman who was kidnapped and forced to marry a Mexican officer. Mustering up the gutsy bravado he later became known for, Bean confronted the officer – who promptly ordered Bean to be hanged. Luckily, the rope wasn’t taught, and the woman who was the object of his affection ran from her nearby hiding place and cut him down just in time. For the rest of his life, Bean bore rope scars around his neck.
By the 1890s, stories of Bean’s unconventional rulings had made him nationally famous. Travelers on the train passing through Langtry often stopped to visit the broken-down saloon, where a sign proudly declared Bean to be the “Law West of the Pecos.”
And if they didn’t PLAN to stop, they might end up getting a visit anyway. In 1890, Bean heard that railroad developer and speculator Jay Gould would be passing through Langtry on a special train. Not one to miss an opportunity, Bean flagged down the train using a danger signal and the engineer stopped assuming a bridge must be out. Bean boldy proceeded to invite Gould and his daughter to visit the saloon as his guests. The Goulds visited for two hours, causing a brief panic on the New York Stock Exchange when it was reported that Gould had been killed in a train crash.
Regardless of being unpredictable and moody, Bean was admired by locals for bringing the area’s lawlessness under control.
Bean and other rowdies of the day enjoyed games for fun or money in the pool hall attached to the courtroom. Although the judge’s elaborate billiards table has long been gone, the incredible metal legs of the table are still there for visitors to see. Judging by the beautiful lions’ heads and claw feet, it must have been one of the fanciest in Texas.
The Jersey Lillie had a saloon/courtroom, billiard hall, and also served as the judge’s home. In 1896 it burned, and Bean built a small version, with a separate building called the “Opera House” as his residence.
The building known as the “Opera House” was never an opera house. It ended up with that name because of a crush…well, more of an obsession…that Bean had with the famous English actress Lillie Langtry. It’s thought that he believed he could lure the celebrity to his hometown by getting the word out that they had an opera house. He wrote countless letters to the famous beauty hoping she would perform there.
And yes, he also named the famous Jersey Lilly for her…but misspelled the name. A common (understandable) misconception is that the town of Langtry was named for her as well, but it was actually named for one of the construction foremen who worked for the railroad.
Bean became ill during a trip to San Antonio, and returned to Langtry. He passed away on March 16, 1903 in the billiard room where he had spent so many of his later years. And wouldn’t you know it? Lillie Langtry finally visited the Jersey Lillie in 1904 just 10 months after he died. Judge Roy Bean is buried with his son Sam, who was killed in a gunfight, in Del Rio on what now is the grounds of a museum.
The Opera House, Town Hall and Seat of Justice was donated by the Val Verde Historical Commission in 1994 and is maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation as a historic site – which wasn’t nearly this well-maintained decades ago when my grandfather visited. Visitors enter the property through a modern travel information center to visit the buildings and read about their history.
On one section of the wall of the restored home, adobe blocks were left exposed during a restoration to show how it was built. Look closely and you might be able to spot plant fibers, horse and sheep manure and small animal bones in addition to the dirt, since the materials were probably taken from the corral that used to stand behind the saloon.
What I wasn’t expecting when I visited was to also find an incredible Cactus Garden Interpretive Trail that winds through the property behind the travel center. Designed with stone paths, bridges, a windmill and meticulously labeled varieties of native Texas plants – we spent almost as much time enjoying it as we did the buildings we came to see. Be sure to include enough time in your schedule to enjoy it for yourself!
Judge Roy Bean’s famous Jersey Lilly is well worth a visit if you’re in the area, or a detour if you’re anywhere in Val Verde County. If you end up in his courtroom today, you won’t be able to order a beer – but you won’t get fined for anything, either!
You can visit the Judge Roy Bean Museum & Langtry Travel information Center at 526 State Loop 25 in Langtry.
I’ll admit that because Irish (my maiden name is Shanahan), I loved the town of Shamrock even before I arrived just for it’s cute name. What I found is a place that’s adorable for much more than just the moniker it’s had since its first postmaster named it in honor of his Irish mom at the turn of the last century.
TOWER STATION & U-DROP INN
Of all of the unique stops we made along Route 66 in the Texas panhandle, this small town just 15 miles west of the Oklahoma border had one of the most recognizable buildings to fans of the Pixar movie “Cars.”
The Conoco gas station and diner at the corner of Highway 83 and Route 66 inspired the design of Ramone’s “House of Body Art” paint and body shop in the film. If you’ve seen the movie, you’re sure to recognize it immediately.
This Art Deco-lover’s dream was designed by Pampa architect J. C. Berry and built by James M. Tindall and R. C. Lewis in 1936, for a whopping $23,000. Quickly nicknamed the “Tower Station,” it was the first commercial business Shamrock had on Route 66.
Made up of a streamlined gas station and office, a diner named “U-Drop-Inn” (get it?), and a retail space that was soon incorporated to expand the popular diner.
The brick and concrete building sculpted with curved Deco relief curves has two side canopies, and two obelisks sitting on top. The tallest tower over the service station and is almost 100 feet in height. Topped with a metal tulip and adorned with letters spelling “Conoco,” it succeeded in luring in passing tourists. Glazed green and gold terra cotta tile walls and blazing neon light trim added to the attraction, day and night.
Reported to be “the swankiest of swank eating places” and “the most up to date edifice of its kind on the U.S. Highway 66 between Oklahoma and Amarillo” it quickly became one of the most fashionable stops on the Texas stretch of 66.
In addition to drawing tourists in from the road, the U-Drop was the place local parents would sit and visit on Saturday nights while their kids were at picture show at the Texas theatre down the street.
Open 24/7 it had a reputation for friendly waitstaff and delicious food, and was surely a welcome sight for tired, road-weary travelers.
John Nunn, the original owner, passed away in 1957 and the structure changed hands a few times. In the 1970s the station was converted into a Fina station. But the new era had begun when traveling was more focused on the destinations than the adventure of traveling itself, and Route 66 sights took a back seat.
James Tindall, Jr., the son of one of the builders, purchased the landmark in the early 1980s, but closed it in 1997. Ironically that was the same year it was added to the national Register of Historic Places.
Two years later the First National Bank of Shamrock purchased the iconic building and donated to the town of Shamrock. A careful restoration was completed in 2003 recovering its Art Deco charm.
Repair of the station included the use of 508 linear feet of LED lighting to replace the original neon, which was often damaged by harsh Panhandle weather.
Luckily for today’s travelers, the Tower Station complex has been turned into a Visitor Center and small memorabilia museum where you can get a feel for what it was like in its heyday, and sit in Elvis Presley’s favorite booth! They even have era hats to use as props in your photos. The shop also carries a small assortment of Route 66 souvenirs.
Travelers now come from all over the world once again to visit the Tower Station. One of the ladies volunteering in the shop pointed out that they has already had people there from over 100 countries this year alone.
What you might not expect to find is a row of Tesla car chargers in the side parking lot, but the juxtaposition of old and new is pretty darn neat.
Kiss It, It’s Irish!
One of Shamrock’s biggest claims to fame is that it has a piece of the actual Blarney Stone from Ireland.
If you aren’t familiar with the original Blarney stone, it is a large piece of limestone built into the battements of Blarney in Cork. According to legend, kissing the stone will endow the kisser with the “gift of gab.” As a writer, I think that could come in pretty darn handy!
In a tiny strip of property named Elmore Park on East 2nd Street, sits an allegedly theft-proof, crash-proof (for wayward trucks, I assume) concrete cylinder with a neatly cut piece of the legendary stone embedded in the top. The landmark is Irish green – of course – and has a depiction of Blarney Castle painted on the side by a talented local artist.
A bronze plaque explains that the stone was placed there on March 17, 1959 (St. Patrick’s Day) by Texas Secretary of State, Zollie Stearley. According to the Shamrock official who brought it to town, the segment of stone was accidentally knocked off of the original at Blarney Castle. Local lore says that the chunk’s arrival was so important that Shamrock’s mayor called out the Texas Highway Patrol and the Texas National Guard, who reportedly stationed a sub-machine gunner atop the drug store as the stone was wheeled into town. If it isn’t quite true…well, it sure makes a good tale.
And if it IS true, I bet it made for a great show.
If you didn’t know the Blarney Stone was in the park, you might stop anyway just to snap photos of the cute signs depicting St. Patrick and a leprechaun. But since it is, well…what harm can a kiss do?
Shamrock is also home to a different sort of “tower” – the tallest riveted water tower in the state….and you know how we Texans like to build the biggest and best. I must admit I’ve never seen such attention and documentation given to a town water tower. It’s definitely worth a few minutes to wander the lot where it stands downtown and take in some of the old photos, informational plaques and murals that explain how they constructed this monster. Taking into consideration that it was built in 1915 and cost just over $6,000, it’s pretty impressive..
Shamrock also still has a handful of motels that have survived several reincarnations since the days of Route 66, and a beautifully restored 1926 Magnolia gas station.
You’ll thank your lucky stars – or clover – if you take the time for a stop in Shamrock.