Municipal Government

Overview
Essay
Items

Two counties (Northampton and Lehigh), three cities (Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem), and multiple municipalities make up the Lehigh Valley region.  The items (photographs, reports, books, postcards, oral histories, and maps) in this section span the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries.  For background of the Lehigh Valley’s response to the 1920s prohibition, see “The Lehigh Valley During Prohibition” essay.

The Lehigh Valley During Prohibition

By Adam Bentz

…should we lose our Democratic principles at home right after winning a war to make the world safe for Democracy? Why should we liberate millions of people in other countries, and ourselves be deprived of our liberty?[1]

So questioned one Easton journalist in February 1919, just as federal efforts to ban liquor production began to take effect. The United States had just fought a war to "make the world safe for democracy." But as troops returned from France, elected leaders in Washington used their democratically-given power to take away the people's right to sell (and as a result, to buy) alcoholic beverages.

Temperance and prohibition movements began to pick up speed by the end of the nineteenth century. By 1916, the Anti-Saloon League, the most successful anti-drink organization, had used its political pressure and manipulation of public opinion to fill Congress with dry politicians who outnumbered wets by two-to-one. World War I sealed the fate of the prosperous alcohol industry. When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson gave a gift to the "drys" by installing wartime prohibition, ostensibly to conserve grain for the troops in France.[2]

Drys jumped on the obvious opportunity World War I provided. They used the war fervor to attack the brewing industry, which until 1917 had been the last bastion of the liquor trade. Drys linked German-American brewers with America's enemies in Europe and thus turned temperance into a matter of patriotism.[3] They then pushed for something more lasting. On 22 December 1917, Congress submitted the Eighteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. In keeping with wartime restrictions on alcohol production and in an attempt to appease nervous drys from wet states, the Amendment did not prohibit consumption, only targeting manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages. One could legally drink after prohibition, but could not buy nor sell alcohol.[4]

Ratification came on 16 January 1919, with enforcement to commence one year later. Meanwhile, Congress passed the Volstead Act in September 1919 to spell out exactly how the government would enforce the amendment. The act stated that intoxicating beverages contained more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV. Federal agents could theoretically "padlock" businesses caught selling or manufacturing alcohol for a year. Those prosecuted for violating Volstead faced six months imprisonment or a $1,000 fine. Although possession of alcohol for home use was not criminalized, possession of illegally-produced alcohol was illegal, creating one of the many gray areas that plagued enforcement over the next decade.[5]

The "Noble Experiment," as Herbert Hoover referred to prohibition, was now the law of the land. Yet even with the Volstead Act, the Eighteenth Amendment was vague about how far officials could go in enforcing its even vaguer restrictions. Volstead created numerous loopholes for creative bootleggers to exploit. Besides the corrupt policemen bootleggers paid off, even good officers realized in many cases that a large portion of the communities they policed did not support the prohibition law, including the Lehigh Valley. Prohibition may have enjoyed the support of most of the politically-active middle class, but the working classes of backwoods farmers, industrial workers, and small store owners, especially those of ethnic backgrounds, had no desire to see a key element of their culture and an aid in getting through the drudgery of daily life taken away from them for whatever idealistic reason. In addition, many members of the middle class were either secretly or openly wet and had the money to spend on "frivolities" like liquor.

The result was prohibition, a thirteen-year long crusade that some viewed as a success, but that the nation at large lived to regret for decades. The prohibition era is popularly known as a time of lawlessness, violence, and rebellion against the enforcement attempts of federal officials and also against conservative social mores. These perceptions are not inaccurate and are partly borne out by local newspaper coverage of the time.

The Lehigh Valley of the 1920s was a major seedbed of resistance to prohibition. The illicit liquor industry enjoyed the support of many Valley residents from all walks of life. Area breweries maintained normal operations, despite federal raids and seizures. Smaller operators built stills in the mountainous areas of Lehigh and Northampton counties, earning millions of dollars in the process. When agents and state police arrested the proprietors of speakeasies, local juries frequently refused to convict them despite concrete evidence. Occasionally, brewery employees, bootleggers, and citizens engaged federal agents in pitched battles that sometimes resulted in fatalities. The populace at large generally tolerated the violence. Local police rarely assisted agents in their efforts and more often than not warned proprietors and bootleggers that agents were on the way.

Paltry local enforcement efforts encouraged vice in all its forms to take root throughout the Valley. Speakeasies, brothels, and gambling dens came to dominate certain areas of Bethlehem and Easton. Despite the protests of a dry minority, the sporadic actions of a few local officials, and federal and state attempts to enforce prohibition, Lehigh Valley bootleggers and proprietors continued selling liquor throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Without the support of local politicians and police, federal officials realized that effective enforcement was impossible.

Only in Bethlehem would the political establishment actually put a stop to the lawlessness that characterized the rest of the Valley. Drastic policy changes in a democratic society often occur as responses to tragedy. Bethlehem's move against bootleggers and other "vice peddlers" was no exception.

On 12 November 1927, armed bandits fatally wounded Officer Charles Fenton as they made their escape from a South Side brothel.[6] His death triggered a political firestorm that brought down one mayor and elected another.

The police began arresting dozens of people throughout the city on suspicion, but the New York holdup men were long gone.[7] Pursuit was futile. Other gangsters and "night life visitors" who patronized Bethlehem's red light district frequently traveled from the Big Apple to the Lehigh Valley, the former in pursuit of easy money and the latter for illicit sex, booze, and gambling.

Probably no one was prepared for the sudden change in popular opinion about the need for action in the wake of Fenton's death. The Globe-Times claimed that nine out of ten people in Bethlehem blamed Mayor James M. Yeakle's administration for the deplorable situation on the South Side. But popular concern was not limited to the brothels, for people began to see the gambling and liquor industries as symbiotic with the red light districts.[8]

Unsurprisingly, pro-prohibition ministers did what they could to link Fenton's death with the liquor trade. An unnamed minister expressed his dissatisfaction with the city and the police, ignoring the red light problem and focusing solely on the speakeasy culture of the South Side:

It is very unfortunate that Police Officer Fenton should lose his life. It was unfair to him and to the city. In the daytime often two officers are together in this section but at night Fenton was alone. The city authorities get the blame first for permitting such conditions to exist. Liquor is sold at many places and no stop is made to the illegal traffic. Not very far from my home, there is a place allowed to sell liquor. I do not know why such a place is permitted to exist. There has been no investigation by the police authorities nor any other city authorities. The police system is all wrong and should be changed as speedily as possible.[9]

For better or worse, any effective attempt to clean up the South Side would necessitate taking down the bootleggers and bartenders as well. Most came to believe that crime was crime and that permitting speakeasies would encourage next-door brothels and gambling houses.[10]

Such criticism, when expressed by a minister in a paper read by many concerned voters, began to worry the two-term incumbent mayor. On the fifteenth, Yeakle attacked the Globe-Times in an angry response to recent stories about the South Side's vice conditions. He claimed vice conditions were not as bad as the paper claimed and blamed an ineffectual court system for merely slapping the hands of the prostitutes and pimps officers brought in. Yeakle claimed that "over 95 percent of the crimes committed here take place on the South Side. It is there we have a preponderance of foreigners. In fact there are no less than forty-eight nationalities represented among the labor element on [sic] this city. It is among them that practically all the law violations occur." Yeakle excused his behavior by claiming that the number of officers and detectives necessary to clean up the South Side would necessitate higher taxes.[11]

Yeakle's poor response, however, could not change the direction of Bethlehem political sentiment. South side businessmen organized mass meetings to discuss vice conditions and protest the mayor's failure to control crime.[12] Businessmen were not the only South Side residents uniting to push the city into action. A few days later, South Side Catholics and Protestants united to sign a vice petition calling the mayor to address the brothel situation.[13]

Yeakle's response letter probably incensed far more people than it calmed. The next day, under the name of "Indignant," a Bethlehemite attacked Yeakle for using the "red herring" trick when he blamed the Globe-Times for blowing the crime controversy out of proportions. The letter accused Yeakle's administration of profiting from the brothel districts by having police routinely raid and fine the houses without getting the prostitutes to leave the city. Instead of collecting what was essentially protection money from the brothels, the citizen wanted Yeakle to actually clear out the prostitutes and prevent them from coming back to town.[14]

By the 1929 Democratic primary, Yeakle had significant opposition within his own party for the mayor's seat. Businessman, bank president, city councilmember, and South Side resident Robert Pfeifle accepted the invitation of local residents to challenge Yeakle as a reform candidate. There was little doubt what Pfeifle intended to do upon taking office. He would clean up the South Side, something Yeakle had been unable to do since 1927. Moreover, Pfeifle would target all forms of lawlessness, including bootlegging and speakeasies.[15]

As wide open as the South Side was and as fond of liquor South Side residents tended to be, even according to Yeakle's bigoted standards, the 17 September primary results were quite shocking. One would think that thirsty South Side residents would have held their noses and voted for Yeakle just to keep a "do-gooding" reformer from clearing all the liquor from people's homes, stores, hotels, and barrooms. But Yeakle came in a sorry third in the South Side's First to Fifth Wards, with a total of 405 votes. Former councilman George H. Reussner came in first with 1,537 votes and Pfeifle received 1,410.[16]

Admittedly, South Side residents had not gone for Pfeifle, the reformer, but neither had they embraced Yeakle to defend them from attempts to enforce prohibition. Yeakle's characterization of foreign-born residents of the South Side as criminals undoubtedly hurt his chances for reelection, although many ethnics could not vote. South Side wets probably favored Reussner as a change from uncaring Yeakle and a safer choice than Pfeifle. In the city results, Pfeifle won, Reussner came in second, and Yeakle third.[17]

What is clear about the election results is that the entire city wanted a change. Moreover, citizens on both side of the Lehigh River wanted the next mayor to do more about rampant South Side crime. Reussner's victory on the South Side suggests residents there did not want everything cleaned up, but also could not stomach another four years of Yeakle's corruption and incompetence. Pfeifle's overall victory suggests that the city as a whole wanted reform in any way possible and believed Pfeifle was the most capable of providing that change.

At the general election on 5 November 1929, Pfeifle easily defeated his Republican opponent, Claude M. Stauffer, by a vote of 8,375 to 5,154.[18] Ironically, Pfeifle decisively won the wet South Side wards, but faced a much tighter contest in the wealthier, more Republican North and West Sides, where he lost five wards to Stauffer.[19] Pfeifle was a long-time resident of Webster Street, which could explain some of his popularity on the South Side.[20]

In his first message, made just after taking office, Pfeifle directly discussed the problems of the day: "We, the public, cannot close our eyes to the existence of evils which, by steady growth are threatening the health and safety of our cities." Pfeifle pledged to clean up the police department to protect residents, calling the reorganization the most pressing problem of the day.[21] Within months, he had reorganized the force under the surprisingly effective leadership of 43-year-old Frederick T. Trafford, an ordained minister with no experience in law enforcement. Until his appointment, Trafford had been the general secretary of the Lehigh University Student Union. Pfeifle demoted Yeakle's Superintendent Halteman to patrolman and suspended him for ten days for refusing to obey his orders to clean up the South Side.[22]

Within days after taking over the department, Trafford discovered the extent of Halteman's corruption. He received a call on 8 January from John G. Gleason, a Reading resident. Gleason asked if he was speaking to the superintendent and Trafford replied that he was. Gleason proceeded to complain about the speed with which police were raiding gambling dens. He asked for more time to remove his slot machines, noting that he had paid a $1600 bribe to the department for protection. Trafford replied that he was the new superintendent and Gleason, obviously shocked, hanged up "with a bang." Halteman and other officers were obviously doing quite well for themselves under Yeakle's watch.[23]

The Globe-Times and many Bethlehem residents were quick to lavish praise on Pfeifle's reorganization and his clean-up efforts. On 9 January, the paper praised his efforts to bring morality and decency back to the city and dismissed critics who questioned whether or not Bethlehemites would "…be satisfied if the city is cleaned up?" The paper questioned,

…where is there a community that does not delight in a clean city, a town that is above reproach, a place where a man or woman can walk along the streets or alleys without fear, a place where you can hang your hat and call it home and be proud of it, a model to the other towns.[24]

Concerned Bethlehemites stressed that it was time for someone to do something about the South Side and that if Pfeifle's "marksmanship" was accurate, "there is sure to be a kill." Critics questioned if his intentions were genuine and wondered how long his stamina would last. But others correctly assessed Pfeifle's character and predicted "that the lid will be clamped down tight for the next four years."[25] Pfeifle naturally garnered the support of the Protestant religious community. At a church meeting on 8 January, members of the Christ Reformed Church unanimously endorsed Pfeifle and Trafford's efforts.[26]

One could argue that the city was solidly behind Pfeifle. After all, it had elected him. And now as he set out to fulfill his campaign promises, favorable articles appeared in the Globe-Times. Yet, perhaps the paper did not allow all voices a chance to speak. In addition to the cynics who voiced their concerns in the 9 January article, one can assume that many working class ethnics, middle class fun-seekers, and Lehigh University students, themselves the patrons of speakeasies, gambling dens, and brothels, had little good to say about Pfeifle's initiative. But like Pfeifle's supporters, opponents quickly learned that times had indeed changed. The new superintendent compiled a list of 215 speakeasies, thirty-five bawdy houses, and forty "harborers of slot machines" and quickly moved against them.[27]

In early February, the Globe-Times released a rosy police report of their January activities. Pfeifle and Trafford had a cause for celebration. They fought the vice on the South Side and according to their figures, they were winning.

…no less than 175 speakeasies and 26 bawdy houses were put out of business; 68 prostitutes were driven out of the city together with 8 of the type of male vampires that live on the dishonor of women. There were 95 "night life" visitors from New York and New Jersey reprimanded and advised not to return to the city save on legitimate business. Two hundred and twenty-five gallons of moonshine liquor was confiscated and destroyed; 25 stills were also seized and rendered useless.

In the opinion of many people, Pfeifle had done the impossible by cleaning out entrenched vice. In doing so, he encountered death threats, rejected bribery attempts, and refused to succumb to the intimidation of the gangsters he was chasing out.[28]

The raids continued throughout the spring of 1930, but Pfeifle and Trafford had done the lion's share of the work in the short weeks after they took office. The new administration had made its point and almost overnight had changed the nature of the South Side. There is no evidence that Pfeifle targeted ethnic clubs or social clubs, so some alcohol was probably still available in the city. But he did shut down the more flagrant speakeasies. More importantly, he chased the proprietors of the red light district out of town and police collected and smashed all the slot machines they could find.

By January 1931, the Mayor was ready to release the figures of his success in ridding Bethlehem of its criminals: the prostitutes, the gamblers, and the bootleggers. First of all, Pfeifle took credit for ending Yeakle's fining mill. In 1929, police arrested 2,100 people and collected $25,051.50. Under Pfeifle in 1930, police arrested 5,000 people and collected only $11,500. But the new department went much farther than simply cleaning up its own activities. Police arrested thirty-nine for conducting bawdy houses, 190 as inmates of bawdy houses, twenty-eight for conducting disorderly houses, and fifty as inmates of disorderly houses.[29]

Police had targeted other areas of vice as well, arresting forty-one as inmates of gambling houses. For the first time since prohibition started, Bethlehem police had arrested bootleggers in earnest. Police arrested 214 for violating liquor laws, one for moving a still, and seven for transporting liquor. Through a massive campaign of warnings, raids, arrests, and trials, Pfeifle's new police department managed to do what many thought was impossible. Pfeifle closed 241 speakeasies and thirty-nine bawdy houses. Police ordered sixty-eight prostitutes out of Bethlehem and arrested 190 prostitutes over the year. Police also ordered a total of 105 New York and New Jersey "night life visitors" out of the city and told them not to return, denying pimps and prostitutes their loyal clientele.[30]

The new administration persecuted vice with destructive force, literally. Police captured and destroyed 2,902 gallons of moonshine, 105 gallons of gin, 159 barrels of mash, and fifty-two slot machines, punch boards, or other gambling devices. Police also held 1,000 gallons of whiskey at police headquarters. In all, police made 355 raids in 1930, nearly one per day.[31] What Col. Wynne, leader of federal agents, had said about local enforcement was true after all. Local police could clear their towns of alcohol and vice with the political will to do so.

Ironically, Pfeifle's success dried up Bethlehem for a whole two years before a Democratic presidential candidate would add prohibition repeal to his platform. And Pfeifle's successful housecleaning of Bethlehem did not keep any North or South Side residents from driving or walking just outside the city limits where beer, whiskey, and wine still flowed freely. Pfeifle's election and subsequent success at enforcing prohibition does not prove that Bethlehem changed in relationship to the rest of the wet Lehigh Valley. It does signify that the wet residents of Bethlehem's South Side would not tolerate the uncontrolled violence that came to the city during Yeakle's incompetent and corrupt administration.


[1] "What One Hears About Prohibition," Easton Daily Free Press, 10 Feb. 1919, 5.

[2] Norman H. Clark, Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 120-132.

[3] Gregg Smith, Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization from Mesopotamia to Microbreweries (New York: Avon Books, 1995), 127-128.

[4] Clark, Deliver Us from Evil, 120-132.

[5] Clark, Deliver Us from Evil, 132-141, 194; Edward Behr, Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996), 77-79.

[6] "Officer Fenton Shot; Martyr to System," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 12 Nov. 1927, 1, 7.

[7] "Police Have No Clue to Murderer of Officer Fenton, on South Side," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 14 Nov. 1927, 1, 10. According to Yeakle's 1928 report, police finally caught the men in Cleveland, Ohio, cited in James M. Yeakle, "Seventh Annual Message of Mayor James M. Yeakle…January 1928," Mayor's Reports, 5th-9th 1926-1930 Annual Message of James M. Yeakle (Bethlehem, Pa.: n/pub, n/d), 20-31.

[8] "Police Have No Clue," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 1, 10.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] "Conditions in City Not So Bad as They're Painted, Says Mayor," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 15 Nov. 1927, 1, 14.

[12] "Businessmen of South Side Urge a Vice Crusade," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 15 Nov. 1927, 1, 8.

[13] "Vice Petitions Circulating," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 3 Dec. 1927, 1, 17.

[14] "Look to Mayor to Change System or Get Out," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 16 Nov. 1927, 1.

[15] Frank Orpe and Jean Pfeifle McQuade, Dare to be Brave (Center Square, Pa.: Alpha Publications, 1977), 31-39 in passim.

[16] "Unofficial Returns of Primary Election Held in this City," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 16 Sept. 1929, 18.

[17] Ibid.

[18] "Robert Pfeifle Elected Mayor; Groman and Wear are Chosen New Members of City Council," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 6 Nov. 1929, 1.

[19] "Unofficial Vote of the City in Tuesday's Election," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 6 Nov. 1929, 18.

[20] Orpe, Dare to be Brave, 16-18.

[21] Robert Pfeifle, "First Annual Message of Mayor Robert Pfeifle to the Honorable Members of City Council and the Citizens of Bethlehem, Pa., January 1930," Mayor's Report, 1st Annual Message of Robert Pfeifle (Bethlehem, Pa.: n/pub, n/d), 4-5.

[22] Orpe, Dare to be Brave, 33-34.

[23] "Tell-tale Phone Message to the Local Police Department Gives Intimation of the Crookedness that Has Taken Place," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 9 Jan. 1930, 1.

[24] "What People of this City are Saying and Thinking These Days," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 9 Jan. 1930, 1, 16.

[25] Ibid.

[26] "Church Endorses Mayor's Policy," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 9 Jan. 1930, 1, 22.

[27] "Tell-tale Phone Message to the Local Police Department Gives Intimation of the Crookedness that Has Taken Place," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 1

[28] "Police Report Covers Clean-Up," Bethlehem Globe-Times, 7 Feb. 1930, 1, 21; Orpe, 40-46.

[29] Robert Pfeifle, "Second Annual Message of Mayor Robert Pfeifle…January 1931," Mayor's Report, 2nd Annual Message of Robert Pfeifle (Bethlehem, Pa.: Quinlin Printing Company, n/d), 7, 32-36.

[30] Pfeifle, "Second Annual," 34-37.

[31] Pfeifle, "Second Annual," 37-38.