Beyond Steel

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.

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