Beyond Steel

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]

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