Day of Remembrance: Bethlehem Officer Charles Fenton shot and killed 85 years ago

Bethlehem, PA

Bethlehem Police Officer Charles Fenton
EOW 14 November 1927

On November 12th, 1927 Officer Charles Fenton was shot on Columbia Street on Bethlehem’s South Side as he attempted to arrest several robbery suspects.  Officer Fenton was taken to St. Luke’s Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries two days later on 14 November 1927, becoming the third Bethlehem Police Officer to lose his life in the line of duty.  Patrolman Fenton had served with the Bethlehem Police Department for four years. He was survived by his wife, two sons, parents and nine siblings.

His death came in the midst of a lawless South Side riddled with speakeasies, brothels and gambling houses and eventually brought down a Mayor.

The following are excerpts from Beyond Steel: An Archive of Lehigh Valley Industry and Culture.

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.
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.  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.  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.
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.
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’s poor response, however, could not change the direction of Bethlehem political sentiment. … 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.
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. … What is clear about the election results is that the entire city wanted a change. Moreover, citizens on both sides of the Lehigh River wanted the next mayor to do more about rampant South Side crime. … 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.  … 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.  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.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….In addition to the cynics who voiced their concerns in the 9 January [Globe-Times] 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.

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.

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.

Ironically, Pfeifle’s success dried up Bethlehem for a whole two years before a Democratic presidential candidate would add prohibition repeal to his platform. …  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.

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