Raids and Responsibility: Prohibition Enforcement and Evasion in the 1920s Lehigh Valley and the Unlikely Administration of Bethlehem Reform Mayor Robert Pfeifle
By Adam T. Bentz
A Thesis Presented to the Graduate and Research Committee of Lehigh University in Candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts in History
The prohibition era is popularly known as a time of lawlessness, violence, and rebellion against the enforcement attempts of federal officials and 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 and the sporadic actions of a few local officials, lawlessness continued unabated through the 1920s.
In 1929, however, Bethlehem defied local sentiment by electing a reform mayor, Robert Pfeifle, who brought down the brothels, the gambling dens, and even the widely-popular speakeasies. His election followed the murder of a Bethlehem policeman and Mayor James M. Yeakle’s inadequate response to the crisis. It is clear, however, that Bethlehem elected Pfeifle not because the city had turned on liquor, but because voters felt that something had to be done about South Side crime. Pfeifle’s election is therefore an anomaly and does not prove that Bethlehem had gone from wet to dry. The rest of the Lehigh Valley remained “open for business” until repeal in 1933.
(A copy of this thesis is in the E.C.B.A. library and is available for members.)