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History's Headlines: From Crime City to Christmas City in Bethlehem

In many ways, South Bethlehem in the 1920s was not much different than the rest of industrial America. Under the smokestacks that were turning out H-beams to fuel the nation's thirst for skyscraper steel, ordinary human beings carried on with everyday life.

Many were good, decent people struggling to raise their families and keep a roof over their heads even as the "prosperous" Roaring 20s spared little of its prosperity for them.

But there were others in South Bethlehem who weren't as scrupulous.

Although the Southside had always had a reputation as being a tough steel town, the arrival of gangsters, speakeasies and other vices that followed in the wake of Prohibition had given many the impression that Bethlehem was a wide-open city in which some leaders- including some in the police force- were said to take bribes to look the other way.

But 27-year-old Bethlehem Police Officer Charles "Charlie" Fenton was not among them. Born in Brooklyn, New York on February 28, 1900, he had come to Bethlehem in 1915, taking a job in a local store. Four years later he joined the Bethlehem police force.  He was known, said the Morning Call for, "discharging his duties with an exactness that won the praise of his superior officers and the approbation of his fellow policeman."

At 1:30 a.m. on the morning of November 9, 1927, Fenton responded to a call for help from 228 Columbia Street, a house rented by a woman named Anna Bell. This address was known to be a "disorderly house," or a house of prostitution, of which there were many in the neighborhood. Recently rival gangs had started a feud over who would control them. That feud included shootings, holdups and at least one bombing.

Fenton arrived at 228 Columbia Street just after what the press called "three or four highwaymen" had robbed the women and their customers, ransacked the house and were attempting to flee. One of the customers told Fenton what had happened.

Fenton caught two of the gangsters and was covering them with his gun and about to summon help. He was apparently unaware that a third member of the gang was acting as a lookout.

Seeing Fenton before the officer saw him, the gangster fired. The bullet, the next day's newspaper noted, "entered the upper part of his abdomen, pierced the liver, severed the blood stream leading to the spleen and passed out of the body beneath the left shoulder."

Fenton's body crumbled to the sidewalk, but not before he could see the men getting into a large touring car. Firing rapidly, he unloaded his revolver at the fleeing car and was convinced that he had hit at least one of the suspects. Neighbors noted that the car bore the New York license plate Y5811.

Fenton, badly wounded, was taken to St. Luke Hospital. His wife and his brother arrived. Dr. D. K. Santee and his assistants were called in. They suggested that Fenton be given a blood transfusion and fellow officer Joseph Simons offered a pint of his blood for that purpose.

It was clear, however, that Fenton was not responding to treatment. There were moments when he would become totally lucid and start to speak clearly and distinctly to his wife about what had happened to him, but then he would stop and fall asleep from exhaustion.

In the meantime, Fenton's fellow officers and the police forces of several nearby communities were at work rounding up suspects. But each one seemed to have an alibi as to where they were at the time of the shooting. Even police departments as far away as Wilkes-Barre and Elizabeth, N.J. expressed frustration that they had not been able to come up with the perpetrators.

As Fenton's condition worsened, the finger-pointing as to who was responsible for the crime started to appear among city officials and the press. It was pointed out that most of the disorderly houses used the cover of cigar stores with fancy names to hide what was really going on. And mercantile licenses had been issued to them by the city, after the usual fee was paid. The press called this an "open secret."

All of this discussion was shortly to be elementary to Charles Fenton. On Monday morning at 4 a.m., two days after he was shot, he died at St. Luke's Hospital. His funeral was held at his home at 411Vine Street. Following a requiem mass at Holy Infancy Church, he was buried in Holy Savior Cemetery. Many of his friends and fellow officers attended.

Despite the best efforts of the police, there was no trace of the suspects, and the death of Charles Fenton remains unsolved to this day.

But Fenton's death brought at least one good thing. It uncorked the bottle on the state of the city. The Southside Businessman's Association took up the discussion and city officials responded. One unnamed Bethlehem official told the newspapers that the problem was that there were "too many loopholes in the laws that made it easy for criminals to go free."

Lehigh University's Brown and White put it starkly: "The majority of Lehigh students have resented the existence of the dangerous conditions that have made Bethlehem a byword around the state," its editorial said. "Coming as strangers into a strange community they are immediately made aware of the disreputable houses that prosper here. Every opportunity to ruin a promising career is offered."

South Bethlehem did not change overnight, but at least a start had been made. It would take the repeal of Prohibition and municipal reforms before real change came about. But by 1937, 10 years after Fenton's death, Bethlehem was being hailed as the Christmas City, not the Crime City.

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