“I’ve got a feeling you’re foolin.’
I’ve got a feeling you’re having fun.
I’ve got a feeling you’re foolin.’”
-- 1920s song from the movie, Singing in the Rain
There could not have been a more down-to-earth family man than Allentown’s late Erwin Braker. He and his wife Mava raised a family of three, Dorothy, Ruth and Erwin Jr., on Washington Street. Braker had a long career with the Prudential Insurance Company, was active in Dubbs Memorial Church and a member of several service clubs. But on Braker’s 80th birthday celebration when someone mentioned a recent newspaper article recounting the infamous 1925 raid by the Lehigh County sheriff in Limeport where an illegal “girlie show” was being held, he surprised his family members. “I know,” he said with a sly smile. “I was there.” This statement tickled his grandson Bob Wittman, who found it more amusing than shocking coming from his normally reticent granddad.
Once upon a time in the mid-1920s, the Lehigh Valley was on a roll. It had shaken off the effects of the decade’s earlier recession and was about to take off. Bethlehem Steel was turning out steel H beams that were rising in an Art Deco skyline over New York. Closer to home, Allentown’s PPL tower was using them to create the tallest building ever seen in the Lehigh Valley. Other businesses on Hamilton Street were equally thriving. And streetcar and automobile suburbs were stretching Allentown’s city limits far beyond anything William Allen’s little street grid could have contained.
But perhaps influential in the local scene were the influences from the cities that beckoned. New York’s bright lights and attractions were only an hour’s train ride away. Broadway shows used the Lyric Theater as their last tryout stop before New York. Looking back on it, actor Ed Cantor, who along with other luminaries of the day like Al Jolson graced the Lyric’s stage noted, “If your show was good for Allentown it was ready for New York.”
But for people living through them, the 1920s were an unsettling time. Cars, airplanes, movies, and radios were bringing a wider world closer to home. Church, family and fears of what the neighbors might think were losing hold. People who had been brought up under Victorian morals suddenly found themselves confronted with a word avoided in polite society: s-e-x. A typical reaction came from Mrs. H.H. Corson of Scranton, chairwoman of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs during a visit to Allentown early in the decade:
”I noticed at home and in other cities I visited that girls with low necklines, short skirts and near silk stockings are given to make motions to have men in autos take them for rides. Their mothers would be shocked if they knew.”
This was not to say that Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and medium-size cities and towns across the country did not have their own red-light districts where prostitution was tolerated until the local mayor, running for re-election, sent the police in just to show the voters he was on the job. A longtime Evening Chronicle and News photographer and later cartoonist, the late William “Bud” Tamblyn, who was himself caught in a similar raid, recalled it was common in the summertime in that era to send a new copyboy back to the side of the building, where in some houses,, across an alley, “women of the town” were plying their trade. All the windows were open in that pre-air conditioner era and sometimes they had to fetch the lad back if he lingered too long.
But what Mrs. Corson failed to realize was that in the Lehigh Valley, young women were still quite respectable. They may have pulled on a tight-fitting cloche hat, rolled down their stockings and used phrases like “the bee’s knees,” but it was mostly for shock value. The casually flaunted cigarette was one thing. But getting “blotto” on bootleg gin was rare for most women in the area. In fact, most of them wanted exactly what their mothers wanted.
It was perhaps for this reason that illicit sex held an allure that led to the scandal that surrounded the Limeport raid. “There were these shows that used to be put up on in different places,” Tamblyn recalled. “Sometimes they were in old one-room schoolhouses. These local guys would get the girls (dancers) up from Philadelphia. Sometimes they took off all their clothes, but most of the time only part. But still, these girls were no angels.” He neglected to add that neither were the men watching them. Admission was usually a dollar and many times the promoters would spend the money and never even show up with their acts. And it was not unheard of for them or someone else to tip off local law enforcement who would then raid the place. The audience would then run away rapidly, just hoping their mothers, wives, or girlfriends were not aware what they were up to.
It was rumors of just such an event that had come to the ears of Lehigh County Sheriff Mark Sensenbach. For weeks they had floated in the humid August air. A party was to be held at the third floor of a Limeport general store. It was supposed to include exotic dancers. And in the early morning hours of August 29, 1925, the sheriff and his deputies were ready to go into action. They knew they were in the right place from the large number of cars parked outside. Other raids featured the sound of sirens blaring but Sensenbach decided that he and his deputies would approach in silence as they climbed to the third floor.
Inside they heard the voices and loud shouts of men, later estimated to number 350, and the tinny rattle of a player piano. What really bothered the sheriff, he was to tell the jury later, was that all the doors were locked. So, he ordered his deputies to break them down.
A pounding noise followed by a crash at the door was the first thing the men knew that the party was over. Faced with arrest, possible criminal records and the more harrowing task of explaining it all to their wives and girlfriends, they panicked. In the early-morning darkness, they jumped out third floor windows and tumbled on to the second floor porch roof. Others crammed into a small elevator and dropped to the first floor. “That no one was killed is a wonder to those who made the arrests,” noted the Morning Call. With a roar, Model Ts charged down the road and out of sight. The paper seemed to know that most were from Allentown.
What the sheriff was left with was four women and six men. Two of the women were white and two were Black. They said they were from Bethlehem. On September 3, the promoters and the dancers were charged with conducting an obscene exhibition and the owner of the Limeport store had the added charge of renting the place for immoral purposes. All of the men and one of the women were released on bail. One of the white women and both of the Black women were held in custody.
The trial was held on September 30 at the Lehigh County Courthouse with Judge Claude T. Reno presiding. The Chronicle and News described the room as “packed to suffocation.” Most of those in the room were women. The newspapers described the performance as a hootchie-kootchie dance. Only the white women, according to the Call, appeared totally nude. When it was the Black dancers’ turn to testified, they protested the charges. They said they were professional dancers who had appeared locally at cabarets, public dances and at Sunday School entertainments. They had danced the Charleston in a body stocking “but at no time in their appearance were they nude.” At one point, the women were asked about the music. “It was very bum. It was rotten,” came their swift reply. This response broke up the court in laughter and Reno banged his gavel for order.
In the end, the jury convicted the women of public lewdness. They ended up with four-month jail terms and $200 fines. As might be expected considering the time and place, the promoters were let go and the owner of the store only had to pay court costs.
As the story disappeared from the newspapers, with other raids on stills and roadhouses that served liquor taking their place, it is impossible to know what the eventual fate of the women was.