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Judge Crater, Call Your Office

the missingest man in modern history

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a problem.

At the beginning of January 1930, New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Proskauer announced his retirement. As Governor of New York, Roosevelt was charged with appointing someone to fill Proskauer’s seat until the general election in November. 

The problem was that everyone had a different set of preferences for Proskauer’s replacement. The New York Bar Association had one list of preferred candidates, and Tammany Hall had a completely different list. New York City residents wanted a candidate who lived in the city, and upstate residents wanted a candidate who didn’t. The Jewish community demanded a Jewish candidate. Al Smith and John Curry, who were fighting for control of the state Democratic Party, were also putting their own 2¢ in. If FDR showed favor to any of these groups, he’d be making an enemy of the others. 

Instead, he channeled the wisdom of Solomon and picked Judge Joseph Force Crater.

No one could argue that Joe Crater wasn’t eminently qualified for the job. He had his juris doctorate from Columbia Law School. He had worked as a clerk for former New York Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner; now United States Senator Robert F. Wagner. He spent years teaching law at the City College of New York, Fordham University, and New York University before stepping away from academia to focus on his private practice. He was active in Democratic politics but was largely above the current intra-party squabbles. He was a Sigma Chi man, a Mason, and a Tammany Hall man in good standing, all of which still meant something in those days. 

Picking Crater made everyone happy by making everyone unhappy. He would have never been anyone’s first choice for the position, but he was someone they could all live with. He was widely expected to win a full 14 year term in the November elections.

Having satisfied and dissatisfied everyone all at once, Crater celebrated his appointment by taking an extended summer vacation in Belgrade Lakes, Maine where owned a vacation home.

Of course, go-getters like Joe Crater never really stop working, even when they’re supposedly on vacation. At the end of July, he returned to New York City to handle some business. His wife Stella stayed behind in Maine, which was probably for the best. She would have been infuriated to know that Crater’s “business trip” included a two-day fling in Atlantic City with his mistress, showgirl Sally Lou Ritz.

He returned to Belgrade Lakes on Saturday, August 2nd and spent most of the day doing normal vacation stuff — boating, barbecuing, bowling. He told his neighbors that he was planning to stay for a solid two or three weeks.

That may have been Crater’s original plan, but if so, he changed his mind very quickly.

Later that evening, Crater went into town to either make or receive some phone calls (the Crater residence did not have its own line). On his return, he looked visibly distressed and told Stella that he had to return to the city to “straighten those fellows out.” It might take a few days, but he hoped to be back by August 6th and would absolutely be back by August 9th to celebrate Stella’s birthday. The very next day the family’s chauffeur, Fred Kahler, drove the judge to the train station, where he hopped on the first train back to New York. 

At his apartment on 40 5th Avenue he had a brief conversation with the maid, Amelia Christian. He asked her to come back and tidy up on August 7th, after he returned to Maine. Then he gave her the rest of the month off, since the Craters wouldn’t be using the apartment until late August when the new Supreme Court term started.

On Monday, August 4th, Crater spent most of the day working in his chambers, with a quick break to visit his personal physician, Dr. Raggi, to see what could be done for a finger that had been crushed in a car door on his recent Atlantic City sojourn. That evening, Crater went to the Morosco Theater to see the “spicy comedy” Ladies All. He was accompanied by his good friend William Klein, an attorney who represented the theater and its owners. Afterwards, the two men went to the Club Abbey on West 54th street to grab a few drinks and watch the lovely Elaine Dawn perform. Dawn had made quite a splash in a recent production of Show Boat. She was also another one of Crater’s mistresses.

On Tuesday, August 5th Crater once again spent most of the day in his chambers, breaking only to lunch with fellow Supreme Court justices Alfred Frankenthaler and Louis Valente. That evening, he went to Dr. Raggi’s home at 130 West 11th Street for a light dinner and a few friendly hands of poker. 

On Wednesday, August 6th Crater returned to his chambers and spent most of the day destroying various papers. At one point in the morning, attorney Simon Rifkind dropped by the office. Rifkind had been Crater’s hand-picked replacement as then-Justice Warner’s legal secretary, and the two had been friends ever since. It’s unclear what they talked about.

Crater also sent his assistant Joseph Mara out to cash two checks, one for $3,000 drawn on Chase National Bank, and another for $2,150 drawn on the Empire Trust Company. When Mara returned, Crater asked for his assistance to help carry several cases of papers and a safe deposit box up to his apartment.

Afterwards, he told his secretary Fred Johnson that he was going out to the Larchmond Shore Club for a quick swim. Instead, he went out to the Epicure Restaurant on Stone Street and had a quick lunch with attorney Martin Lippman. He also made a quick telephone call to lawyer Reginald Isaacs to discuss a case… and also discuss the $1,000 that Isaacs owed to the judge.

In the early evening Crater went to the Arrow Ticket Agency at 1539 Broadway to reserve a ticket for the new show Dancing Partner at the Belasco Theater. While he was there, he bumped into Frank Bowers, an old friend from his hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania. He told Bowers and the ticket clerk that he was planning to return to Maine the following day.

Then Crater walked down to Billy Haas’s Chophouse at 322 West 45th Street. He spotted William Klein and Sally Lou Ritz, who were dining together. The judge joined them for dinner, and seemed to be in high spirits. He had a lobster cocktail, chicken and vegetables, and pie.

When he finished his coffee at 9:15, Crater had already missed Dancing Partner‘s 8:40 curtain call. He wasn’t terribly worried. He had seen a preview of the show in Atlantic City two weeks earlier, and he had plenty of time to catch the second act. He bade farewell to Klein and Ritz as they hailed a cab, and started ambling down 45th Street towards 9th Avenue. 

It was the last time anyone saw Judge Joseph Force Crater.

Gone And Forgotten

When the maid returned to clean the Crater apartment on August 7th, nothing seemed to be amiss. The bed had been slept in, and he’d left the suit he’d worn Wednesday morning out for cleaning.

Back in Belgrade Lakes, Stella Crater wasn’t terribly worried that Joe hadn’t returned. He had said he might not be back until Saturday. She wasn’t even all that worried when Joe didn’t show up then, either. It wouldn’t have been the first time her husband had changed his plans without bothering to inform her. She was a little miffed that he’d missed her birthday, though the lovely red canoe he’d sent her as a gift took the edge off a bit.

But when Monday, August 11th rolled around and there was still no sign of the judge, Stella started to get worried. She called the apartment and got no answer, so she called Simon Rifkind. Rifkind reassured Stella that Crater was probably fine, even though he had not personally seen the judge for at least five days. He said he would make a few inquiries on her behalf.

Rifkind must have assumed that Joe Crater was having a wild weekend. He made a few calls to places where Crater liked to carouse: Saratoga, Montreal. Maybe Toronto — the show Artists and Models was opening there, and several of Crater’s mistresses were on the cast. No one had seen the judge, though that didn’t stop Rifkind from dashing off a telegram to Stella telling her everything was fine.

Stella wasn’t buying it. On Friday, August 15th she sent chauffeur Fred Kahler down to the city to check up on the Judge. At Kahler’s first stop, the Crater apartment, he discovered a substantial pile of unopened mail, which was worrying. And yet he, too, dashed off a telegram to Stella telling her everything was fine. Later he would say that some of the judge’s associates had told him not to dig too deeply, as any whiff of scandal might torpedo Crater’s chance of winning a full term in November.

Nobody else seemed to be all that concerned that Judge Joseph Crater had dropped off the face of the earth until Monday, August 25th, when he no-showed the opening of the New York Supreme Court’s term. Chief Justice Louis Valente called up to Belgrade Lakes to check up on his junior colleague. He briefly talked to an incoherent Stella — constant worry was making it difficult for her to eat or sleep.

Now Valente was worried. He called Rifkind, who pulled some strings with Senator Wagner’s office and engaged the Senator’s bodyguard, former NYPD detective Leo Lowenthal, to make some discreet inquiries on their behalf. They were still concerned the judge was having an extended fling, and didn’t want anything personally or professionally embarrassing to get out. Later that week, Lowenthal tried to gain entrance to the Craters’ apartment, but was turned away by the superintendent.

The idea of a discreet inquiry went out the window on August 29th, when Stella Crater returned to New York  and started frantically calling everyone she could think of, including Rifkind, Valente, and Klein. She called Mayor James Walker, one of Crater’s Tammany Hall friends.

She also called Martin Healey. Healey was the district leader of Tammany Hall’s Cayuga Club, the same branch that Joe Crater was president of. Healey was also the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation for allegedly selling a judgeship to one George Ewald for $10,000. District Attorney Thomas Crain had declared Crater to be a person of interest in the investigation.

No one is quite sure what they discussed, but it must have been very reassuring. Stella calmed down and returned to Belgrade Lakes the next day.

Tipped off by the frantic calls Stella had been making, The New York World broke the story of Crater’s disappearance on September 3rd. No longer able to deny it, Simon Rifkind went to the police and filed a missing persons report, as did Stella Crater a few days later. 

The judge had now been missing for twenty-eight days. 

The police, led by Detective Edward Fitzgerald, searched the Crater apartment and discovered no signs of foul play. Only one suit was missing from the judge’s wardrobe, the brown one he’d been wearing on August 6th. Oddly, the judge’s pocket watch, pen, and hard case were still at his desk, though he usually carried those items with him at all times.

As the police pieced together the timeline of Crater’s last day, they realized some other things were missing – the safe deposit box and the briefcases that Joseph Mara had helped him carry, along with the $5,150 in cash that Crater had procured that day. That’s about $80,000 in modern money. On the assumption that Crater had been carrying the money with him, the police began working with the theory that the judge had been killed during a robbery gone wrong. 

They interviewed William Klein, the last person to have seen Crater alive. Klein gave the police a highly edited and inaccurate account of that night, leaving Sally Lou Ritz out of the story entirely and implying that the judge had hailed a cab. That sent the cops on a wild goose chase as they tried to track down the nonexistent cabbie that had given the judge his final ride.

Police also discovered that someone had picked up the ticket being held for the judge at the Belasco’s box office. That someone had not been Crater, though, as no one remembered seeing him at the theater.

Soon enough they realized that Klein omitted Sally Lou Ritz from his story and tracked her down. Ritz reaffirmed that when she’d last seen the judge, he had been walking down 45th Avenue towards 9th Street… away from the Belasco.

Justice Valente claimed that his men had tracked Crater back to the Club Abbey. That was interesting, because the Abbey was also a well-known mob hangout owned by Owney Madden and frequented by equally unsavory characters like “Legs” Diamond, Dutch Schultz, and “Mad Dog” Coll. Could the judge and his huge wad of cash have run afoul of some low-level mobster?

Statements by Ritz also pointed the cops in the direction of several of Crater’s other mistresses, including June Brice, Elaine Dawn, Jane Manners, Constance Marcus, Marie Miller, and Alice Woods. Most of them were showgirls who had been introduced to the judge by William Klein. Several had ties to the Club Abbey. None of them had seen Crater. Several denied having a sexual relationship with the judge, though they all admitted to going on dates with “Good Time Joe.”

While the cops pursued the idea of a robbery-murder, D.A. Crain tried to tie Crater’s disappearance into his ongoing Ewald-Healey investigation. He had a point — it certainly seemed suspicious that Crater had spent his last day destroying legal files that could have been potential evidence — but he was also making a desperate gamble. Crain had been unable to convince a grand jury that his case was worth pursuing, and was trying to keep his case alive.

It didn’t work, and in the end FDR took the matter out of Crain’s hands by creating the Hofstadter Committee to investigate the Ewald-Healey matter and other reports of corruption in the city. Crain responded by empaneling a grand jury to investigate Crater’s disappearance.

Simon Rifkind, who was representing Stella Crater, vigorously denied that the judge’s disappearance had anything to do with the Ewald-Healey scandal. He favored the robbery-murder angle, though his client preferred the idea that her husband was somehow still alive.

Everywhere and Nowhere

There was almost no chance that Crater was among the living, but just in case he was, the police put out a missing persons circular with his description.

Born in the United States, Age 41 years; height, 6 feet; weight, 185 pounds; mixed grey hair, original dark brown, thin at top, parted in middle slicked down; complexion, medium dark, considerably tanned; brown eyes; false teeth, upper and lower jaw, good physical and mental condition at time of disappearance. Tip of right index finger somewhat mutilated; due to having been recently crushed. Wore brown sack coat and trousers, narrow green stripe, no vest; either a Panama or soft brown hat worn at rakish angle, size 6 5/8, unusual size for his height and weight. Clothes made by Vroom. Affected colored shirts, size 14 collar, probably bow tie. Wore tortoise-shell glasses for reading. Yellow gold Masonic ring, somewhat worn; may be wearing a yellow gold, square shaped wrist watch with yellow strap.

The New York World tried to help out by offering a $2,500 reward for any information about Crater’s disappearance, and the Board of Aldermen chipped in another $5,000. As a result, the police hotline was ringing off the hook day and night.

And almost all of the tips were hot garbage.

  • Someone claimed to have spotted Crater at a boarding house in Cricket Hill, Virginia, making no effort to hide his identity.
  • People in northern New Jersey called in numerous sightings of the judge, which later turned out to be sightings of his cousin Everett, who lived in the area.
  • Folks in Augusta, Maine claimed to have seen Crater eating breakfast in a diner. Subsequent police investigations revealed that they had actually seen Crater on August 1st, before his disappearance.
  • Someone claimed that Crater was hiding from the Ewald-Healey investigation at a lodge in the Adirondacks owned by Al Smith’s son-in-law Timothy Quillinan. Who didn’t own a lodge.
  • Someone else claimed he was hiding out at a house owned by fellow Justice Edward J. Glennon in Rouses Point, up by the Canadian border. Not there, either.
  • Or maybe he had fled to a secret getaway in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia which could not be reached by phone. Police could find no evidence that Crater had ever been near Cape Breton.
  • A woman boasted of having been Crater’s companion for a three-day “whoopee party” in the bridal suite of a Montreal hotel, but her story could not be corroborated.
  • He was randomly spotted being shaved by a barber in St. John, New Brunswick.
  • And of course every unclaimed corpse in the morgue was trumpeted by the papers as a possible Crater, along with every body found floating down the Hudson, East River, or Delaware. None of them were.

In the middle of all this, Stella Crater received a letter, postmarked September 4th, which contained a ransom note demanding $20,000 for the safe return of her husband. It was likely a prank or a copycat, but when she passed the note on to Crain’s grand jury they declined to investigate.

What Crain’s grand jury was interested in investigating was Stella Crater. They sent her a list of twenty nine questions they wanted answered. 

Stella’s responses were… let’s say, succinct. She claimed not to know anything about Crater’s work, her marital finances, or anything else. She openly lied, stating that Crater had never previously made trips without telling her and claiming that she had not known her husband was missing until August 25th, a solid two weeks after her first frantic call to Simon Rifkind.  She also claimed that she had not received any money since her husband’s disappearance, which wasn’t true: Rifkind had been cashing the judge’s paychecks on her behalf and had also fronted her a personal loan.

The grand jury found these answers unsatisfactory, and issued several subpoenas trying to compel Stella to testify. As a result, Stella spent the entire rest of the year up in Maine where New York subpoenas couldn’t reach her. Even Maine investigators hired by the grand jury to interview her were turned away at the front door.

Meanwhile, sightings continued to pour in from all over. He was spotted hiking in the Adirondacks and drinking at a Long Island Roadhouse. Of course, that was when he wasn’t ranging further afield in Chicago, IL; Minot, ND; Phoenix, AZ; or Los Angeles, CA. Someone even claimed to have spotted the judge boarding a tramp steamer headed for the West Indies.

The grand jury met for 45 sessions, interviewed 95 witnesses, and compiled 975 pages of detailed testimony. On November 7th they issued their final report:

Evidence is insufficient to warrant any expression of opinion as to whether Crater is alive or dead, or as to whether he has absented himself voluntarily, or is the sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of the crime.

Let’s be honest, Crain was a terrible district attorney. He had no eye for detail, left loose threads dangling, and always seemed to ask the wrong questions. On the other hand, his investigation didn’t even start until after the judge had been missing for over forty days. By that point his trail was as cold as ice and nothing could be done to warm it up.

The grand jury was kept on call until January 8th just in case there were any new breaks in the case.

There weren’t… at least, not until after January 8th.

Missing, Presumed Dead

With the threat of subpoenas hanging over her head, Stella Crater no longer had any need to hide out in Maine. She returned to New York on January 18th, 1931.

While straightening up, Stella opened a bureau drawer in the bedroom and found four manilla envelopes labeled with her initials in Joe’s handwriting. She opened them up and discovered:

  • Some $6,690 in cash, representing all of the money Joe had withdrawn from the bank on August 6th and then some.
  • Several thousand dollars in checks and stock dividends payable to Crater, including several checks from Francis Quillinan, Simon Rifkind and Senator Wagner’s law partner.
  • Four life insurance policies on the judge, totalling $30,000 — only three of which the authorities knew about.
  • Financial statements and bank passbooks.
  • A will dated July 4th, 1925, leaving everything to Stella.
  • A list of people who owed Crater money, including Frances Quillinan and Reginald Isaacs, who Crater had called on the day of his disappearance. 

There were a few handwritten notes at the end of the list of debts. “This is all confidential.” “He will pay you.” And ominously, what was either “I am very weary” or “I am very sorry.”

Stella reported her discovery to the district attorney… but not before waiting several days. She claimed that she had seen the envelopes during her last visit to the city in late August, but had not thought to open them at the time.

This was a remarkable claim. Made even more remarkable by the fact that the apartment had been searched by Leo Lowenthal on August 30th, by the police on September 4th and 8th, and by D.A. Crain on October 8th. None of them had seen the envelopes. 

Either every investigator assigned to the case was horribly incompetent, or the envelopes had been placed in the apartment sometime after October. Stella claimed that the drawer was small and easily overlooked because it was covered by a “bureau scarf.” That didn’t make the situation any better.

The presence of the missing money seemed to counter the police’s robbery theory…. That is, if the money in the envelopes was the same money Crater had withdrawn and not replacement bills hastily assembled months later.

Was the money genuine? Was it planted after the fact as a cover-up? Had Stella found these documents in August and hidden them from the police? Or were the police just incompetent? No one seemed to care enough to dig deeper.

Judge Crater remained the most famous missing person in the world. Sightings continued to pour in year after year. Crater was dancing his cares away at Lake Arrowhead. He was an amnesiac locked up in Jackson, Mississippi. He was a hobo hitching the rails, or stowing away on tramp steamers. He was a sheep farmer in Oregon. He was prospecting for gold in Alaska, Arizona or California. He was running a casino in Atlanta or North Africa. Or maybe just bartending in Mexico.

When Warner Brothers Pictures released Bureau of Missing Persons in 1933, they ran a publicity stunt where they offered to pay Crater $10,000… but only if he showed up to claim the money in person.

Pranksters would have PA systems page Judge Crater with a rejoinder to call his office. Another prankster wrote a message claiming that the judge was being held captive in Detroit, stuffed it into a bottle, and threw it into Lake Erie. The giveaway was that it was written on a playing card — the joker, naturally.

Stella Crater eventually married Carl Kunz in 1938, which made her a bigamist as Joe Crater would not be declared legally dead until 1939. That allowed Stella to collect on Joe’s insurance policies, though she had to post a $23,000 bond just in case he ever turned up out of the blue. In 1961 she published her own account of the affair, The Empty Robe, which was entirely self-serving and somewhat less than edifying. She died in 1969.

The New York City Police Department spent close to a million dollars trying to find Crater over the years. They officially closed his missing persons case file in 1979, and continued to receive reports of sightings well into the 1980s.

Judge Joseph Force Crater is still missing.

Running down the Theories

We’ll never know what really happened to Crater, but we can go over all the leading theories.

Amnesia

One of the popular theories at the time was that Crater had lost his memory thanks to a bonk on the head and was wandering the country as an amnesiac. To people who like this theory I say: that’s not how amnesia works. You watch too many movies.

Ran Away with a Lover

Another popular theory was that the judge had run away to start a new life with one of his mistresses. This theory was bolstered by the fact that the police were initially unable to track down many of these mistresses, leading to rumors that they, too, had mysteriously vanished. 

Unfortunately for this theory, most of those mistresses were eventually accounted for. Elaine Dawn had checked herself into a hospital shortly after Crater’s disappearance. June Brice had been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. Connie Marcus had left the city after the news broke, but was eventually found. 

Also, fans of this theory can never seem to explain what was so compelling about Crater’s mistress that he was willing to abandon his hard-won position and carefully constructed life for her. As opposed to, say, kicking his wife to the curb.

Heart Attack

Former madam Polly Adler once claimed that Crater had a fatal heart attack while cavorting with one of her prostitutes. Rather than call the cops, she had some of her “business partners” in the Mob dump the body in the Hudson.

It seems unlikely that Crater would need the services of a prostitute, but people have done stranger things. It also seems very strange that Polly Adler did not see fit to put this theory into print. There’s only a passing mention of Crater in her 1953 memoir A House is Not A Home and it doesn’t mention anything about the heart attack.

Could Crater have had a heart attack? Sure, he was hardly the picture of health. But it’s also just as likely this was a story concocted by an aging madam to try and stretch out her time in the spotlight.

Murdered by a Jealous Boyfriend

Another theory is that Crater was murdered by a jealous lover of one of his mistresses. Frequently the jealous lover is one of the mobsters who hung around the Club Abbey, usually “Legs” Diamond. This theory has some appeal but doesn’t explain why no trace of the Judge was ever found.

In the 1950s, retired butcher Henry Krauss began claiming that he used to lease his Bronxville house to politicians for their flings. After he rented it to Crater in August 1930, he found the place “full of blood” which he quietly cleaned up. Krauss could never answer why he had waited over twenty years to make this information public. His claims were enough to convince several retired NYPD detectives and amateur investigators, but no serious investigation of Krauss’s residence was ever made.

I say no serious investigation because in 1959 Dutch psychic Gerard Croiset claimed to detect “emanations” from Crater’s body in Krauss’s backyard, which was dug up to reveal… nothing. Five years later more “emanations” led Croiset to a highway berm in Yonkers, to much the same effect.

In any case, this theory seems possible but not provable.

Murdered by a Blackmailer

It’s sometimes claimed that Crater was being blackmailed by either one of his former mistresses, or her mobbed-up lover, who murdered him when he refused to pay up. Proponents of this theory seem to not understand how extortion works — yes, it’s bad when your mark won’t pay up. On the other hand, it’s even worse when your mark is dead and can’t pay up.

Of course, if Crater wasn’t going to pay up, why was he emptying his bank accounts? And why would a mafioso shake down Crater for mere money? Wouldn’t it be far better to have a corrupt Supreme Court justice in your pocket?

Murdered by Kidnappers

In the 1950s convict Harry Klein claimed that he and “Chowderhead” Cohen had kidnapped Crater outside of the chophouse, whisked him away to Philadelphia and held him for ransom in a warehouse at Walnut and Seventh. Crater refused to pay, and with the cops closing in on the “Boo Boo” Hoff mob the two kidnappers shot the judge in the head and dumped his body where no one would find it.

Needless to say, there are some enormous problems with this theory. First, no serious ransom note was ever discovered. Second, the warehouse wasn’t exactly in some remote location; it was right on Washington Square, and near the very busy offices of the Curtis Publishing Company. And finally, consider the source — a mobster on death row, trying to escape the chair.

This one just doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Robbery-Murder

In the initial investigation, the police’s operating theory was that Crater had been murdered for the thousands of dollars in cash he was carrying around. That theory was destroyed when the money turned up months later in his dresser drawer. Then again, that assumes the money Stella found was the same money that Crater had withdrawn…

It’s still entirely possible he was shot by a crook for far less money, though that wouldn’t explain why no one ever found a body.

Murdered by Tammany Hall

Now let’s get to the juicy conspiracy stuff.

One of the leading theories was that Crater’s disappearance had something to do with the ongoing probes into the Ewald-Healey affair. It seems likely that the judge knew something — he was the president of Healey’s branch of Tammany Hall, after all. His trip to Atlantic City in late July was apparently all about Ewald-Healey. Some of the papers he destroyed at his office were apparently about Tammany Hall business, which may have also been the case for the papers that disappeared from his apartment.

In this version of events, Crater left town voluntarily to avoid testifying in the corruption probe. That would explain some of the personal checks he wrote to himself, and why he left personally identifying items like his fountain pen and his watch behind.

Two problems. 

First, Crain’s grand jury investigation was toothless and everyone knew it, so there was very little reason for Crater to skip town to avoid it. He might have reason to try and avoid testifying before the Hofstadter Committee — but that was empaneled some six weeks after his disappearance.

And second, why did Crater stay dropped out of sight? He only had $5,000 on him. That was a lot of money but not enough to live off of indefinitely, especially if you were used to a high-class standard of living like Joe Crater.

Okay, then, maybe he was murdered by Tammany Hall to keep him quiet, not only about Ewald-Healey but also about the organization’s ties to the mob. It wasn’t without precedent. In 1931 Tammany Hall figures, including Mayor Jimmy Walker, were implicated in the murder of prostitute and extortionist Vivian Gordon, who was scheduled to testify before the Hofstadter Committee.

But again, this makes no sense. Gordon’s murder backfired and wound up exposing the corruption it was supposed to cover up. And who was Crater being murdered to protect? Martin Healey? You don’t murder a big fry to protect a small fry.

Murdered by FDR

But what if Crater had been murdered to protect a bigger fry?

The Republican candidate in New York’s 1930 gubernatorial election, Charles Tuttle, suggested that Crater had purchased his Supreme Court seat from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The money Crater had taken out of the bank was the final installment in FDR’s payoff.

Tuttle stopped short of suggesting that FDR had Crater killed to silence him. After all, that would be libelous. But he seemed perfectly willing to imply it.

The Roosevelts did plenty of shady stuff, but it seems hard to believe they were involved here. After all, Roosevelt was the one who empaneled the Hofstadter Committee to take down Tammany Hall, something he wouldn’t have done if he thought it would blow back on him.

Murdered by Stella Crater

In his later years, Thomas Crain claimed that the reason he couldn’t find any evidence in New York was that Crater had returned to Maine and had been murdered there. The strong implication was that the judge had been murdered by his own wife.

It’s more likely than it sounds. Stella Crater behaved very suspiciously and actively avoided cooperating with Crain’s grand jury. Her own memoir is filled with self-serving lies and omissions. She misrepresented how she first met Joe Crater. She lied about his extramarital affairs. She made contradictory assertions, like she knew nothing about their finances, but could assure you that they were all above-board.

A key figure in this theory is one of Crater’s mistresses, Constance Braemer Marcus. She had met Joe when she was working for Tammany’s Cayuga Club, and hired him to finalize her divorce. They then started a long-term affair. Crater regularly sent Marcus money, including a $90 check he wrote shortly before his disappearance.

This would have felt very familiar to Stella, because it was almost exactly how she and Joe first met. She had hired Joe to procure a divorce from her first husband, started an affair with him, and then married him five years later. Did Stella murder her husband, suspecting he was about to leave her for a younger woman?

It all sounds good to me. Though again, totally unprovable.

Suicide

Or maybe Joe Crater took his own life. 

The judge spent his last several days on Earth putting all of his business affairs and finances in order. And he had signed his final letter to Stella with “I am very sorry” or the ominous-sounding “I am very weary.” These sound like the acts of someone preparing for his own death.

Friends didn’t think it was possible. After all, he seemed so jovial and high-spirited in his final days. But who can really know the mind of another?

Once again, though, this theory doesn’t explain why Crater’s body was never found. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of cleaning up your affairs for your loved ones, you would probably also want to leave them a nice presentable corpse to bury.

Murdered by Corrupt Cops

For years, those were all the main theories about the death or disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater.

Then, on April 2 2005, 91 year-old Stella Ferrucci-Good died in Queens, New York. Among her effects granddaughter Barbara O’Brien discovered a letter written by her grandfather, former parks department supervisor Robert Good, with the ominous label “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL MY DEATH.” 

Inside was a brief letter purporting to tell the story of Crater’s death: After Crater left Billy Haas’s Chophouse, he was picked up by a cab driven by one Frankie Burns, who then picked up two unnamed men. They then drove to Coney Island, where the unnamed men shot Crater and buried him under the boardwalk near West 8th Street. Good had heard the story while out drinking with Frankie’s brother Charles, a former NYPD police officer.

Shocking if true. And also riddled with problems.

First off, it’s third-hand evidence. Good heard the story from Charles Burns who heard it from Frank Burns. Who knows what changed in the telling?

Also, why did Good feel this was so damning it needed to be hidden for years? Maybe he was afraid of Charles Burns, who was notoriously corrupt. Notably, Burns had been one of the policemen guarding Murder, Inc. hitman Abe “Kid Twist” Reles when he was set to testify against his boss, Albert Anastasia. And then somehow fell from a sixth floor window. It was common knowledge his bodyguards had been paid off, but nothing could be proven.

Even so, why would Good be afraid? The letter doesn’t implicate Charles Burns at all, and Frankie Burns is at best an accessory to murder. The real killers are the two unnamed men, whose motives aren’t explained.

Also, there was the matter of the burial site. That whole section of the Coney Island boardwalk was torn up in the late 1950s to build the New York Aquarium, and there’s no record of bodies being discovered during the construction process. There are articles online that claim skeletons were uncovered and quietly moved to a potter’s field without alerting the public. These articles don’t provide any references, though.

The Ferrucci-Good letter is an interesting coda to the story that doesn’t actually answer any questions. There’s no way to verify its contents, unless you want to dig up every mass grave on Hart Island and start DNA testing all the remains.

Conclusions

At this point, we’ll never know what happened to Judge Joseph Force Crater. After almost a century every trail has gone cold, all of the witnesses have died, and all of the physical evidence has crumbled to dust. For all we know, Joe Crater is still out there somewhere.

He’d be 132 years old, but stranger things have happened.

Judge Joseph Force Crater

Connections

You know who else was a solid Tammany Hall man? The world’s greatest salesman and gourmand, Diamond Jim Brady. We discussed Brady’s life in Series 6’s “He Could Eat It All.”

Sources

  • Adler, Polly. A House is Not a Home. New York: Rinehart, 1953.
  • Crater, Stella Wheeler and Fraley, Oscar. The Empty Robe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.
  • Philbin, Tom. The Killer Book of Cold Cases. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2012.
  • Pruitt, Sarah. Vanished! America’s Most Mysterious Kidnappings, Castaways, and the Forever Lost. Guildfort, CT: Lyons Press, 2018.
  • Sullivan, Robert (ed). The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of All Time. Des Moines: LIFE Books, 2009.
  • Tofel, Richard J. Vanishing Point. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.
  • Leyra, Camilo Weston with Gehrman, Richard. “How Judge Crater Was Murdered.” American Weekly, 23 Sep 1956.
  • Schteir, Rachael. “The Dead Woman Who Brought Down the Mayor.” Smithsonian, 25 Feb 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-dead-woman-who-brought-down-the-mayor-27003776/ Accessed 3/8/2021.
  • “Girl to prove Crater slain, says lawyer.” New York Daily News, 3 Jan 1940.
  • “Agree on $20,561 Crater insurance.” New York Daily News, 11 Jan 1940.
  • Allyn van Winkle, G. “Sheriff digging in N.E. Yonkers in hunt for Judge Crater remains.” Yonkers (NY) Herald-Statesman, 25 Jun 1964.
  • Sosin, Milt and Jaediker, Kermit. “‘I see her in a woods.'” New York Daily News, 11 May 1975.
  • Green, Al. “Middletown sleuth sought Crater clues.” Middletown (NY) Times Herald Record, 26 Jul 1976.
  • Mastrangelo, Joseph P. “Judge Crater, 48 years after the taxi ride.” Washington Post, 6 Aug 1978.
  • Gendar, Alison and Standora, Leo. “Judge Crater found?” New York Daily News, 19 Aug 2005.
  • White, Mike and Gendar, Alison. “Crater bombshell or just tall tale?” New York Daily News, 20 Aug 2005.

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