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“The Missingest Man in New York”

“Good Time Joe” Crater was a dapper 41-year-old judge known for his dalliances with showgirls and his ties to corruption-ridden Tammany Hall – until he got into a cab in Midtown one evening in 1930 and disappeared, earning the title of “the Missingest man in New York.”

Long before there was Jimmy Hoffa, before there was even Amelia Earhart, another VIP vanished without a trace. Though you’ve probably never heard of him, he was a household name to your parents and grandparents. And his disappearance remains New York City’s oldest unsolved Missing Persons case.

The disappearance of New York Supreme Court judge Joseph Force Crater captured so much media attention that the phrase “pulling a Crater” briefly entered the public vernacular as a synonym for going AWOL. On August 6, 1930, the dapper 41-year-old left his office and dined with an acquaintance at a Manhattan chophouse. He was last seen walking down the street outside the restaurant. The massive investigation into his disappearance captivated the nation.

Crater was infamous for his shady dealings with the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine and frequent dalliances with showgirls. In the days leading up to his disappearance, he had reportedly received a mysterious phone call and cashed two large personal checks. These details spawned rampant speculation that the judge had been a victim of foul play.

Getting your hands on an intercom so you could say, “Judge Crater, call your office” used to be quite the thing to do. The vanishing of Joseph Force Crater is one of the largest missing person cases in U.S. history. It was one of the biggest news stories of the 1930s, and it’s fueled decades of speculation about what exactly happened to the vanished New York State Supreme Court justice.

Every Aug. 6 for more than three decades, an attractive older woman entered a Greenwich Village bar, a place that had been a restaurant back in the Jazz Age. She sat alone in a booth and ordered two cocktails. She raised one, murmured, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.” She drank it slowly, rose and walked out, leaving the other drink untouched.

Thus Stella Crater mourned her vanished husband, Justice Joseph Force Crater, who became famous on Aug. 6, 1930, when he, as the Daily News later said, “disappeared efficiently, completely, and forever.”

Born to Irish immigrants in Easton, PA, in 1889, Joe Crater worked his way through Lafayette College and Columbia Law School. He opened his office at 120 Broadway (the Equitable Bldg., a huge white marble pile that was once the largest office building in the world) and joined the Cayuga Democratic Club, the power base of Tammany district leader Martin Healy, where Crater spent thousands of hours organizing election workers and representing the club in election law cases. Crater did just as well in his private life. In 1916, a woman named Stella Wheeler retained him in a divorce trial and the next year, right after her divorce became final, Stella married her attorney. By all accounts, they appeared to be a happy and devoted couple.

Mrs Carl Kunz formerly Mrs. Joseph F. Crater at home in Belgrade Lakes

On the surface, Judge Joseph Crater didn’t fit the profile of someone likely to get swept up in controversy. Until you took a close look at him. One biographer described Crater as four personalities rolled into one, “a jurist, a professor, a Tammany Hall stalwart and a family man.” He could have added a fifth: a party boy known as “Good Time Joe” who secretly had a thing for hard liquor (during Prohibition no less) and sexy showgirls.

New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt appointed Crater to the state Supreme Court in April 1930. He was 41, married and, apart from being an unusually spiffy dresser, personified a prominent judge.

State Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner Sr., who became a United States senator in 1926, appointed Crater his secretary in 1920. Joe was also an adjunct professor at Fordham and New York University law schools. But most of his income came from his law practice, which was enriched by his political connections. At first, he received the usual minor appointments from the courts: receiverships, refereeships, guardianships. Over time, Crater’s pieces of pie were cut large. In February 1929, he was appointed the receiver in foreclosure of the Libby Hotel. Four months later, the hotel was auctioned for $75,000 to the American Mortgage Loan Co. Two months after that, the City of New York condemned the hotel, paying American Mortgage Loan $2,850,000?a profit of $2,775,000 on its two months’ investment of $75,000. Some cynics suggested American Mortgage Loan’s managers knew about the city’s plans before buying the building.

Crater could afford a new apartment: a two-bedroom cooperative at 40 5th Ave. He became president of the Cayuga Club and Martin Healy’s right-hand man. And on April 8, 1930, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to a vacancy on the state Supreme Court (among New York state courts, the Supreme Court is actually the lowest court, comparable to superior courts in other states). Politics had everything to do with it. So did ability: even the respectables at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York supported Joe’s appointment.

He was 41 years old, young for a Supreme Court justice in New York. Crater was a well-tailored 185-pound 6-footer, with fleshy features and slicked-down iron-gray hair that made him seem older than he was. He was a fine pianist, a good dancer and liked theatre.

In many regards, he embodied the Jazz Age. He was a sharp, ambitious Manhattan lawyer, a friend of stage celebrities, a fashionable dresser, a familiar face at Broadway theatres, and a man of valuable, helpful connections. His rise in New York politics surprised many, but his departure was even more stunning.

His name became a punch line that guaranteed laughs for comics: “Judge Crater, call your office.”

Fast forward to Summer 1930. Crater and wife Stella were vacationing at their summer cabin in Maine. One day he got a phone call that obviously troubled him. Although Stella didn’t hear what was discussed, Crater left on August 3, saying he had to return to New York “to straighten those people out.” He promised to be back by Stella’s birthday on August 9 (he had already ordered her gift – a canoe). Stella said he was upbeat and behaving normally when he boarded a train Sunday night.

Crater arrived in the Big Apple on Monday morning August 4, just in time for the start of a brutal heat wave. He went straight to his Fifth Avenue apartment, where he told the maid to take the next few days off, adding to be sure to return on the 7th when he would head back to Maine. That night he took in a show, then had drinks at a popular hangout for gangsters and Tammany Hall politicians. Tuesday he lunched with two fellow judges.

Which brings us to Wednesday, August 6.

Crater went to his courthouse office and pawed through records. He asked an assistant to cash two checks for him (from closed stock accounts he said) totalling more than $5,100 (almost $75,000 in today’s dollars). At noon he told the assistant to leave early, then headed home with the cash and several files tucked inside two locked briefcases.

Crater looked snazzy when he left his apartment that evening decked out in a brown pinstripe suit with grey spots and a straw Panama hat. “Good Time Joe” was ready for a night on the town.

Joining him at Billy Haas’ Chophouse on West 54th were a lawyer friend and Crater’s secret girlfriend, showgirl Sally Lou Ritz. The couple shared lobster cocktails and cold chicken. Both of Crater’s companions later said nothing seemed amiss.

After dinner, Judge Crater crawled into a taxi around 9:30 p.m. He waved goodbye – and was never seen again.

Crater had reserved a single ticket for that night’s late performance of a new show called “Dancing Partner.” Someone picked it up, but nobody recalled seeing Crater at the theatre.

On the record, no one saw Joe Crater again.

Someone called for the ticket at the Belasco’s box office. No one knows if that person was Crater.

At first, Stella had been miffed that he had missed her birthday but thought he had been detained on political or legal business. His friends and colleagues thought he was in Maine. After a week, though, she began telephoning his friends in New York such as Simon Rifkind, who had succeeded him as Wagner’s secretary. Rifkind reassured her that everything was all right, that the judge would eventually turn up.

Back in Maine, August 9 came and went. Stella naturally grew increasingly worried. No-one, had seen the judge for several days, they all said, but don’t worry.

By the 16th Stella couldn’t wait any longer. She sent her chauffeur to look for her husband. Returning to Maine a few days later, he reported the judge’s clothes and luggage were in their apartment. Nothing was missing, and nobody knew anything.

The Supreme Court opened on Aug. 25. Justice Louis Valente telephoned from New York to ask whether Joe was still in Maine. His fellow justices arranged a discreet inquiry.

Stella finally called the New York Police Department on September 3. Missing Persons file #13595 was opened, the story became front-page news from coast to coast, and the country went Crater Crazy.

What was called the largest manhunt since the search for John Wilkes Booth was launched. A $5,000 reward was offered. Cops soon had their hands’ full fielding more than 16,000 tips.

Joe Crater became front-page news, with the tabloids suggesting he had been murdered, had vanished with a showgirl mistress or disappeared to avoid the Healy scandal.

In October 1930, District Attorney Crain empanelled a grand jury to dig into bankbooks, telephone records and safety deposit boxes. None of those inquiries led anywhere. Mrs Crater, bewildered by her husband’s disappearance, revolted by the sensational press coverage and enraged by Crain’s suggestions that she knew of her husband’s whereabouts, refused to go before the grand jury and remained in Maine, outside his jurisdiction.

The grand jury was dismissed on Jan. 9, 1931, after hearing hundreds of witnesses and taking 2000 pages of testimony, concluding: “The 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 a sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of a crime.”

The police investigation revealed that Crater had been on more than cordial terms with a number of chorus girls, and less glamorous women such as Vivian Gordan, a “madam” later killed by gangland assassins.

Judge Crater’s disappearance became national news and led to a gigantic investigation. As the police waded through information and thousands of false sightings, they quickly learned that there was more to the story than met the eye. Layers of the Judge’s life were peeled back, revealing numerous strange facts.

  • The Affair: Judge Crater was having an affair with Sally Lou Ritz, a showgirl. After he received the mysterious phone call in July, he returned to New York, supposedly “to straighten those fellows out.” Instead, he took Sally on a trip to Atlantic City. Later, Sally was of the last two people, along with the Judge’s lawyer, to see him alive.
  • The Money: On August 6, just hours before his disappearance, Judge Crater asked his assistant to cash two checks totalling $5,150. He also removed $20,000 from campaign funds, close to a year’s salary. They proceeded to carry the cash in locked briefcases to the Judge’s apartment. Afterwards, the Judge gave his assistant the rest of the day off.
  • The Missing Safety Deposit Box: During the course of the investigation, the cops learned that Judge Crater had emptied his safety deposit box prior to going missing.

Mrs Crater then returned to 40 5th Ave. on Jan. 18. Three days later, while going through her dresser, she found four manila envelopes in a hidden drawer containing his will, which left everything to her, plus $6619 in cash, several checks, life insurance policies worth $30,000 and a three-page note, listing 20 companies or persons who supposedly owed the judge money. On the bottom of the list was penned a note: “Am very weary. Love, Joe.”

The police had already searched the apartment several times, and, although Mrs Crater insisted that they could not have searched the hidden drawer that held the newly discovered documents, this incident merely deepened the mystery.

The investigation lasted for years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some said he was the victim of amnesia, while a few concluded that he had simply run away with a secret lover. Other theories linked the judge’s fate to organised crime. Crater had known Arnold Rothstein, the man believed to have fixed the 1919 World Series, and other criminals. Perhaps he had known too much about something or other and had to be silenced; some whispered that Jack “Legs” Diamond had done the job and buried the body in the sub-basement of the Diamond-controlled Peter Barmann Brewery in Kingston, NY.

No one ever found anything illegal in Crater’s role as receiver of the Libby Hotel. Yet some persisted in believing some party to the transaction had not received his share of the profits and had taken it out on Joe. Others thought he was abducted and slain by a criminal gang disappointed with one of his rulings. A few thought he had been murdered by some stickup man who had successfully disposed of the remains.

Long after he went missing, Judge Crater’s former wife still insisted that the search should continue. To this day, however, the case remains unsolved. Did Judge Crater plot his own disappearance, fearing that he would be indicted for corruption within the Cayuga Democratic Club, of which he had been president? Was he killed by mobsters?

Crater was spotted panning for gold in California, detained in a Missouri mental hospital, herding sheep out West, shooting dice in Atlanta and running a bingo hall in North Africa.

One newspaper scooped its competitors by announcing Crater had been discovered. Except he hadn’t.

Police detectives got busy, and what they turned up astonished even jaded New Yorkers.

It was learned that a few weeks after his April appointment to the bench, Crater had withdrawn $20,000 from his campaign bank account (worth $300,000 today). But investigators never found where that money went.

Then there where the mistresses. (Note the plural.) Besides Sally Lou, Crater was also involved with showgirl June Brice.

Most intriguing of all his liaisons was the expensive prostitute Vivian Gordon. Some ofNew York’s most influential businessmen were said to be among her clients. (Furious over a court order the following year that denied her custody of her daughter, Vivianretaliated by telling investigators every dirty detail she knew about public corruption. Five days later, a worker discovered her beaten and strangled body in Van Courtland Park.)

So, just what happened to Judge Crater? Nobody knows for sure, though conspiracy theorists offered explanations by the bushel:

* Crater had paid-off crooked Tammany Hall pals for his seat on the bench. When the machine bosses demanded still more money, Crater refused and was eliminated;

* Crater had amnesia;

* Franklin Roosevelt, already eyeing a White House run in 1932, had second thoughts about Crater and wanted him out of the picture;

* Crater ran off to Canada (or Europe or South America or almost any exotic locale of your choice) with yet another hush-hush girlfriend;

* and the perennial answer to almost every unsolved crime in Gotham … gangsters rubbed him out.

One thing is certain: the New York City Police Department officially closed the Crater case in 1979.

Political Victim: The Judge’s wife believed that he was murdered “because of something sinister connected to politics.” Also, there were many rumours at the time of a pending legal scandal. It should be noted that Judge Crater was deeply involved in the machinations of the Tammany Hall political machine.

Lover’s Quarrel: This theory, advanced by Mrs Crater’s attorney, indicated that the Judge was being blackmailed by a showgirl. The Judge refused to pay her off and was killed for his troubles.

The Wife: Over the years, many have viewed Mrs Crater with suspicion. The Judge was obviously cheating on her. Also, the fact that she didn’t involve the police until four weeks had gone by is somewhat strange.

Extended Vacation: Some think that the Judge skipped town and resettled elsewhere under a different name in order to live with another lover or to avoid a scandal.

Murder by Madam: In his book, Vanishing Point, Richard Tofel makes the argument that the Judge ended August 6 in a well-known brothel run by a woman named Polly Adler. Polly later wrote a popular book about her life as a madam. According to Tofel’s research, early drafts of the book stated that Judge Crater died of natural causes while in her brothel and that she had his body removed to an unknown location. While this is an interesting possibility, it should be noted that these early drafts have yet to be found.

Attention in it briefly revived in 2005. When a 91-year-old Queens woman died that April, her granddaughter found an envelope inscribed, “Do Not Open Until After My Death”. It contained a letter saying the woman’s husband, who had been a New York cop, and his cabbie brother were involved in Crater’s death. (The judge was last seen getting into a taxi cab, remember.)

It’s a handwritten letter in an envelope marked “Do not open until my death” that her granddaughter Barbara O’Brien found in a metal box in her grandmother’s home, the sources said.

The metal box also contained yellowed clippings about Crater’s disappearance, with scribbled notations in the margins.

On August 19, 2005, the handwritten note was discovered in a metal box after the death of a seemingly random woman named Stella Ferrucci-Good. The letter claimed that Judge Crater was murdered by three men: Robert Good and two brothers named Charles and Frank Burns. Robert Good was a Parks Department supervisor and Stella’s late husband. Charles was a New York police officer and Frank was a cab driver. While she didn’t mention a motive, she did state that the three men supposedly buried Judge Crater’s body under the boardwalk in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

In the mid-1950’s, the boardwalk had been torn up and the New York Aquarium built in its place. Unsubstantiated reports indicate that the remains of five bodies were found at the time. These skeletons were later interred in a mass potter’s grave on Hart Island.

Interest surged in the cold case. But the excitement quickly died off. The police were skeptical of Stella’s claim. And unfortunately, there was no way to substantiate it. Even if bones had been recovered from under the boardwalk, it would take a miracle to find them. It would take an even greater miracle to identify them, given that Crater has no living direct relatives from which to extract DNA.

In her letter, Ferrucci-Good also claimed that Officer Burns was one of the cops guarding notorious Murder Inc. killer Abe “Kid Twist” Reles when he somehow plummeted to his death from the sixth-floor window of a Coney Island hotel in 1941.

Reles had become a mob informant to escape the electric chair, testifying against a slew of Murder Inc. (search) killers. His suspicious death plunge came just hours before he was due to rat out mob boss Albert Anastasia (search).

O’Brien’s father, William St. George, said the police told family members that five bodies were found when the aquarium was built. Police sources confirmed that skeletal remains had been found there in the mid-1950s. They said those remains are now being examined to see if they can be linked to Crater.

Police sources also confirmed that a police officer named Charles Burns served with the NYPD from 1926 to 1946, and that he spent part of his career assigned to the 60th Precinct in Coney Island.

O’Brien, who lives in Valley Stream, N.Y., doesn’t know what to make of the letter and its claims.

When she found it, she said, “I thought it was a joke and I laughed and I gave it to police.”

“I don’t know if it’s fact or fiction,” she said or to say anything more about it.

But “the police were very interested in it,” her father noted.

That aquarium site had been excavated during the construction of the New York Aquarium in the 1950s, long before technology existed to detect and identify human remains. As a result, the question of whether or not Judge Crater sleeps with the fishes remains a mystery.

Crater’s disappearance was big news at the time. For years, comics could get laughs by saying, “Judge Crater, call your office!” (When one joke bombed particularly badly, Groucho Marx recovered by saying, “I’m going outside to look for Judge Crater.”)

When Lyndon Johnson sank into public obscurity as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, New Frontiersmen sneeringly called him “Judge Crater” behind his back. In fact, for many decades “pulling a Crater” described someone who disappeared.

As for the Widow Crater, Stella fell on hard times. Without the judge’s fat salary, she was forced out of their Fifth Avenue apartment. When she asked a court to declare Crater dead in 1937, she was reportedly living on $12 a week as a phone operator.

She married an electrical contractor in 1938. Crater was finally declared dead the next year, clearing the way for Stella to receive his $20,561 life insurance payout. She and Husband #2 separated in 1950.

For the rest of her life, Stella went to a small Greenwich Village bar every year on August 6, the anniversary of Crater’s disappearance. She would order two drinks, lift one and say, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.”

For decades, Judge Crater’s disappearance was one of the most famous unsolved disappearances in American history. Indeed, he was as well-known as Amelia Earhart or Glenn Miller. The term “to pull a Crater” became an established expression. “Judge Crater, call your office,” became a national punchline.

Judge Crater Disappearance Possibly Solved: Fox News


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