JUDGE CRATER --
Perhaps no disappearance in American history has created as much speculation as that of New York Supreme Court associate justice Joseph F. Crater. For many years, he was known simply as “the most missingest man in New York”. He was last seen on the evening of August 6, 1930, walking out of a New York restaurant. Crater was a tall, heavyset man and an avowed clothes horse. He was especially dapper that evening as he stepped out of the restaurant, waved goodbye to a couple of friends and then climbed into a taxicab. His friends would remember his double-breasted brown suit, gray spats and high collar for it was the last suit they ever saw him wear. After that final glimpse, Crater was never seen again. But how was it possible for a man as powerful and prominent as a Supreme Court judge to disappear forever?
Judge Crater’s career was unquestionably successful. He was born and raised in Easton, Pennsylvania and later graduated from Lafayette College and the Columbia University Law School. In 1913, he began practicing law in New York and got mixed up in local politics. He soon became president of the Democratic Party club in Manhattan and saw his law practice flourish thanks to his connections to the corrupt Democratic leadership at Tammany Hall. In April 1930, he was appointed to the New York Supreme Court. He had withdrawn $20,000 from the bank just days before his appointment. The sum was close to a year’s salary but was the standard Tammany payoff for the lucrative post. It was not a poor investment either, according to investigators who later looked into his role as a receiver of a bankrupt hotel. Crater sold it to bond and mortgage firm for $75,000 and two months later, the city agreed to buy it back for a planned street widening for a condemned property price of almost $3 million.
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.
In the summer of 1930, Judge Crater and his wife were vacationing at their summer cabin at Belgrade Lakes, Maine. In late July, he received a telephone call and he offered no information to his wife about the content of the call, other than to say that he had to return to the city “to straighten those fellows out.” The following day, he arrived at his Fifth Avenue apartment but instead of dealing with business, he made a trip to Atlantic City in the company of a showgirl instead. On August 3, he was back in New York and on the morning of August 6, he spent two hours going through his files in his courthouse chambers. He then had his assistant, Joseph Mara, cash two checks for him that amounted to $5,150. At noon, he and Mara carried two locked briefcases to his apartment and he let Mara take the rest of the day off.
Later that evening, Crater went to a Broadway ticket agency and purchased one seat for a comedy that was playing that night called Dancing Partners at the Belasco Theater. He then went to Billy Haas’ chophouse on West 45th Street for dinner. Here, he ran into two friends, a fellow attorney and his showgirl date, and he joined them for dinner. The lawyer later told investigators that Crater was in a good mood that evening and gave no indication that anything was bothering him. The dinner ended a little after 9:00 (a short time after the curtain had opened for the show that Crater had a ticket for) and the small group went outside. As mentioned already, Crater waved goodbye to his friends and then entered a cruising taxi that he hailed down. His next, and likely final location, remains a mystery.
Strangely, there was no immediate reaction to Judge Crater’s disappearance. When he did not return to Maine for 10 days, his wife began making calls to their friends in New York, asking if anyone might have seen him. Only when he failed to appear for the opening of the courts on August 25 did his fellow justices become alarmed. They started a private search but failed to find any trace of him. The police were finally notified on September 3 and after that, the missing judge was front-page news.
The story captivated the nation and a massive investigation was launched. Had Crater been killed, or had he simply disappeared on his own? That was the question that everyone wanted the answers to, from police detectives to shady business partners to the average man on the street. The official investigations started off with a bang, but quickly slowed down. Detectives discovered that the judge’s safe-deposit box had been cleaned out and the two briefcases that Crater and his assistant had taken to his apartment were missing. These promising leads were quickly bogged down by the thousands of false reports that were coming in from people who claimed to have seen the missing man.
In October, a grand jury began looking into the case and ended up calling 95 witnesses and amassing 975 pages of testimony. After all of that, the conclusion was: “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 the sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of crime.”
The investigation was at a standstill and most assumed that the judge had ducked out just one step ahead of someone who was looking for him. For decades after his disappearance, his name was a slang term for dodging one’s responsibilities and “to pull a Crater” was to slip away permanently. But if the judge did go into hiding with a trunk load of cash, how do we explain what Sally Crater discovered in her apartment in January 1931? Hidden in a bureau, she found several uncashed checks, stocks, bonds, three life insurance policies and a note from Judge Crater himself. The note listed his financial assets and then added: “I am very whary (weary). Joe.” If the judge had simply run off, wouldn’t he have cashed these checks and have cashed in the stocks? And why would he have made his disappearance seem like a man who was depressed was carrying it out?
Better yet, why would he disappear at all?
There have been many theories put forward to answer the mystery of Judge Crater. Mrs. Crater and many of his close friends believed that he was the victim of foul play. Sally Crater stated that he was murdered “because of something sinister connected to politics”. And she may have been right given his involvement in bribery, back door dealing with Tammany Hall politics and questionable real estate deals. She also did not believe that the judge would have voluntarily vanished. “Joe Crater would not run away from anybody but would meet his problems directly, whatever they were.”
In 1937, Mrs. Crater sued the three insurance companies for double indemnity on her husband’s life insurance policies. During the trial, her attorney, Emil K. Ellis, advanced her murder theory, but left politics out of the mix. He claimed that Judge Crater had been blackmailed by a Broadway showgirl and had cashed the checks for $5,150 to pay her off. When she demanded more money and Crater refused to pay it, a gangster friend of the showgirl had killed him, perhaps accidentally. The attorney’s theories did not impress the court and they denied the double indemnity claims.
On June 6, 1939, Judge Crater was officially declared dead but sightings continued for years, as did the theories as to what happened to him. Possible exits of the judge have included his murder by political cronies just before he could testify against them in a graft investigation and a cover-up of his death in the arms of his mistress or a prostitute. Some believe he was killed in a dispute over a pay-off or that he decided to drop out and start a new life in Quebec, Europe or the Caribbean.
One thing that is sure is that it’s unlikely we’ll ever really know what happened to the “missingest man in New York”.
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© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.