I wish I owned a time machine. The first place and time I would visit would be West 45th street, in Manhattan, just after 9:00 PM on the night of August 6, 1930. With a little luck I would have seen a dapper, middle aged man, six feet tall, about 180 pounds, wearing a dark brown double-breasted coat and matching trousers, a bow tie, a Masonic ring and a gold wristwatch, a pair of pearl-gray pinstriped spats and all set off by straw panama hat, tipped at a jaunty angle. I would see him stepping into a cab outside of Billy Haas’ Chophouse, where he had just eaten dinner with friends. Given the chance I would get close enough to get a look at the cab driver’s face. Because if the driver was who I think he was, then the passenger would be the newly appointed New York State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater. And after that cab pulled into the New York night, he dropped off the face of the earth.
Judge Crater was, until Jimmy Hoffa, “the missing-est man in America”. One biographer has described him as a man with multiple personalities: “A jurist, a professor, a Tammany Hall stalwart, and a family man.” He was also “Good Time Joe”, with a penchant for liquor and lovely available showgirls. After he disappeared rumors said he had committed suicide or (more likely) run off with a show girl, or that he had died in bed with a prostitute or was killed for reneging on a debt. He was reported seen prospecting for gold in California, shooting craps in Atlanta, on a steamer in the Adriatic and running a bingo game in North Africa. But for all the hoopla over his disappearance, nobody even reported him missing for three weeks.
The judge had left his wife Stella on Sunday August 3, at their summer cabin in Maine. He told her he was going back to the city for a day or two to “straighten those fellows out”, but he promised to be back in Maine by August 9, her birthday. In fact he had already ordered her present, a new canoe. He took the overnight train to New York City, arriving on the morning of Monday, August 4, 1930 at Grand Central Station, just in time for the start of a heat wave of ninety plus temperatures.
Joe went immediately to their two bedroom co-op at 40 Fifth Avenue where he cleaned up and told the maid she could take a few days off, but to return on Thursday, August 7 to clean up after he had left again for Maine. That night Crater took in a show and had dinner at the Abbey Club, a notorious gangster and Tammany Hall hangout. On Tuesday he lunched with two judges he would serve with on the appeals court and in the evening he played poker with friends.
And on Wednesday, August 6, his last day in New York, in the early afternoon, Crater went to his office in the Foley Square Courthouse, where he began going through his files. He ordered an assistant to cash two checks for him, closing out some stock and bond accounts, totaling $5,150 cash. He left with the files and the cash in two locked briefcases. He then headed off to dinner with his friend Bill Klein and the showgirl Sally Lou Ritz. Sally was one Crater’s mistresses. They ate cool lobster cocktails and cold chicken for dinner.
Later, someone picked up the single ticket Crater had reserved at the Belasco Theatre. The show was a comedy that had opened the night before, “Dancing Partner”, but no one reported seeing the judge there.
Stella grew worried when Joe did not return by the 9th of August. She called his friends and staff, and all of them urged her to remain calm and not raise a fuss because of the potential political complications that might ensue.
Joe Crater had been a surprising appointment to the New York appeals court because he was not openly affiliated with New York Mayor Jimmy Walker (above), or his friends at Tammany Hall, the center of graft and greed in New York City government since the 1840’s. But Crater was connected. The proof of this was that the standard practice in New York was that an appointment to the bench required the payment to Tammany Hall of one year’s salary, and in April of 1930, just after Governor Franklyn D. Roosevelt had announced Crater’s surprise appointment, Crater had withdrawn $23,000 from his bank (the equivalent of a $276,000 in 2007). That amount was exactly the yearly income of an appeals court justice.
But Roosevelt was already positioning himself for a possible run for the White House and he could not afford to be connected to the Tammany Hall machine in the public’s mind. State and Federal investigators were already sniffing around, looking for an opening.
Meanwhile, one of New York’s most successful madams, Polly Adler, who had operated houses of prostitution for more than a decade under mob protection, had recently been busted. Many of the power players from Tammany Hall were her best clients. There were lots of people worried about just whose pocket one of Polly's distinctive calling cards might fall out of. She and Judge Crater were now both loose ends connected to Tammany Hall that might start the great unraveling.
Finally, on August 16, ten days after her husband was last seen, Stella sent her chauffeur to the city to look for him. He reported that the Judge had left their apartment in perfect order, none of his clothes were missing and his luggage was still in the closet. And no one at any of the Judges’ usual hangouts remembered seeing him. Still, she was counseled to keep quiet. Even when the courts opened again after the summer recess on August 28 without Judge Crater, no public alarm was raised.
Then, finally, on September 3, 1930, the dam broke, when a desperate Stella finally called the New York City Police to report her husband missing. In an instant the bubble of silence was popped and everybody was rushing to correct their public statements that had kept the lid on. Justices on the state Supreme Court were asked why they had claimed to have talked with Carter as late as August 14th.
And Governor Roosevelt promised that if anyone ever proved any of the Tammany Hall politicians were connected to kidnapping Crater, they would be prosecuted. The mayor and city council posted a $5,000 reward. A lawyer surfaced with a show girl client who had spent a weekend in an Atlantic City Hotel with the judge just a week before his disappearance. He announced that his client was ready to sue Joe Crater for “breach of promise”, asking for $100,000 ($1.2 million in 2007.) A grand jury was convened, and Sally Ritz joined Stella Crater and half the denizens of Tammany Hall in testifying under oath. The story and scandal was a great distraction from the bread lines and other depressing signs of the Great Depression.
The scandal over Judge Joe Crater and what it revealed about graft in New York City was the final crack in the walls of Tammany Hall, and spurred the election in 1933 of the reform Mayoral candidate Fiorello LaGuardia
But none of the revolations got anybody any closer to finding the Judge. In 1937 poor Stella Crater had to hire the law firm of Ellis, Ellis & Ellis, (brothers Myron, Emil & Jonas), to sue the insurance companies and force them to pay out on Joe’s life insurance policies. But without a body they could not be forced to pay the double indemnity clause. In 1939 Missing Person File # 13595 was closed, and the courts considered the Good Time Judge Joe Crater to be legally dead. But the debate continued in barrooms around the country even until this day; what happened to Judge Crater?
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FRIDAY: WHAT HAPPENED TO JUDGE CRATER