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The Last Time a Republican Reigned in Big Business - 1903

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

IS THIS TRIP NESSECARY?

I feel sorry for Peter Rozhestvenski. In normal circumstances he would have gone down in history as one of the loudest, foulest mouthed sailors in the Imperial Russian Navy, a designation of no small distinction when matched with his nickname of “Mad Dog” and his rank as Admiral of the Baltic Seas Fleet, under the eye of Tsar Nicolas II in Petersburg. But Peter was unfortunate when in February of 1904 the Japanese decided to contest Russia for control of Korea by laying siege to their naval base at Port Arthur in Manchuria. The Tsar chose Peter, aka, Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky, to play the hero and sail the Baltic fleet half way around the world to raise the siege.He certainly looked like a hero. As historian Contantin Pleshakov described him in “The Tsar’s Last Armada”, at over six feet, Peter was “Tall, powerfully built, his balding head…hinting at determination and obstinacy… (he was) the embodiment of a savage Russian admiral” “Mad Dog” earned his nickname for his violent temper when faced with stupidity or incompetence. As Peter led his ragtag fleet out of Kronshtadt naval base on October 15, 1904, “…Medals and stars glittered on his chest…He stood straight as a ramrod, looking so resolutely at (Tsar) Nicholas, that it seemed as if nothing could stop him.” Peter explained he mission to his men this way, “We’re now doing what needs to be done, defending the honor of the flag.” He said nothing about victory, and perhaps that was understandable. One battleship, the 13,000 ton Oryol, ran aground just trying to get out the harbor.With this amateur fleet Peter was facing a voyage through the Baltic, down the Atlantic Coast of Europe and Africa, thence across the Indian Ocean, through the Sunda Straight, north across the South China Sea past Taiwan, and into the Yellow Sea to Port Arthur, a distance of some 18,000 miles. To make this voyage Peter was leading 56 coal fired ships recently renamed the Second Pacific Squadron: a fleet normally trapped in port by ice five months out of every year, a fleet with a handful of modern dreadnaughts, but mostly made up of antiquated slugs and "royal toy" yachts, and auxiliary ships crewed by 15,000 inexperienced seamen and officered by incompetent, insubordinate blue bloods and royal favorites, supplied by embezzling bureaucrats who scrimped on food and ammunition.On October 20, the fleet put in at Cape Skagen, Norway, to re-coal. Over the entire voyage coal was so precious the Peter had none to spare to practice maneuvering. The nervous untested Russian crews saw Japanese dirigibles in every flock of seagulls and Japanese torpedo boats in every cloud bank. On the night of the 22nd as the fleet crossed the Dogger Bank fishing grounds the drunken captain of a supply ship thought he saw Japanese torpedo boats, and fired flares. In the flickering shadows the fleet found they were surrounded by small dark ships. Every Russian warship opened fire at point blank range.Peter the “Mad Dog” threw a gunner away from his weapon, demanding, “Have I ordered this? Can you not see a fisherman?!” It took Peter twelve minutes to get the firing stopped. By then one English trawler had been sunk, several were damaged and three English fishermen were dead. The Russian cruiser Aurora was hit by five friendly shells. One Russian sailor and an Orthodox priest were killed, another sailor was badly wounded. Without waiting to apologize or explain or help their victims the Russians sailed on. Peter later complained to his wife, “One has to order five times to do the most trivial thing and then to check five times more to see if they have forgotten the order or not…this is a miserable fleet.”Peter put his miserable fleet in at Vigo, Spain, where he had to negotiate with the aroused English, who were demanding an investigation, and with the Spanish, who were now unwilling to allow his warships to take on coal. The London Times complained, “"It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seamen, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target." In truth, the English didn’t know the worst of it. One Russian warship had fired 500 rounds at unarmed, barely moving fishing boats and had hit nothing.Down the coast of Africa the fleet sailed on, from Tangiers to Senegal, re-coaling in the open ocean and at each stop. As they approached the equator, the temperature below decks approached 140 degrees. Sailors collapsed with heat stroke. As the fleet moved on to Gabon, discipline began to collapse. The crews were sick, exhausted and frustrated. On November 25th fights between civilian workers and seaman broke out during a coaling. Three officers were sent back to Russia for court martial after they smuggled nurses aboard their ship. Of course, Peter’s mistress was aboard one of the two hospital ships that accompanied the fleet, but then rank has its privileges.Wrote another historian, “Each day, black torpedo boats carried out to sea those stricken dead by malaria, typhoid, or their own hand….Those remaining in the harbor suffered (from)…rotten food, cloying heat, and torrential rain. Many had tropical eczema, scratching themselves until they bled….Moss and barnacles grew thick on the ships’ hulls, and sharks circled around the fleet, eager to consume any bad meat thrown overboard….Men got stupefying drunk, gambled,…(Peter) who was reputed to have punched out a sailor’s teeth for a minor transgression, let them off easy. “How can I intimidate men ready to follow me to the death by condemning them to be hanged?”Rounding the Cape of Good Hope in late December, the Russians were not welcomed in British owned South Africa, and so continued on to the island of Madagascar. In the port of Hellville a hospital ship which had paused at Cape Town to pick up medical supplies, delivered word that Port Arthur had fallen to the Japanese and the Pacific fleet had been captured.
This meant there was no fleet to be reinforced and no port to be rescued. While awaiting confirmation, Peter ordered live fire exercises. They were a disaster, with no hits at either moving or stationary targets. What was left of crew morale, collapsed. On January 6, the fleet celebrated Orthodox Christmas. On the 7th Peter was informed he was to wait in Hellville for reinforcements, four more even older and slower battleships dredged from coastguard duty. Peter went into his cabin of his flagship and bolted the door. The crew did not see him for weeks. What brought him out of his funk was a mutiny. On January 23 seamen on the Cruiser Admiral Nakhimoff mutinied, after being forced to eat a reeking yellow substance called Solina, best described as an early failed attempt at inventing Spam. It was amazing they had not mutinied before. Men who had never been more than 10 miles off their farms had been cooped up aboard steel heat traps for six months in the tropics. The humidity was so high their underwear was never dry. The ships were infested with cockroaches that were “eating clothes, boots, and books" and biting the sleeping sailors. And when mail did arrive from Russia the packages from home were filled with warm clothing. Finally Peter decided he could wait no more and without waiting to inform the Tsar the Second Pacific Squadron, now the only Pacific squadron, set sail for IndonesiaBy now Peter had given his junior officers nicknames like “Brainless Nihlist” and “Slutty Old Geezer”. It took the fleet 28 days to cross the Indian Ocean. the fleet was able to make only 6 knots because of barnacles on the hulls, and had to slow even more 112 times for repairs to various ships. In fits of homesickness men began to throw themselves overboard. They arrived off Sumatra in April 3, 1905, but did not stop. On April 12 they reached the coast of Vietnam, where they were now ordered (by the Tsar personally) to await the squadron of older battleships, and then sail for Vladivostok.
"With no morale and no hope of making it back to Russia alive, the sailors of the fleet were beyond caring.” On May 7th, the last squadron of old battleships finally arrived. The fleet was now complete, with 60 ships, but only four or five which could truly defend themselves. Ten days later they took in their last supply of coal.It was clear they were going to sail through the Tsugaru Strait between Korea and Honshu, Japan, past the island of Tsushima. In 1281 a Chinese invasion fleet had crossed this 45 mile wide strait, only to be destroyed by a kamikazi or “divine wind”; a typhoon. All things considered it was the worst possible course to take, but Peter did not have the coal to sail around the west coast of Japan, so it was the only choice he could make. Every sailor knew the Japanese were going to be waiting for them at Tsushima Island, and Peter and his crews fully expected a pointless death.At about 2:45 P.M. on May 27, 1905 the modern efficient Japanese fleet crossed the Russian “T”, allowing their ships to fire broadsides while the Russians were limited to firing their forward guns only. Almost immediately Peter’s flagship was struck and he took a shell fragment in the head.
As he lay unconscious through the day and night long battle 21 Russian ships were sunk, and 4, 380 men were drowned. The next day, May 28th, as the Japanese closed to finish the battle, the remaining Russian ships gave up, surrendering four battleships and one destroyer, along with two admirals and almost 7,000 men. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats and 117 killed. The Japanese came out of the battle convinced that huge battleships guaranteed victory, ignoring the utter incompetence of their adversary. They were now set on a course for conquest, which would eventually lead to war with America.
The Russians came out of the war convinced the Tsar was a heartless fool. After a peace treaty was signed (brokered by Teddy Roosevelt), Peter returned home via the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was court- martial but acquitted, because he had been unconscious when his fleet surrendered. The officer who replaced him received a sentence of life in prison at hard labor. “Mad Dog” Petrovich Rozhestvensky died in his own bed in St. Petersburg, Russia on January 14, 1909. He was just sixty years old.But don’t feel too sorry for him. Peter would have hated the Soviet Revolution.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

WHAT HAPPENED TO JUDGE CRATER

I can not prove what happened to Judge Joe Crater on the night of August 6, 1930. I know he had enjoyed a dinner at The Chop House with a chorus girl and a male friend. Afterward he climbed into a taxi and seems to have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. But I have a pretty good theory about what became of him.

This story comes together from three separate sources; first from Stephen Ellis, the son of Emil Ellis, one of the lawyers who represented Mrs. Stella Crater in her lawsuits against the insurance companies; the second source is from a letter marked “Not to be opened until after my death”, left behind in the first decade of the 21st century by a 91 year old widow; and third source is from news stories published in the 1950’s. Each source is independent of the others, and although they would not pass muster in a court of law, in history research they are about as close as we are ever going to get to the truth. And at the center of all three is the infamous prohibition gangster, Legs Diamond.
The original Jack “Legs” Diamond was a thug, a sociopath and a killer and almost as famous for whom he betrayed as how he died. He got into big time crime working for “the Brain”, Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. By 1930, the year that Judge Crater disappeared, Jack’s web of speakeasies in lower Manhattan was under siege from the rapacious Dutch Schultz mob, based in Harlem. There had already been three attempts on Diamond’s life by the Schultz mob. In fact he earned his nickname "Legs" by avoiding these murder attempts.
Jack needed to reestablish control, and that included his control of the courts. And the usual method of controlling judges was to use women, in this case a showgirl named Connie Markus.
Connie Markus was one of a "chorus" of girls who worked for Jack Diamond. And she was also an occasional mistress of “Good Time Joe Crater”. Under instructions from Jack Diamond, it is alleged, Connie asked Judge Crater to reverse on appeal some lower court decisions which had hurt Jack Diamond.
According to the account by Stephen Ellis, it was papers related to those cases that Judge Crater went through in his office on August 6, 1930. Those papers had gone into the two locked brief cases he had left the office with that afternoon. And the $5,100 in cash he left with was meant as a payoff to Diamond. With the feds and reformers sniffing around, Judge Crater felt he could not decide the cases the way Diamond wanted them decided, not without drawing attention and raising suspicions.That evening, when Connie told Diamond of Judge Crater’s attempt at a payoff, Jack could not afford to let the cases drop, not with the Schultz mob sniffing at his heels. At some point in the conversation Connie must have told Diamond about Crater’s plans to have dinner at the Chop House that night. And Jack decided to increase the pressure on the judge.
According to the letter and other documents left behind after her death, by Stella Ferrucci-Good of Queens, New York, when Judge Crater stepped into the cab on West forty-fifth street that night, the driver was a Murder Incorporated "button man" employed by Jack Diamond named Frank Burn.
Just up the street the cab unexpectedly pulled over and two more men quickly climbed in. One was Charles Burn, a police officer and Frank’s brother. The other was Robert Good, Stella Ferrucci’s husband. Their intent was to scare the hell out of the judge, rough him up a little and let him know what would happen to him if he did not play ball with Diamond. But things did not work out that way. Crater thought it was a mugging and he fought to get out of the cab.
The two mobsters fought back, trying to keep Crater in the cab, and at some point in the struggle, Judge Joe Crater was killed. It is after the Judge was killed that the stories separate again. Stephen Ellis, relating the story he heard from his father, claims that the thugs drove Crater’s body to a crematorium in New Jersey, where it was disposed of, and that may be the truth. But I tend to believe the version recounted in Stella Frrucci’s letter, which says that Crater’s body was buried that night at the end of West Eighth Street, under the Coney Island boardwalk.
I believe that version because in 1956, while digging the foundation for the new New York City Aquarium, several human remains where uncovered under the Boardwalk near eighth street. Without DNA technology the remains were unidentifiable.
They were eventually reburied in pine coffins by inmates from Riker’s Island, just a few more of the 2,000 dead buried in the Potters Field on Hart Island each year, in unmarked mass graves; stacked three high and then two across, in rows of 25. To find Judge Crater’s bones and identify them now, if they are there, would be effectively impossible.
Jack “Legs” Diamond would die just a year later, on December 18, 1931. And this time the assassins were taking no chances. Jack was shot three times just behind his left ear. The gun barrel was pressed so close the blasts scorched his scalp. His connection to Judge Crater, Connie Markus, would end her days in the mental ward of Bellvue Hospital, catatonic from a drug overdose.
That same year, 1931, the homocidal cop, Charles Burn, found a new job, as the body guard for a thug nicknamed “Kid Twist”: real name, Abe Reles (above).
Ten years later, in 1941, Reles would become famous as “The canary who could sing but could not fly.” After testifying against another member of "Murder Incorporated", Kid Twist took a flyer out of a sixth floor window of the "Half Moon Hotel" on Coney Island, where police were supposedly guarding him. And one of the cops on duty at the Half Moon that night was Officer Charles Burn.
In 1939 Stella Crater remarried, to Mr.Karl Kunz. They took their honeymoon cruise on the French cruiser “Normandie”. Just two years later the ship burned at the New York docks as it was being refitted for war duty. And Stella’s marriage did not last much longer. In 1961 Stella Crater finally wrote a book about Joe’s disappearance, and about the man she now realized she had never really known, entitled “The Empty Robe”.

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WHAT HAPPENED TO JUDGE CRATER?

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

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