I admit, the more you know about Judge Crater, the less likely you will be to find him attractive. And you are even more likely to think he deserved what he got, whatever that was. But if I owned a time machine, one of the very first places and times I would visit would be West 45th street, in Manhattan, outside of Billy Haas’ Chophouse, shortly after 9:00 PM on the night of August 6, 1930. What I would hope to see would be a middle aged man, about 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 a straw panama hat tipped at a jaunty angle, and with a self satisfied smirk glued on his face. You see, this arrogant jerk was the newly appointed New York State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater. And leaving the resturant, he climbed into a cab. And after that cab pulled into the New York City night, he dropped completly off the face of the earth; he vanished.
Judge Joe 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 - meaning a crooked politician - 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 (my favorite) 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 never identifed "those fellows", and he promised to be back in Maine by Friday, August 9, Stella's birthday. In fact the romantic guy had already ordered Stella's 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, he told her, she was 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 political hangout - this was still prohibition America, and liquior was still available only through the mobs. On Tuesday Joe had lunch with two of the judges he would serve on the appeals court with, and that evening he played poker with friends.
In the early afternoon of Wednesday, August 6, his last full day in New York City, Crater went to his old 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. The total was $5,150 in cash. He took the files and the cash with him, 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. Then, just after 9 p.m. Joe left the resturant and climbed into that cab on West 45th Street.
Later, someone picked up the single ticket Joe had reserved at the Belasco Theatre. The show was a comedy, "Dancing Partner", which had opened the night before, and Joe usually arrived at the theatre late, timing his arrival so he would catch the big production numbers in the second act. Those were the ones usually featuring the scantily clad chorus girls. But no one reported actually seeing the judge at the theatre.
Stella grew worried when Joe did not return by Friday, the 9th of August. She called his friends and staff, and all of them urged her to remain calm and not raise a fuss. It appears they were all worried about the potential political complications that might arise from the publicity, for Joe but mostly for themselves.
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 a quater of a million dollars today). 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. Reform minded state and federal investigators were already sniffing around, looking for an opening in the Tammany Hall graft machine.
Recently 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 been arrested. Many of the power players from Tammany Hall were her best clients, and there were lots of people worried about just whose pocket one of Polly's distinctive calling cards might fall out of next. She and Judge Crater were now both loose threds connected to Tammany Hall, that, if pulled on, just 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's luggage was still in the closet, empty. The maid had tidied up on Thursday, but had not seen the Judge. And no one at any of the Judges’ usual hangouts remembered seeing him, either. Still, Joe's friends and staff counseled Stella 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, 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 the disappearance of Judge Crater, they would be prosecuted. The mayor and city council posted a $5,000 reward. A lawyer surfaced with a show girl client who claimed to have 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 today). 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 growing 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 and Ellis, (brothers Myron, Emil and Jonas), to sue the insurance companies and force them to pay out on Joe’s three 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 for decades; what really happened to Judge Crater?