The two week heatwave was mercifully breaking. Nine days after Judge Joe Crater had stepped into a cab on West 45th Street, a cool rain was sweeping the trash down the gutters of Italian Harlem along 2nd Avenue. It was Friday, 15 August 1930, two weeks before the judge's disappearance would be reported, and two men, their hats pulled low and their collars pulled high, shuffled up the back stairs of a speakeasy and slipped past the shadow holding the door open for them.
The larger man, Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia (above), was carrying a nondescript brown leather bag, instantly recognizable to 150,000 Italian immigrants squeezed into the slums between 96th and 125th streets, Lexington Avenue to the west and the East River.
His shorter companion, Frank "Don Ciccio" Scalise (above), kept his hands in his coat pockets, as if to warm them. In truth each gloved hand cradled a loaded revolver. Inside they followed the stream of puddles across the floor of the "Speak", past the board looking hoodlums playing cards.
It seemed they had come like so many others to genuflect before the Peter "The Old Fox" Morello, (above) waiting in the small room ahead, sitting behind his counting table, counting that week's numbers take.
The Fox, aka Giuseppe Morello (above in 1900), AKA "The Claw", was born with only one finger on his right hand. He had survived the heartless world of the Sicilian Mafia for 64 years by thinking faster than his physically fit enemies. But age and greed had made him fat and slowed his thinking. And as the pair approached the table, Morello's eyes were fixed on the bag swinging in Anastasia's left hand. Did it look heavy? Did it look full? He failed to notice that the Sicilian, Scalise, had paused to turn the lock, as he closed the door behind them. The signal was when the Italian Anastasia dropped the bag on the table. Morello's fixation allowed Scalise to free both his hands from his pockets and begin shooting into the Mustache Pete's chest from just an arm's length away. The last thought Peter Morello had was that they had not opened the bag.
Anastasia killed the guard, and then joined Scalise in pumping more lead into the old man's chest. There must be, there could be no doubt the best brain in the Masseria mob was dead. Anastasia paused to sweep the blood spattered money into the bag. Richer by thirty grand, the pair walked swiftly out the Speakeasy's front door while the guards were still breaking down the back door to reach Morello.
It was all part of a "Mob War" engineered by Lucky Luciano. With Morello eliminated, Luciano's boss, Joe "The Boss" Masseria was now isolated.
He would die in another hail of bullets in the summer of 1931, while sitting in a Coney Island restaurant (above), thumbing through a deck of cards. Within a year Lucky Luciano would remake American organized crime in a corporate image.
One week after Morello's assassination on Friday, 22 August, 1930, Jack "Legs" Diamond climbed the gangplank of the 27,000 ton Red Star liner Belgenland (above). With him came his loving wife Alice, and his red-haired girlfriend Marion "Kiki Roberts" Stasmick.
Jack (above) told the inquisitive reporters that he was going to sample the waters in Vichy, France. But, if the truth be told, what made the slick waters of Vichy so attractive to Jack Diamond was two things. First Jack was under indictment for the murder of an upstate trucker here in New York state. And when news of Judge Crater's disappearance finally broke at the end of August, Jack meant to be out of sight, and out of mind.
However, one month later, Jack would be back in America, after being deported by first the French and then the German governments. As he stepped off the boat in Philadelphia, he was arrested again, and then ordered to leave town. He arrived back in New York City, only to be gunned down in his hotel room, on Sunday, 12 October, 1930. Shot five times, Jack now "The Clay Pigeon" Diamond (above with Alice) again survived, and was released from the hospital on 30 December,
On 18 December, 1931, Jack's enemies came back, catching him asleep in his girl friend Kiki Robert's bed. She was not with him at the time. But this time the assassins were taking no chances that Jack would leg out an escape. The pistol barrel was pressed so hard behind Jack's left ear that it scorched his scalp as the three bullets plowed into his brain.
After the New York County Grand Jury had disbanded, Stella Crater (above) returned to her 40 Fifth Avenue, apartment on Sunday, 18 January 1931. Three days later, while going through a dresser drawer, she "discovered" 4 manila envelopes containing $6,619 in cash - over $100,000 today - Joe Crater's will, two life insurance policies, and a 3 page note listing 20 companies and individuals who owed Joe money. And at the bottom of that list, supposedly in Joe's handwriting, were the words, "Am very weary. Love, Joe." Stella decided to call the cops.
It was a smart move. It meant the money was not "hers" but "theirs", the taxes divided as joint property. But the cops were confused. They had searched that dresser several times, almost taken it apart. As of Halloween 1930, there had been no envelopes in that drawer. To the cops it looked like a care package from a lawyer - perhaps from William Klein - and they thought it was meant to buy off Stella, to keep her mouth shut. If it was, it worked.
Now she did not have to give up the house in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. And as quickly as she could, Stella Crater returned there, and returned to her $12 a week job as a telephone operator.
Over the next year the city and state of New York spent $4 million, looking for Stella's husband, Judge Joe Crater, They looked in Maine, in Canada, in Mexico, in Cuba and California. Good Time Joe was seen on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, in a Virginia Sanatorium, shaved by a barber in North Dakota, gambling in a bar in South America and drinking cocktails at a European spa.
But the tone in the coverage changed when one detailed tip claimed that Joe was holed up in a Montreal hotel room. The Mounties burst through the door to discover a couple enjoying their honeymoon. That popped the bubble, and the snickering public began to laugh out loud. Prohibition had made corruption so common the practiced ineptitude of the police and courts had become a joke. A year after Joe's disappearance, despite the headline, Judge Crater was never found.
In September of 1933, First National Studios in Los Angeles, released a 76 minute long film titled, "Bureau of Missing Persons", staring Pat O'Brian and Glenda Farrell, with Bette Davis in a minor role.
It was a police procedural into the techniques used to locate missing people like Joe Crater, and offered to pay Joe Crater $10,000 if he turned himself in at the Strand Theater box office during the picture' New York City run. Needless to say, he did not.
In June of 1936, 79 year old "Lucky Blacky" Blackiet (above) walked into the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department and declared that he had "swapped yarns" with the Missing-est man in America, while out prospecting near his homestead at Santa Ysabel, four miles from Warner Hot Springs. The colorful "Lucky" said Joe Crater told him, "In one more year, I will be legally dead. I hope I can stick it out for that long."
Why the police believed "Lucky Blacky" is unclear, but it seems at least one San Diego Sheriff's Deputy thought the old prospector resembled the Crown Prince Archduke Johann Orth Salvator of Tuscany, who had gone missing off Cape Horn in 1911. As proof of his campfire meeting with the judge , "Lucky" introduced 2 asses he claimed had belonged to Joe Crater. County Commissioner R.A. Radifer, two Los Angeles police officers and a couple of reporters went trudging off into the scrub bush mountains, following Lucky. But after a week spent in the pounding August heat, swallowing dust and sleeping with scorpions the expedition returned to civilization, firmly convinced they had been "had" by the old prospector. Reduced to a laughing stock, they then suffered the gall of having "Lucky" present them with a voucher for $10 a day for his services as a "guide". Needless to say, "Lucky" never got paid.
In July of 1937, Stella won her petition to have Joe declared legally dead. She could now collect the $20, 000 in life insurance - over a quarter of million dollars today. Stella moved to Elkton, Maryland, and married a wealthy electrical engineer named Carl Kunz (above). They took their honeymoon cruise on the French cruiser “Normandie”. With his money she could hire a lawyer to prove Joe had died violently, which would qualify for a double indemnity payout.
Stella hired attorney Emil K. Ellis, who spent years tracking down the loose ends left by the Grand Jury. One of the women subpoenaed was a chorus girl named June Brice, who had supposedly met with Joe in her midtown apartment after he left West 45th Street on the night of 6 August, 1930. But June had vanished and never told her story under oath. Ellis eventually found a friend of June's, who told him, "Miss Brice said she was carrying a secret concerning the disappearance of Justice Crater. She said her life had been threatened."
It was enough to keep Ellis digging until September of 1940, when he found June had been admitted to the Pilgrim State Hospital (above), in Brentwood, Long Island, New York, under the name of Jean Covel.
Reporter Fred Menagh recorded the dramatic scene when a court order finally gave Ellis access to the mystery woman. "Four ghost-like figures," wrote Menagh, "shrouded from head to foot in spotless white surgical masks, caps, and gowns, gathered at the bedside of the hollow- cheeked girl with the glassy, staring eyes...Ellis, brief case clutched in one rubber gloved hand, stepped forward...His voice was slightly muffled by the gauze mask covering the lower half of his face, "Do you know what happened to Justice Joseph Force Crater?"
"The girl on the cot shrank back. She dug at thin, bloodless lips with claw like dreadful hands, so emaciated they seemed almost transparent against the light that streamed in through the barred and grated windows of her room. "We must not," she whispered hoarsely, "remember the things that make us mad." Ellis produced a packet of letters, clippings and photographs from his brief case. The girl's staring eyes darted from side to side in their deep sunk sockets. "Don't write letters," she admonished in her rasping voice, "They don't explain anything."
"...the once beautiful showgirl, her once blond hair turned totally white, her gorgeous complexion now the color and texture of parchment, could remember only disjointed fragments of her past...June's most normal response occurred when Ellis...showed her a picture of herself as she looked when she was a Broadway butterfly. "I was pretty, wasn't I?" remarked the former showgirl, pathetically, a wisp of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth...Ellis, for more than an hour...vainly probed the fear-shattered mind o£ a once beautiful Broadway showgirl...At last he threw up his hands in despair. "It is no use," he said simply." In 1942, June Brice died, her mind still confused.
During the 1930's, New York City Police Officer Charles Burn picked up a second job - as a bodyguard for one of the Brownsville Boys most prolific traveling assassins, "Abe Kid Twist" Reles. By 1939, Kid Twist had escaped 6 homicide charges. But while he was jailed for beating a African-American parking lot attendant, he realized the cops finally had the goods on him. Facing execution he decided to turn State's Evidence and admitted to committing 11 murders and provided information allowing for the closing of 85 more murder cases. And suddenly, the secret operations of Murder Incorporated were public knowledge . Abe would prove to be an excellent witness, with an amazing memory for detail, and a believable testimony.
One by one, The Brownsville Boys were convicted and later executed - Lepke Buchalter, Louis Capone, Mendy Weiss, Harry Strauss, Frank Abbandando, Irving "The Plug" Nitzberg. Abe even helped convict his childhood friend "Bugsy" Goldstein for murder. But on Wednesday, 13 November, 1940, he was to testify at the most important trial yet, that of Albert Anastasia, AKA "The Lord High Executioner", for the murder of a Longshoreman. But unlike all the others, Albert was a "Made Man", a member of the Mafia with a seat at Lucky Luciano's unifying council
About ten minutes after seven that Wednesday morning, NY Detective Victor Robins entered Room 623 of the 14 story Half Moon Hotel, at West 29th Street and the Coney Island Boardwalk. He expected to wake Abraham Reles, to prepare him for his first day of testimony at the Anastasia trail. But the bed was empty.
After a minutes long search of the suite of rooms, Robins noticed a string of bed sheets tied to a radiator, and draping out the window (above). Looking down he saw a clump of clothing on the roof of the kitchen extension, four stories below.
Upon closer inspection, they found the body of Abe Reles, the man who may have shoved an ice pick into Judge Joe Crater's brain.
The newspapers named the dead killer, "The Canary who Could Sing but Could Not Fly". Albert Anastasia was immediately released. Five of the officers guarding Reles were immediately demoted. But one of those cops was Charles Burns. Did he take the $100,000 being offered to kill Abe Reles? Or did Kid Twist mistake his bronchitis as cancer, and commit suicide? Or was he trying to reach some hoard of cash he had hidden? However, in 1951, a grand jury concluded it was an accidental death during an attempted escape, and maybe that was the truth. But I do not think so.
And still stories about the missing Judge Joseph Force Crater kept floating across the public view. During the 1950's, a reporter in a San Antonio, Texas police station gave a cigarette to an filthy, raggedly dressed old man being processed for release. The reporter noticed the man's manicured fingernails.When asked about his background the man became taciturn. Later, the reporter found a note left in the bathroom, scribbled on a paper towel and addressed to him. It read, " “Thanks for the cigarette. You almost got a scoop. Remember that judge in New York?"
Stella never got the Double Indemnity payments, but she did squeeze another settlement out of the insurance companies. After her 1950 separation from Carl Kunz - the couple never divorced - , Stella made a modest living in New York City, off her husband's notoriety.
In 1961 Stella finally co-wrote a book about about the man she now realized she had never really known. She called it “The Empty Robe : The Story of the Disappearance of Judge Crater," In it Stella painted a fond image of the vanished jurist. And every 6 April after that, she stopped in a Greenwich Village bar. She sat at a table and ordered two drinks. After finishing the first, she would then raise the second class, saying, "Good luck, Joe, wherever you are." She would then swallow the second and quietly leave.
Still married, Stella Crater Kunz died in 1969, at 70 years of age. And still, nobody has any idea of what happened to Judge Crater.
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