The Missingest Man in New York?

On August 6, 1930, Judge Joseph Crater left Billy Haas’s Chophouse in New York City. He was never seen again. His high-profile disappearance rocked the nation and despite decades of police work, his case remains unsolved to this day. So, what became of Judge Crater, the infamous “Missingest Man in New York”?

Judge Crater’s home at 40 Fifth Ave. in New York City (September 13, 1930)
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Disappearance of Judge Crater?

Joseph Force Crater was an Associate Judge of the New York Supreme Court. He was appointed to office in mid-1930 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at that time was the state’s Governor. His strange story begins during the waning days of July 1930.

While on vacation in Belgrade, Maine, Judge Crater received a phone call. Afterwards, he told his wife that he needed to return to New York City in order “to straighten those fellows out.” He traveled to New York and then returned to Maine on August 1. Two days later, he departed again for Manhattan, promising his wife he would return within a week.

On August 6, Judge Crater bought a single ticket for a Broadway show called Dancing Partner. Then, he met up with two friends at Billy Haas’s Chophouse on West 45th Street. After dinner, the two friends entered a taxi. Meanwhile, Judge Crater walked down the street, presumably heading for the Belasco Theatre. He was never seen again.

Judge Crater’s Secret Life

Around August 13, Judge Crater’s wife, a woman by the name of Stella Mance Wheeler, began calling friends in New York, searching for her husband. On August 25, he failed to show for court, raising eyebrows amongst his colleagues. Finally, on September 3, nearly a full month after his last sighting, the police were alerted to the case.

Judge Crater’s disappearance became national news and led to a gigantic investigation. As the police waded through information and thousands of false sightings, they quickly learned that there was more to the story than met the eye. Layers of the Judge’s life were peeled back, revealing numerous strange facts.

  • The Affair: Judge Crater was having an affair with Sally Lou Ritz, a showgirl. After he received the mysterious phone call in July, he returned to New York, supposedly “to straighten those fellows out.” Instead, he took Sally on a trip to Atlantic City. Later, Sally was of the last two people, along with the Judge’s lawyer, to see him alive.
  • The Money: On August 6, just hours before his disappearance, Judge Crater asked his assistant to cash two checks totaling $5,150. He also removed $20,000 from campaign funds, close to a year’s salary. They proceeded to carry the cash in locked briefcases to the Judge’s apartment. Afterwards, the Judge gave his assistant the rest of the day off.
  • The Missing Safety Deposit Box: During the course of the investigation, the cops learned that Judge Crater had emptied his safety deposit box prior to going missing.

In January 1931, the Judge’s wife opened a desk drawer and discovered uncashed checks, stocks, bonds, and three life insurance policies. She also found a long note from the Judge, part of which read, “I am very whary (weary). Joe.”¬†Ultimately, the investigation ended with a whimper and on June 6, 1939, Judge Crater was declared dead in absentia. His case was officially closed forty years later.

What happened to Judge Crater?

Numerous theories have been put forth to explain the Judge’s vanishing act:

  • Political Victim: The Judge’s wife believed that he was murdered “because of something sinister connected to politics.” Also, there were many rumors at the time of a pending legal scandal. It should be noted that Judge Crater was deeply involved in the machinations of the Tammany Hall political machine.
  • Lover’s Quarrel: This theory, advanced by Mrs. Crater’s attorney, indicated that the Judge was being blackmailed by a showgirl. The Judge refused to pay her off and was killed for his troubles.
  • The Wife: Over the years, many have viewed Mrs. Crater with suspicion. The Judge was obviously cheating on her. Also, the fact that she didn’t involve the police until four weeks had gone by is somewhat strange.
  • Extended Vacation: Some think that the Judge skipped town and resettled elsewhere under a different name in order to live with another lover or to avoid a scandal.
  • Murder by Madam: In his book, Vanishing Point, Richard Tofel makes the argument that the Judge ended August 6 in a well-known brothel run by a woman named Polly Adler. Polly later wrote a popular book about her life as a madam. According to Tofel’s research, early drafts of the book stated that Judge Crater died of natural causes while in her brothel and that she had his body removed to an unknown location. While this is an interesting possibility, it should be noted that these early drafts have yet to be found.

On August 19, 2005,¬†a handwritten note was discovered in a metal box after the death of a seemingly random woman named Stella Ferrucci-Good. The letter claimed that Judge Crater was murdered by three men: Robert Good and two brothers named Charles and Frank Burns. Robert Good was a Parks Department supervisor and Stella’s late husband. Charles was a New York police officer and Frank was a cab driver. While she didn’t mention a motive, she did state that the three men supposedly buried Judge Crater’s body under the boardwalk in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

In the mid-1950′s, the boardwalk had been torn up and the New York Aquarium built in its place. Unsubstantiated reports indicate that the remains of five bodies were found at the time. These skeletons were later interred in a mass potter’s grave on Hart Island.

Interest surged in the cold case. But the excitement quickly died off. The police were skeptical of Stella’s claim. And unfortunately, there was no way to substantiate it. Even if bones had been recovered from under the boardwalk, it would take a miracle to find them. It would take an even greater miracle to identify them, given that Crater has no living direct relatives from which to extract DNA.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

For decades, Judge Crater’s disappearance was one of the most famous unsolved disappearances in American history. Indeed, he was as well-known as Amelia Earhart or Glenn Miller. The term “to pull a Crater” became an established expression. “Judge Crater, call your office,” became a national punchline.

Although the Judge’s fame has waned, the mystery continues. In my mind, the most believable theory is the one offered by Ms. Stella Ferucci-Good’s letter. However, in order to prove it, we need more evidence. Interested researchers might want to consider tracking down workers who helped build the Aquarium. A detailed search of tabloids of the time, which supposedly reported the five bodies, might also prove helpful. With a little legwork, we might finally be able to close the books on Judge Crater, one of history’s strangest mysteries.

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