This Day in History: How Supreme Court judge Joseph Crater became 'missingest man in New York' 90 years ago

New York World, a local newspaper that ran from 1860 to 1931, was among the first publications to report the incident on September 1, 1930


                            This Day in History: How Supreme Court judge Joseph Crater became 'missingest man in New York' 90 years ago
Joseph Force Crater (Getty Images)

A month after New York Supreme Court judge Joseph Force Crater mysteriously vanished on the streets of Manhattan, near Times Square, the news makes headlines in major media outlets. New York World, a local newspaper that ran from 1860 to 1931 and the leading voice of the Democratic Party, was among the first publications to report the incident on September 1, 1930. In the wake of the 41-year-old's disappearance that stirred The Big Apple, a widescale manhunt investigation that came to national attention was launched along with a hefty reward, earning him the title 'The missingest man in New York.'

Crater was born in Easton, Pennsylvania, to Irish immigrants as one of their four children. Although the family never had financial struggles, as a young boy, he spent long hours toiling away in his father's orchard and received his law degree from Columbia University in 1916. During this time he would meet Stella Wheeler, whom he would go on to marry a year later. Crater, who was also known by his nicknames 'Joe' and 'Goo Time Joe' began his law career as a low-paid clerk in New York City and eventually worked his way up to become a successful lawyer. He taught legal classes at the City of New York, Fordham University, and New York University. Crater established various political connections throughout New York and subsequently decided to venture into the field of politics.

Exterior of Tammany Hall with horsedrawn carriages in front, New York City, the 1900s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

He earned his first political appointment as a secretary to New York Supreme Court Justice Robert F Wagner Sr in 1920. He set up his own law firm in 1927, which was an immediate success, allowing him to afford a better lifestyle. From then on, his success only progressed. Three years later, in 1930, Crater was appointed by Governor Franklin D Roosevelt to the state bench surpassing the official candidate endorsed by the powerful and corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. Rumors swirled and suggested that Crater had paid off the Tammany bosses for his new position. The Democratic political machine had been notorious for large-scale bribery, improper property transaction that allowed owners with political influences to make large profits at the taxpayer's expense, and selling of high-placed municipal jobs. 

Late in the summer of that year, Crater and his wife were spending their time at their vacation cottage in Maine, and the Judge made a few trips back and forth from New York, for business. Crater had returned to New York City on August 3, promising his wife that he would return to Maine in time for her birthday on August 9. On the morning of August 6, his law clerk claimed the judge had spent two hours in his State Supreme Court Chambers destroying documents and stuffing several others into his briefcases. Crater's assistant told authorities that he had been asked to cash over $5,000 worth of checks later in the day, before being dismissed by his employer. That evening, Crater purchased one ticket for a Broadway performance of a comedy called 'Dancing Partner' at the Belasco Theatre, Manhattan.

Looking south from 50th street at night on Broadway in the borough of Manhattan, New York.

He met his friend and attorney William Klein and his mistress Sally Lou Ritz at Billy Haas's Chophouse, 300 Block of West 45th Street, Manhattan. According to the Charley Project, witnesses said they saw him depart from the restaurant at approximately 9:10-9:15 pm, which crossed the time of the play he had planned to attend. Both Klein and Ritz claimed that Carter had walked down the street outside the restaurant to hail a tan-colored cab, which was the last time they had seen him. However, no taxicabs reported having picked him up and he was never heard from or seen ever again. He had been wearing a dark brown double-breasted sack coat and matching trousers with green pinstripes, pearl grey spats, a high white linen collar with a detachable choker, a soft brown, and possibly a bow tie, per the Charley Project.

"Caucasian male. Graying brown hair, brown eyes. Joseph wore a full set of dentures and wore tortoiseshell eyeglasses for reading. He had a tattoo of a Sigma Chi fraternity symbol on his arm. Joseph was balding and his hair was worn parted in the middle and slicked down in 1930. The tip of his right index finger was deformed from being crushed," the description for his appearance said in his missing report, according to the Charley Project. His wife became concerned about his whereabouts on failing to contact him by August 16, 1930, 10 days after he was last seen. After a chauffeur she had sent to the city said he couldn't find his employer and that their New York City apartment appeared to be in order, she traveled to the city to see it for herself and found all of Crater's things as they were left, including the things that he normally carried with him. 

Looking towards the Times Building on Times Square, the Paramount Building is on the right, and Seventh Avenue on the left crossing Broadway (Getty Images)

Wheeler reported her husband's disappearance to the police but the investigation did not begin until August 25, as they initially believed that the judge would return for the opening of the courts. After news of his disappearance broke out a month later, the missing judge's suspicious behavior drew speculations that he had either fled the country with a mistress or had been a victim of foul play. A grand jury was convened nearly two months after Crater disappeared, and although substantial evidence had been collected through the course of the investigation, they could not decide whether he was deceased. Wheeler moved backed to the Fifth Avenue apartment that the couple lived in, for the first time since her husband's disappearance, and reported that she found four envelopes containing checks for hefty sums in his bureau.

One was signed and made payable to himself and well as three for endorsed third-parties. Another contained four of Crater's life policies totaling $30,000 with Wheeler stated as the beneficiary. The third envelope contained Crater's will which had been written in 1925 and stated that he left everything he owned to his wife. The fourth envelope contained a three-page list in Crater's handwriting of people and companies who owed money to him and apparently intended for Wheeler because it was signed, "Love Joe, This is all confidential." Despite a thorough search of the house during investigations, the police had found nothing and had reasons to believe that someone may have broken into the apartment to place the enveloped there sometime after the search was concluded. 

Judge Joseph Force Crater and wife three days before his disappearance (Getty Images)

Upon his death, Crater's scandalous history came to light and revealed his association with several organized crime members and a few suspicious financial dealings. His bank records showed that he withdrew $20,000 at about the same time he was appointed as interim justice to the State Supreme Court, per the Charley Project. The amount was equivalent to his yearly salary at the time and was also considered the standard amount earned for Tammany Hall positions. Crater was declared legally deceased in 1939 upon Wheeler's request and she would go on to remarry, divorce, and write a book about her life and her first husband's disappearance. The book, 'The Empty Robe', was published in 1961.

The speculations surrounding his disappearance persisted long after 1930. There were reportedly also many sightings of him all over the world and in every conceivable condition after his disappearance, but none substantial enough. The case was officially closed in 1985, by the New York City Police Department, 55 years after Crater's disappearance. A breakthrough in case came in 2005. When a 91-year-old woman named Stella Ferrucci-Good's relatives found an envelope marked "Do not open until my death" after she had passed away in April. In the letter, she implicated three men in Crater's alleged murder: Her husband, a Parks Department supervisor and lifeguard who died in 1975; a New York Police officer, and the officer's brother who was a cab driver. 

Surf Avenue in Coney Island, the New York fairground, on a quiet Sunday afternoon in the winter with the buildings reflected on a sheet of still water (Getty Images)

The letter stated that they had killed Crater and buried his body in Coney Island, Brooklyn, under a boardwalk near west Eight Street, which is now the property where the New York Aquarium stands. Unconfirmed reports state that skeletal remains of five people were found on the site in the 1950s when the aquarium was built, but they had been buried in a potter's field with thousands of other people's remains. Since this was before advancements in technology that made DNA testing possible, it was hard to identify the human remains and the mystery behind Crater's disappearance remains as such. However, it did foster a new term "pull a Crater" which became a part of American culture as a public vernacular as a synonym for going under the radar or simply avoiding responsibilities.

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