7 decades later, judge's vanishing still a mystery

An old friend, Howard R. Simpson of Roland Park, an inveterate newspaper reader who appreciates the craft of journalism and relishes its stories and practitioners, gave me a wonderful book for Christmas, Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater, and the New York He Left Behind.

Its author, Richard J. Tofel, former assistant publisher of the Wall Street Journal, breathes life into one of the most celebrated vanishing acts in the nation's history.


The disappearance of Joseph Force Crater, a judge on the New York Supreme Court who became known as "the most missingest man in America" after he vanished in 1930, is one of those stories that editors like to dredge up now and again, and that the public never tires of.

Seven decades later, it still has staying power and is certainly right up there with what happened to D.B. Cooper and Jimmy Hoffa, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and who really killed Starr Faithfull, Black Dahlia or Chandra Levy.


Crater, who was 41, stood 6 feet tall and parted his hair razor-straight down the middle, had been appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On Aug. 6, 1930, Crater dressed in pearl-gray spats, a high starched linen collar and a brown suit, and, after buying a ticket to Dancing Partner, a musical, he arrived at Billy Haas's restaurant on West 45th Street in midtown Manhattan.

Crater, who even though married preferred the company of showgirls and Manhattan's leading madam and brothel owner, Polly Adler, joined William Klein, a lawyer for the Shubert theatrical interests, and Sally Lou Ritz, a showgirl, for dinner.

After dinner at 9:15 p.m., Crater stepped into a cab and permanent enrollment on the city's missing-persons list.

This is the standard account, Tofel writes; however, during the subsequent investigation, no cab driver could be found who had picked up the judge.

"That is almost certainly because there was no such cab," he writes, and the cab theory was largely based on the grand jury testimony of Klein and Ritz.

"Yet, if we can be confident that Crater did not hail a cab, we cannot be at all sure of what he did do," he writes. "The fact is that Joseph Crater's trail runs cold at Billy Haas's restaurant. After his dinner there, no one has convincingly admitted to having seen him again."

After her husband's disappearance, his wife found cash-stuffed envelopes and a letter dated Aug. 6, 1930, on which he had written: "I am very weary. Love, Joe."


Tofel applies the old gumshoe theory of following the money trail.

Crater, a faithful member of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that controlled patronage and nominations to state court judgeships and held sway over New York politics from 1786 to the 1960s, owed Tammany for making his nomination to the court possible.

Tofel writes that Tammany had made the "Supreme Court posts the largest plums on offer."

Crater, who lived in a Fifth Avenue co-op with his wife, Stella, was known to have multiple bank accounts, which he juggled with regularity, in order to probably pay back Tammany for his judgeship.

The morning of his disappearance, he cashed checks worth $5,150, and "no one has ever been able to say for certain what that money was intended for," Tofel writes.

The subsequent investigation of Tammany Hall by special prosecutor Judge Samuel Seabury, in the wake of Crater's disappearance, ended the career of New York's colorful Mayor James J. Walker, who told reporters, "There are three things a man must do alone: Be born, die and testify."


Theories abound about what happened to Crater - none provable - because no corpse was found. Some suggest that he killed himself rather than testify against political friends before Seabury or, as his wife suggested, was the victim of a political murder.

"The evidence is insufficient to warrant any expression of opinion as to whether Crater is alive or dead, as to whether he has absented himself voluntarily, or is a sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of a crime," concluded the grand jury.

Crater was declared legally dead in 1939, and the New York Police Department officially closed the case in 1979.

Until her death in 1969, the New York Post reported that on the anniversary of her husband's disappearance, Stella would visit a Greenwich Village bar where she'd sit by herself and order two drinks.

After lifting one of the glasses, she was heard to say, "Good luck, Joe, wherever you are," and then would down the drink.


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