There have been many mysterious disappearances over the history of crime, but one continues to resonate in popular culture even though 87 years have passed since a dapper New York State judge walked out of a restaurant and down 45th Street, never to been seen again. “Pulling a Judge Crater” has been the term applied to a person who walks away of their own accord ever since, even though that’s probably not what happened.
Judge Joseph Force Crater was only 41 when he was named as an Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court for New York County; there was some doubt whether he was named on his own merits or because he’d paid a substantial ‘fee’ to the political machine run under the infamous name ‘Tammany Hall’. Nothing happened in New York City in the 1920s and ’30s without someone getting paid off among the ward bosses who congregated there. Nevertheless, Judge Crate fulfilled his duties as a trial judge, even if he sometimes walked on the shady side of the law. But whether he played fair or not, there was always someone who is unhappy with the outcome of a law-suit. One person who may have been unhappy with him was the ex-husband of Mrs. Crater. Joseph Crater represented her in her divorce and married her a few months later in 1916.
To avoid the sweltering summers of a New York City where the electric fan was the best coolant, Judge and Mrs. Crater were spending their vacation months in their home in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. One day in July, the judge received a phone call. Though he said nothing to his wife about the details of the call, he did say something about ‘going down there to straighten those guys out’. He kissed his wife good-bye and returned to the city, in seeming good spirits, on August 1st 1930. But instead of seeing ‘those guys’, he traveled on a spree to Atlantic City accompanied by his girlfriend, the showgirl, Sally Ritz.
A brief visit to Maine on August 1st interrupted his bachelor New York City lifestyle. He left again on August 3rd, promising to return for Mrs. Crater’s birthday on the 9th. There doesn’t seem to be much information on how he spent his time until the 6th, when he spent several hours in his office with his clerk, destroying papers. His clerk cashed two checks for him, over $5,000 in total in an era when the average yearly salary was just under $2,000. His clerk helped him carried his bags back to his apartment and then was told to take the rest of the day off.
The judge bought one ticket to a popular show for later that evening. Before the show, he met a lawyer friend and Miss Sally Ritz at Billy Haas’s Chophouse at 332 West 45th Street. They had a pleasant meal and William Klein, the attorney friend, said that the Judge was in a good mood. They parted at 9 pm, shortly after the curtain rose on Dancing Partners at the Belasco Theatre.
Note: It may seem strange to us that the Judge was in no hurry to get into his seat. But a theater ticket is much more expensive now than it was then. After the Crash of ’29, theaters were hurting and dropped their prices to no more than $1.00. A wealthy man like Crater could afford to take his time. Besides, it was not unusual for a theater-goer to skip the first act, especially if they’d seen the show previously as Judge Crater had.
So, though at first Sally and Klein claimed that the Judge hailed a cab and drove away, they later changed or clarified their story to be that the Judge waved good-bye and walked away down 45th street in his neat brown double-breasted suit, his grey spats, high starched collar, and light summer Panama hat. And that’s the last anyone ever saw of Judge Crater.
Stella Crater did not become unduly alarmed until August 16th. When her husband did not appear for her birthday as promised or for a week afterwards, she began calling friends and associates in the city to see if anyone knew where the Judge had gone. When Court opened on the 25th and there was still no Judge Crater in attendance, the justices began a private search. Only on September 3rd, did they finally notify the police. At that point, the publicity mills got going. The disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater was front-page news.
The story lacked nothing…except perhaps a regard for what really happened. Rumors flew like New York City pigeons. The judge had had an eye for the ladies, his associates weren’t necessarily the purest, and there was a whole lot of missing money. For the $5,000 had vanished along with the judge. Some claimed Sally Ritz (nee Ritzi) had been murdered to keep her quiet…though in truth she’d gone home to her mother in New Jersey and from there to California. The police knew her whereabouts at all times and questioned her on-and-off during the years to come. But the press preferred the more mysterious ‘missing showgirl’ angle. Another woman who knew Crater was indeed murdered after promising to testify about graft in another case; her death and the involvement of a police officer helped to bring down the graft-ridden Tammany Hall.
Yet a third woman involved with the judge, this time as a possible blackmailer, was discovered in a mental hospital in 1948. A lawyer working for Mrs. Carter proposed that this woman had been in cahoots with her boyfriend to blackmail the judge and that the boyfriend had killed Crater when the scheme went wrong. That theory went nowhere.
A grand jury found that there was insufficient evident to show whether the judge had been murdered, had walked away of his own accord, or indeed anything…despite nearly a thousand pages of collected testimony. Mrs. Carter had to try to get insurance on a man no one knew if he was dead. She said that he wouldn’t have walked out on his responsibilities and that he must be dead. Six months later, her faith received a boost when she discovered checks, money, several life insurance policies, and a note reading ‘I am very whery, (weary) Joe’ in a drawer in their New York apartment…a drawer that had been searched before and found empty.
The judge was finally declared dead in 1939. Stella finally got her insurance claim. In 1961 she published a book THE EMPTY ROBE through Doubleday, outlining what she believed happened to her husband, and passed away in 1969. The Crater missing person case was closed in 1979 only to open again 2005. A woman claimed that her husband, a cop and sometime bodyguard, murdered the judge the same night he disappeared, in cahoots with a taxi driver and two other accomplices. They buried him under the boardwalk at Coney Island, then undergoing some work. However, as no body was ever found there, doubt remains about this story too.
But what is it about this case, which is not so very unusual, that caught the public’s attention to the point where many people still know the name ‘Judge Crater’ even if they can’t say who he was exactly. I first became interested in his story after reading ‘Flowers for the Judge’, an Albert Campion novel by British author, Margery Allingham. The ‘judge’ in the title is not Judge Crater…but refers to the tradition of giving a judge flowers on his bench to counteract the stink of the unwashed prisoners who appear before him. However, the book does contain a central mystery – a man, walking along an empty street, one side bordered by a high wall, who vanishes almost under the eyes of a police constable and a newspaper seller. It came out in 1936. There are other titles that have that same sort of ‘mysterious disappearance’ at their core. The story of Judge Crater was widely disseminated, even in other nations, and mystery writers asked themselves the eternal question of all writers: WHAT IF…. In later years, fantasy and science fiction writers have also asked themselves ‘what really happened to Judge Crater?’ It seems as though a new book comes out about every three to five years that attempts to answer that question.
I think it is the very ordinary character of the moments before his disappearance that catches our imaginations. Who hasn’t walked down a street, whether in a big city or a small town? Who hasn’t waved a happy farewell to friends and loved ones and gone away out of sight? Whether Crater vanished through kidnapping and murder, a Twilight Zone side-slip into the fourth dimension, or fell through time into a world before history or far into the future, there seems to be nothing between us and that same fate. So we play in our minds with tales and ideas to block out thoughts of how it could happen to us.