The Case of Judge Crater
Perhaps no disappearance in American history has created as much speculation as that of New York Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph F. Crater. For many years, he was known simply as “the most missingest man in New York.” He was last seen on the evening of August 6, 1930, walking out of a New York restaurant. Crater was a tall, heavyset man and an avowed clothes horse. He was especially dapper that evening as he stepped out of the restaurant, waved goodbye to a couple of friends and then climbed into a taxicab. His friends would remember his double-breasted brown suit, gray spats and a straw Panama hat over his smoothed-down iron grey hair for it was the last outfit they ever saw him wear. After that final glimpse, Crater was never seen again. But how was it possible for a man as powerful and prominent as a Supreme Court judge to disappear forever?
Judge Crater’s career was unquestionably successful. He was born and raised in Easton, Pennsylvania, and later graduated from Lafayette College and Columbia University Law School. In 1913, he began practicing law in New York and got involved in local politics. He soon became president of the Democratic Party Club in Manhattan and saw his law practice flourish thanks to his connections to the corrupt Democratic leadership at Tammany Hall. In April 1930, he was appointed to the New York Supreme Court. He had withdrawn $20,000 from the bank just days before his appointment. The sum was close to a year’s salary but that was the standard Tammany payoff for the lucrative post. It was not a poor investment either, according to investigators who later looked into his role as a receiver of a bankrupt hotel. Crater sold it to a bond and mortgage firm for $75,000 and two months later, the city agreed to buy it back for a planned street widening at a condemned property price of almost three million dollars.
Crater did just as well in his private life. In 1916, a woman named Stella Wheeler retained him in a divorce trial and the next year, right after her divorce became final, Crater married her. By all accounts, they appeared to be a happy and devoted couple.
Vanished Judge Joseph F. Crater
In the summer of 1930, forty-one-year-old Crater and his wife were vacationing at their summer cabin at Belgrade Lakes, Maine. In late July, he received a telephone call and he offered no information to his wife about the content of the call, other than to say that he had to return to the city “to straighten those fellows out.” The following day, he arrived at his Fifth Avenue apartment. Instead of dealing with business, though, he made a trip to Atlantic City in the company of a showgirl. On August 3, he was back in New York and on the morning of August 6, he spent two hours going through his files in his courthouse chambers. He then had his assistant, Joseph Mara, cash two checks for him that amounted to $5,150. At noon, he and Mara carried two locked briefcases to his apartment and he let Mara take the rest of the day off.
Later that evening, Crater went to a Broadway ticket agency and purchased one seat for a comedy that was playing that night called Dancing Partners at the Belasco Theater. He then went to Billy Haas’ chophouse on West 45th Street for dinner. There, he ran into two friends, a fellow attorney and his showgirl date, and he joined them for dinner. The lawyer later told investigators that Crater was in a good mood that evening and gave no indication that anything was bothering him. The dinner ended a little after 9:00 p.m., a short time after the curtain had opened for the show that Crater had a ticket for. The group went outside and as Crater stepped into the taxi that he hailed down, he waved goodbye to his friends. His next, and likely final destination, remains a mystery.
Strangely, there was no immediate reaction to Judge Crater’s disappearance. When he did not return to Maine as scheduled on August 9, Mrs. Crater grew concerned. Nevertheless, she waited six days before dispatching Kohler, the family driver, to New York to see if he could learn anything. When Kohler arrived at the Fifth Avenue apartment, the maid told him that Judge Crater’s bed had not been slept in since August 8. Kohler next began telephoning Crater’s friends. They were all excessively reassuring about the welfare of the judge, believing that no harm could have come to him. All of his friends were acutely aware that any hint of a mysterious disappearance might hurt Crater’s chances for re-election in November. They were anxious that any odd behavior on Crater’s part be kept hidden from the voting public.
In addition, they wanted to make sure his extramarital sex life was carefully hidden, as well. Crater had always confined his interest to night club parties, one-night stands and prostitutes, but suppose the middle-aged man had come across a young woman that he had fallen for and he had taken her off on an extended trip? If that was the case, his cronies were anxious to soft-pedal his disappearance.
So Kohler returned to Maine on August 20, relieved that no harm had come to the judge. He informed Mrs. Crater that her husband must surely be safe, though no one seemed to have any idea where he might be. He was sure that he would return on August 28, when he was scheduled to preside over the first session of the special term.
But when Crater didn’t make an appearance for this important session, word began to circulate that something was amiss. Stella Crater, her worst fears apparently justified, hurried to New York. She began calling her husband’s friends, including Martin J. Healy, who was summering on Long Island. Healy later stated that Mrs. Crater became hysterical when he could not tell her anything. Healy, along with others, strongly advised her to return to Maine. Against her better judgment, she did.
An unofficial search was started for Crater, led by a city detective named Leo Lowenthal, who often acted as a bodyguard for one of Crater’s political friends. He visited the judge’s chambers and learned of the two briefcases believed to be filled with personal papers that the judge and his assistant had carried out of the office. Lowenthal next went to the Fifth Avenue apartment but found no trace of the papers, nor any charred remains to indicate that they had been burned. He noted with interest that Crater’s vest was in his bedroom, but found nothing else unusual.
With no trace of the judge to be found, the police commissioner was finally notified of the disappearance on September 3.
After that, the case of the missing judge became front page news. The story captivated the nation and a massive investigation was launched. Had Crater been killed, or had he simply disappeared on his own? Those were the questions that everyone wanted answers to, from police detectives to shady business partners to the average man on the street. The official investigations started off in a hurry, but quickly slowed down. Detectives discovered that the judge’s safe-deposit box had been cleaned out and the two briefcases that Crater and Mara had taken to his apartment were missing. These promising leads were quickly bogged down by the thousands of false reports that were coming in from people who claimed to have seen the missing man.
The District Attorney centered his investigation on Mrs. Crater while the police began delving into his financial and sexual affairs. It was found that he had a safe deposit box at the Empire Trust Company, but it turned out to be empty.
Detectives looking into Crater’s love life were far more successful and they found that for years, Crater had been on friendly terms with Constance Braemer Marcus, a raven-haired woman in her middle thirties. Lovely and vivacious, she had been a worker for the Cayuga Democratic Club in 1922, when she had met Crater during an election campaign. She liked him and later retained him – as Mrs. Crater had done – during her divorce. They became involved in a long-time affair.
Over the years, Crater visited Connie Marcus several times a week and paid her rent at the Hotel Mayflower on Central Park West. In the daytime, Connie Marcus worked as a salesgirl at Milgrim’s and other upscale shops along Fifty-Seventh Street.
When news of Crater’s disappearance went public, Marcus added to the chaos by disappearing herself. It seemed a logical assumption that Crater and his mistress had run off together and the police investigation stalled. Then Connie returned to the city alone, explaining that she had left town merely to avoid the publicity. She was questioned closely by investigators but they became convinced that Marcus knew nothing of the judge’s whereabouts.
The police also learned that Crater frequented a Broadway nightclub and speakeasy called the Club Abbey. The Abbey was owned by gangland figure Owney Madden and was frequented by mobsters like Jack “Legs” Diamond, Dutch Schultz, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll and others. A number of murders had occurred on the premises and it was definitely not the sort of spot that should have been a favorite hangout for a New York Supreme Court Justice. But this is where Crater went in search of a diversion, although he tried to convince patrons that his name was “Joe Crane.” However, since so many other politicians frequented this unsavory nightspot, false names were a waste of time.
At the Abbey, the judge had been especially friendly with a chorus girl named Elaine Dawn. Police questioned her, along with Sally-Lou Ritz, who had been at Crater’s table for dinner on the night he disappeared, and Marie Miller, his Atlantic City party girl date. None of these lovely ladies were able to offer a clue as to his location.
The search for Judge Crater ground to a halt, even though he had been reported in Canada, the Adirondacks, Nova Scotia, Cuba, California, Mexico City and even Africa. Most assumed that the judge had ducked out just one step ahead of someone who was looking for him. A 1947 movie called “The Judge Steps Out,” starring Alexander Knox, follows the lighthearted exploits of a judge who becomes weary of his responsibilities and leaves his family to become a short-order cook. For decades after his disappearance, his name was a slang term for dodging one’s responsibilities and “to pull a Crater” was to slip away permanently.
In October, a grand jury convened to look into the disappearance. Mrs. Crater refused to come to New York and participate in the hearings. Nevertheless, the grand jury called ninety-five witnesses and amassed nine hundred and seventy-five pages of testimony. After all of that, the conclusion was: “The evidence is insufficient to warrant any expression of opinion as to whether Crater is alive or dead, or as to whether he has absented himself voluntarily, or is the sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of crime.”
In late January 1931, Mrs. Crater finally returned to New York. From the apartment on Fifth Avenue, she announced an amazing discovery. In a bureau drawer often used by the judge, she found a large manila envelope containing $6,690 in an assortment of denominations, along with three small checks that had been made out to Crater and signed by him. There was also a second envelope that contained stocks and bonds and a binder with three insurance policies. A memo in Crater’s handwriting listed the names of men who owed him money, along with the amounts owed by each man. The note was signed with the words, “I am very whary, Joe.” It is believed the misspelled word was likely meant to be “weary.”
The discovery caused an uproar. Cops had searched the apartment four times and never would have missed the bulky envelopes and the insurance binder. Detective Leo Lowenthal, who had made the first unofficial search, maintained that the envelopes had not been in the drawer in August. Had someone --- perhaps Crater himself – placed them there? Had his killers – if he had been murdered – felt compassion for his widow and placed there in the bureau? Or had Mrs. Crater brought them back with her from Maine?
No one knows, but this was the last dramatic development in the case. The search continued throughout 1931 but no trace of the judge was ever found.
There have been many theories put forward to answer the mystery of Judge Crater. Mrs. Crater and many of his close friends believed that he was the victim of foul play. Stella Crater stated that he was murdered “because of something sinister connected to politics.” And she may have been right given his involvement in bribery, back-door dealing with Tammany Hall politics and questionable real estate deals. She also did not believe that the judge would have voluntarily vanished, insisting, “Joe Crater would not run away from anybody but would meet his problems directly, whatever they were.”
In 1937, Mrs. Crater sued the three insurance companies for double indemnity on her husband’s life insurance policies. During the trial, her attorney, Emil K. Ellis, advanced her murder theory, but left politics out of the mix. He claimed that Judge Crater had been blackmailed by a Broadway showgirl and he had paid her off. When she demanded more money and Crater refused to pay, a gangster friend of the showgirl had killed him, perhaps accidentally. The attorney’s theories did not impress the court and they denied the double indemnity claims.
On June 6, 1939, Judge Crater was officially declared dead but sightings continued for years, as did the theories as to what happened to him. Possible exits of the judge have included his murder by political cronies just before he could testify against them in a graft investigation and a cover-up of his death in the arms of his mistress or a prostitute. Some believe he was killed in a dispute over a payoff or that he decided to drop out and start a new life in Quebec, Europe or the Caribbean.
Stella Crater remarried in 1939 but the marriage didn’t last. In 1961 she wrote a book entitled, The Empty Robe: The Story of the Disappearance of Judge Crater. Although her book concludes she didn’t know her second husband very well at all, she seemed to retain fond memories of him; either that or she had an ironic sense of humor. Every year on the August 6 anniversary of her husband’s disappearance until her death in 1969, Mrs. Crater visited a Greenwich Village bar and ordered two drinks. After downing one, she would raise the other glass and toast, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.”
Crater’s case -- Missing Person’s File 13595 – was officially closed in 1979.
A possible answer to the fate of “Good-Time Joe” Crater came to light in April 2005, when Stella Ferrucci-Good died in Bellerose, Queens, leaving behind what may be a key to the mystery. While going through Mrs. Ferrucci-Good’s possessions, her granddaughter, Barbara O’Brien, discovered a metal box that contained handwritten letter in an envelope marked, “Do not open until my death.” In the letter, Mrs. Ferrucci-Good claimed that her late husband, Robert Good, told her that a New York City cop named Charles Burns, and the cop’s brother, a cab driver named Frank Burns, were responsible for Crater’s death.
Robert Good was a New York City Parks Department supervisor and lifeguard who died in 1975.
In her account, Mrs. Ferrucci-Good wrote that her husband told her that he learned over drinks with one of both of the Burns brothers that they, along with several other men, killed the judge and buried him on Coney Island, under the boardwalk at West Eighth Street. That location is the current site of the New York Aquarium.
According to Mrs. Ferrucci-Good’s account, her husband told her that when Crater stepped into the cab on West Forty-Second Street that night, the driver was Frank Burns, a Syndicate hitman employed by Jack “Legs” Diamond. Diamond was allegedly angry at Crater’s refusal to reverse on appeal some lower court decisions that hurt the mob boss. Burns picked Crater up in his cab and then drove a few blocks to where his two accomplices jumped in the vehicle. They drove to Coney Island, where they were joined by two more men. Their intent was to rough Crater up a little and scare him into playing ball with Diamond, but in the judge’s struggles to escape the cab, he was accidentally killed.
In her letter, Mrs. Ferrucci-Good said that officer Burns was one of the cops guarding notorious Murder Inc. hitman Abe “Kid Twist” Reles when the gangster and mob informant somehow plummeted to his death from a sixth-floor Coney Island hotel window in 1941. Reles’ death came hours before he was to testify against mob boss Albert Anastasia. Reles became immortalized in New York tabloids as “the canary who could sing but couldn’t fly.” Also in the box left by Mrs. Ferrucci-Good were yellowed newspaper clippings about Crater’s disappearance with written notations in the margins.
Police sources confirmed that a man named Charles Burns served with the NYPD from 1926 to 1946 and that he spent part of his career assigned to the 60th Precinct in Coney Island. Police also confirmed that several skeletal remains were found at the location named by Mrs. Ferrucci-Good in 1956, when the foundation for the aquarium was being dug. Decades prior to the advent of DNA technology, the remains could not be identified. They were reburied in pine coffins made by inmates at Rikers Island prison in an unmarked mass grave in New York City’s Potters Field on Hart Island.
Mrs. O’Brien and her family say Mrs. Ferrucci-Good never mentioned the Crater case to them They were baffled by the contents of the letter and thought it was a joke but they turned it over to the police, just to be sure. Police were unable to verify or disprove in the letter, leaving the fate of “the missingest man in New York” an ongoing mystery.
From the book WITHOUT A TRACE by Troy Taylor