By Clive I. Morrick
This three part series briefly recounts the infamous Judge Joseph Crater’s disappearance; describes events in his life that may or may not have contributed to it; and summarizes the (few) books about the case.
Joseph Force Crater, a New York Supreme Court judge living at 40 Fifth Avenue (entrance on West 11th Street), disappeared on Wednesday evening, August 6, 1930 at age 41. Nine years later, he was declared legally dead. The New York Police Department (NYPD) finally closed his missing person file on August 13, 1979, but continued to follow up on tips.
Judge Crater was called the “missingest man in New York.” Joking references to him were part of the lexicon for decades: “Pulling a Crater,” refers to someone leaving without saying goodbye.
Crater, a Pennsylvania born, and Columbia University educated lawyer, had worked as a law secretary for, and later as a law partner of, New York Justice (later U.S. Senator) Robert F. Wagner, Sr., father of Robert F. Wagner, Jr., a three-term mayor of New York City. He was president of a Tammany Hall offshoot, the Cayuga Democratic Club. On April 8, 1930, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated Crater to an interim appointment on the bench. Nine days later, Crater was sworn in.
A Cold Trail
The investigation of Crater’s disappearance was fruitless. To start, 33 days passed before the NYPD received a missing person report. The Craters were spending the summer in their second home in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, some 20 miles northwest of Augusta. They had no phone. Callers left messages with the village general store. Crater traveled back and forth from the City. He returned to Belgrade Lakes on Saturday, August 2, 1930. The next day, a villager brought a telephone message and Crater went to return the call. The caller’s identity is unknown. Crater told Stella, his wife, that he had to go to New York that night but would return for her birthday on August 9th. He took the night train. She never saw him again.
Crater was in their Fifth Avenue apartment on Monday, August 4th. He asked the maid to come in on August 7th. Crater visited his physician, Dr. Albert Raggi, at 130 West 11th Street, for treatment to an injured finger. That evening, he visited a club. The following day, he played bridge with Dr. Raggi and friends. On the morning of August 6th, Crater went to his chambers and worked with his private assistant, Joseph Mara. He had a theatre ticket for the evening but did not go. He dined on West 45th Street with two friends. The three left the restaurant together and Crater went on his way.
Stella waited until August 11th before calling Simon Rifkind (a lawyer in Wagner’s office) to ask if he knew Crater’s whereabouts. Rifkind said he would look into it. Four days later, Stella dispatched the Craters’ chauffeur, Fred Kahler, to New York City. On August 18th, Kahler telegraphed Stella telling her that “Joe’s been around.” But on August 25th, the Chief Judge of Crater’s court called her to report that Crater had failed to show up for the new term. Four days later, Kahler drove her to the Fifth Avenue apartment. However, despite numerous inquiries, she learned nothing.
Stella returned to Maine where she remained for the next five months! On September 3rd, Rifkind submitted a formal missing person report to the NYPD, and the New York World disclosed Crater’s disappearance. A press frenzy began but the trail was cold.
Author’s Note: The title of this article is that of a 1947 Hollywood film, which is loosely based on the Crater mystery.
Crater, S, and Fraley, O, “The Empty Robe”, Doubleday, NY, 1961.
Tofel, R, “Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York He Left Behind”, Ivan Dee, Chicago, 2004.
Katz, H, “Cold Cases: Famous Unsolved Mysteries, Crimes, and Disappearances in America”, Greenwood Publishing Group, Santa Barbara, CA, 2010.