The Missingest Man in New York

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:04

    Every Aug. 6 for more than three decades, an attractive older woman entered a Greenwich Village bar, a place that had been a restaurant back in the Jazz Age. She sat alone in a booth and ordered two cocktails. She raised one, murmured, "Good luck, Joe, wherever you are." She drank it slowly, rose and walked out, leaving the other drink untouched.

    Thus Stella Crater mourned her vanished husband, Justice Joseph Force Crater, who became famous on Aug. 6, 1930, when he, as the Daily News later said, "disappeared efficiently, completely, and forever."

    Born to Irish immigrants in Easton, PA, in 1889, Joe Crater worked his way through Lafayette College and Columbia Law School. He opened his office at 120 Broadway (the Equitable Bldg., a huge white marble pile that was once the largest office building in the world) and joined the Cayuga Democratic Club, the power base of Tammany district leader Martin Healy, where Crater spent thousands of hours organizing election workers and representing the club in election law cases. He also married Stella Wheeler, whom he had represented in her 1912 divorce.

    State Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner Sr., who became a United States senator in 1926, appointed Crater his secretary in 1920. Joe was also an adjunct professor at Fordham and New York University law schools. But most of his income came through his law practice, which was enriched by his political connections. At first, he received the usual minor appointments from the courts: receiverships, refereeships, guardianships. Over time, Crater's pieces of pie were cut large. In February 1929, he was appointed receiver in foreclosure of the Libby Hotel. Four months later, the hotel was auctioned for $75,000 to the American Mortgage Loan Co. Two months after that, the City of New York condemned the hotel, paying American Mortgage Loan $2,850,000?a profit of $2,775,000 on its two months' investment of $75,000. Some cynics suggested American Mortgage Loan's managers knew about the city's plans before buying the building.

    Crater could afford a new apartment: a two-bedroom cooperative at 40 5th Ave. He became president of the Cayuga Club and Martin Healy's right-hand man. And on April 8, 1930, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to a vacancy on the state Supreme Court (among New York state courts, the Supreme Court is actually the lowest court, comparable to superior courts in other states). Politics had everything to do with it. So did ability: even the respectables at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York supported Joe's appointment.

    He was 41 years old?young for a Supreme Court justice in New York. Crater was a well-tailored 185-pound 6-footer, with fleshy features and slicked-down iron-gray hair that made him seem older than he was. He was a fine pianist, a good dancer and liked theater.

    When the courts recessed in June 1930, the Craters went to their summer home in Belgrade Lakes, ME, six miles from the nearest telephone. In July, they read that New York County District Attorney Thomas C.T. Crain was charging Healy with selling judgeships. Crater seemed undisturbed then, although he went away for two days in late July to confer about Healy's legal problems. On Sunday, Aug. 3, one of the locals dropped in with a message that the judge had received a long-distance telephone call at the town's drugstore. Crater went into town to return the call. When he returned, he told Stella he had to go to New York for a few days. "I've got to straighten out a few people," he said. Then, promising to return for her birthday on Saturday, Aug. 9, he left for the city. He arrived at their apartment on Monday. Crater gave the maid a few days off and saw his doctor about an index finger crushed in a car door some weeks before.

    On Tuesday, he worked in his chambers at the New York courthouse at 60 Centre St. On the morning of Aug. 6, he spent two hours going through the files in his chambers. He had his personal assistant, Joseph Mara, cash two checks for him amounting to $5150, worth roughly $50,000 in today's money. He and Mara went by cab to the Crater apartment with locked briefcases containing five large portfolios, which Mara left on a chair. The judge then dismissed Mara for the day.

    That evening, Crater bought a ticket for that night's performance of a new hit comedy, Dancing Partners, at the Belasco Theater on W. 44th St. He had dinner nearby at Billy Haas's chophouse, with two friends, William Klein, a lawyer specializing in entertainment law, and Klein's girlfriend, Sally Lou Ritz, a showgirl generally considered one fine-looking babe. Afterward, the trio stood on the sidewalk chatting and laughing. Although the curtain had gone up on Dancing Partners, Crater seemed unhurried. Between 9 and 9:15, he hailed a passing cab. Klein later recalled it was tan. Crater waved his Panama out the window to his friends.

    On the record, no one saw Joe Crater again.

    Someone called for the ticket at the Belasco's box office. No one knows if that person was Crater.

    At first Stella had been miffed that he had missed her birthday but thought he had been detained on political or legal business. His friends and colleagues thought he was in Maine. After a week, though, she began telephoning his friends in New York such as Simon Rifkind, who had succeeded him as Wagner's secretary. Rifkind reassured her that everything was all right, that the judge would eventually turn up.

    The Supreme Court opened on Aug. 25. Justice Louis Valente telephoned from New York to ask whether Joe was still in Maine. His fellow justices arranged a discreet inquiry. On Sept. 3, when the inquiry proved fruitless and the court remained one justice short, the police were notified. Joe Crater became front-page news, with the tabloids suggesting he had been murdered, had vanished with a showgirl mistress or disappeared to avoid the Healy scandal.

    In October 1930, District Attorney Crain empanelled a grand jury to dig into bankbooks, telephone records and safety deposit boxes. None of those inquiries led anywhere. Mrs. Crater, bewildered by her husband's disappearance, revolted by the sensational press coverage and enraged by Crain's suggestions that she knew of her husband's whereabouts, refused to go before the grand jury and remained in Maine, outside his jurisdiction.

    The grand jury was dismissed on Jan. 9, 1931, after hearing hundreds of witnesses and taking 2000 pages of testimony, concluding: "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 a sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of a crime."

    Mrs. Crater then returned to 40 5th Ave. on Jan. 18. Three days later, while going through her dresser, she found four manila envelopes in a hidden drawer containing his will, which left everything to her, plus $6619 in cash, several checks, life insurance policies worth $30,000 and a three-page note, listing 20 companies or persons who supposedly owed the judge money. On the bottom of the list was penned a note: "Am very weary. Love, Joe."

    The police had already searched the apartment several times, and, although Mrs. Crater insisted that they could not have searched the hidden drawer that held the newly discovered documents, this incident merely deepened the mystery.

    The investigation lasted for years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some said he was the victim of amnesia, while a few concluded that he had simply run away with a secret lover. Other theories linked the judge's fate to organized crime. Crater had known Arnold Rothstein, the man believed to have fixed the 1919 World Series, and other criminals. Perhaps he had known too much about something or other and had to be silenced; some whispered that Jack "Legs" Diamond had done the job and buried the body in the sub-basement of the Diamond-controlled Peter Barmann Brewery in Kingston, NY.

    No one ever found anything illegal in Crater's role as receiver of the Libby Hotel. Yet some persisted in believing some party to the transaction had not received his share of the profits and had taken it out on Joe. Others thought he was abducted and slain by a criminal gang disappointed with one of his rulings. A few thought he had been murdered by some stickup man who had successfully disposed of the remains.

    Emil K. Ellis, who represented Stella Crater in litigation against her husband's insurance company, argued that Crater had been murdered in a blackmail scheme engineered through June Brice, a showgirl. Ellis said the large sum of money her husband had withdrawn the day before he disappeared was probably a payoff. He believed a gangster friend of the showgirl then killed the judge when he refused to give her more money. One incident lent this plausibility: on the evening of his disappearance, Judge Crater had been seen talking to Brice, who vanished the day before the grand jury had convened. In 1948, investigators working for Ellis tracked her to a Long Island mental hospital: she was hopelessly demented. Others tied Crater to Vivian Gordon, a prostitute and blackmailer found garroted in the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park on Feb. 26, 1931. As seems to be often the case, the tabloids suggested that "a red hot diary" found in her apartment listed her wealthy politician and businessmen friends, including Joe Crater.

    Gordon had been due to testify before a special state commission investigating the Healy scandal. Even that came to nothing: Healy was acquitted three times.

    Yet Crater's actions from Aug. 3-6 seem to foreshadow his disappearance. He purged his personal files, obtained a large amount of money and wrote the letter describing the debts owed to him found five months after his disappearance. Police Commissioner Edward Mulrooney simply expressed common sense when he said, "Crater's disappearance was premeditated."

    Herbert Mitgang, in The Man Who Rode the Tiger: The Life and Times of Judge Samuel Seabury, notes that Seabury's investigation of the Healy scandal (which led to other investigations, ultimately forcing the resignation of Mayor Jimmy Walker) found Crater had raised more than $20,000 shortly before his disappearance. This was equal to a Supreme Court justice's annual salary: some noted the Tammany tradition that someone appointed to high office contributed a year's salary to the party leadership. Roosevelt-haters whispered that FDR's friends had killed Crater because his possible testimony before a grand jury about the sale of judgeships to swell party funds would hurt FDR's presidential hopes: "Mr. Roosevelt hoisted himself into the presidency on the body of his friend."

    Sightings of Judge Crater were reported all over the country, and for a while, the police followed up every lead. He was seen on trains and ships, driving a taxi in a dozen towns, panning for gold in California and Alaska, sighted in the South Seas or the French Foreign Legion. In the 1950s, a Dutch clairvoyant "sensed" Crater's body buried near Yonkers; in 1959, Westchester authorities dug up a Yonkers backyard in search of Crater's bones.

    Eventually, detectives would interview more than 300 people and review thousands of letters, telegrams and depositions. They never found a trace of Crater or the papers that he had taken from his files.The state of New York declared Joe Crater legally dead on June 6, 1939, nine years after he went missing. Stella Crater sued three insurance companies to collect her husband's death benefits. Ellis, her lawyer, argued that gangsters had murdered the judge. Eventually, the insurance companies settled the suit.

    He became a cultural figure, "the Missingest Man in New York," and the butt of nightclub jokes ("paging Judge Crater..."). As late as the 1960s, the name of Judge Crater was invoked as a symbol of the missing. His name even became popular slang: to pull a Crater is to vanish.

    Stella Crater remarried, divorced and never stopped looking for her husband. The police closed the case in 1979. On the record, no one knows what happened to him. In this life, no one will.