Not So Famous Disappearances: Joseph Force Crater

Working on The Other Realm: Book Three of the Utgarda Trilogy, I have been researching people who have mysteriously disappeared, dutifully captured from Wikipedia.

Joseph Force Crater (January 5, 1889 – disappeared August 6, 1930, declared legally dead June 6, 1939) was a New York State Supreme Court Justice who vanished amid political scandal. He was last seen leaving a restaurant on West 45th Street in Manhattan, and entered popular culture as one of the most mysterious missing persons cases of the twentieth century. Despite massive publicity, the case was never solved and was officially closed 40 years after he disappeared. His disappearance fueled public disquiet about New York City corruption and was a factor in the downfall of the Tammany Hall political machine.

Crater’s official title was Justice of the New York Supreme Court for New York County, which is a trial court despite the designation “supreme” (New York’s highest court is the Court of Appeals). Bank records later revealed that he withdrew $20,000 shortly before taking up the position in April 1930 at the relatively young age of 41. This caused suspicion that a payment to Tammany Hall politicians had secured his appointment. While acting as official receiver in a bankruptcy, Crater sold a property at a tiny fraction of the $3 million that the city paid to get it back shortly afterward. The huge profit generated in the transaction later caused speculation that he had been killed in a dispute over the money made on a corrupt scheme, although no evidence of corruption was ever found.

In the summer of 1930, Crater and his wife Stella Mance Wheeler were vacationing at their summer cabin in Belgrade, Maine. In late July, Crater received a telephone call. 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 next day, he arrived at his 40 Fifth Avenue apartment, but instead of dealing with business, he made a trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, with his mistress, showgirl Sally Lou Ritzi (who used the stage name Ritz). He returned to Maine on August 1, and traveled back to New York on August 3. Before making this final trip, he promised his wife that he would return by her birthday on August 9. Crater’s wife stated that he was in good spirits and behaving normally when he departed for New York City. On the morning of Wednesday, August 6, Crater spent two hours going through his files in his courthouse chambers, reportedly destroying several documents. He then had his law clerk Joseph Mara cash two checks for him that amounted to $5,150 (equivalent to about $73,834 in 2017 dollars). 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 (Supreme Tickets) and bought one seat from William Deutsch (proprietor of Supreme) for a comedy called Dancing Partner at the Belasco Theatre. He then went to Billy Haas’s Chophouse at 332 West 45th Street, where he ate dinner with Ritzi and William Klein, a lawyer friend Klein 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 p.m., shortly after the curtain rose on the show for which Crater had bought a ticket, and the small group went outside.

Crater’s dinner companions gave differing accounts of Crater’s departure from the restaurant. William Klein initially testified that “the judge got into a taxicab outside the restaurant about 9:30 p.m. and drove west on Forty-fifth Street,” and this account was initially confirmed by Sally Lou Ritz: “At the sidewalk Judge Crater took a taxicab”. Klein and Ritz later changed their story and said that they had entered a taxi outside the restaurant while Crater had walked down the street.

There was no immediate reaction to Judge Crater’s disappearance. He did not return to Maine for 10 days, and his wife began making calls to their friends in New York, asking if anyone had seen him. Only when he failed to appear for the opening of the courts on August 25 did his fellow justices become alarmed. They started a private search but failed to find any trace of him. The police were finally notified on September 3 and, after that, the missing judge was front-page news.

Once an official investigation was launched, the case received widespread publicity. Detectives discovered that the judge’s safe deposit box had been emptied and the two briefcases that Crater and his assistant had taken to his apartment were missing. These promising leads were quickly lost amid the thousands of false reports from people claiming to have seen the missing man.

Crater enjoyed the city’s nightlife and had been involved with several women. In the aftermath of the case, two of the women he had been involved with left town abruptly and a third was murdered. Ritzi, the showgirl who had dined with him the evening that he vanished, left New York in August or September 1930. She was found in late September 1930, living in Youngstown, Ohio with her parents. She said that she had left New York suddenly because she had received word that her father was ill. Ritzi was still being subjected to interviews by police investigating the Crater case in 1937, by which time she was living in Beverly Hills, California.

Showgirl June Brice had been seen talking to Crater the day before he disappeared. A lawyer acting for Crater’s wife believed that Brice had been at the center of a scheme to blackmail Crater (thus explaining why Crater had taken cash out of the bank) and that a gangster boyfriend of Brice had killed the judge. Brice disappeared the day that a grand jury was to convene on the case. In 1948, she was discovered in a mental hospital.

Vivian Gordon, a third woman, was involved in high-end prostitution and linked to madam Polly Adler. Gordon had liaisons with a large number of influential businesspeople, and was the owner, on paper at least, of a number of properties believed to be fronts for illegal activity. She was also seen around town with gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, with whom Crater was rumored to socialize. Crater had known Diamond’s former boss, organized crime figure Arnold Rothstein, and had been extremely upset at his murder.

On February 20, 1931, Vivian Gordon was angry about a conviction that had resulted in her losing custody of her 16-year-old daughter. She met the head of an official inquiry into city government corruption (launched in the wake of Crater’s disappearance) and offered to testify about graft. She was murdered five days later. Detectives searching her apartment found a coat that had belonged to Crater.

The publicity surrounding Gordon’s killing led to the resignation of a policeman whom she had accused of framing her, and the suicide of her daughter. The Tammany Hall political machine’s hold on the city was largely eliminated in the ensuing scandal, as it was already weakened by Rothstein and the conflict over his former empire. This also led to the resignation of New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.

In October, a grand jury began examining the case, calling 95 witnesses and amassing 975 pages of testimony. Mrs. Crater refused to appear. The conclusion was that “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”. At the time, some theorized that he had left town with another woman or fled to avoid revelations of corruption, but the case’s extensive publicity would have made it virtually impossible for Crater to have begun a new life somewhere else. Six months after his disappearance, Crater’s wife found envelopes in a dresser drawer containing money and a note from the judge. The discovery led to a number of new but ultimately inconclusive leads, and no trace of him was ever found. Crater’s wife said that he had been murdered. The case was officially closed in 1979.

Author: joabstieglitz

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