The disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater became the lengthiest unsolved missing persons case in the history of New York City. On August 6th, 1930, the prominent man vanished without a trace. Despite 16,000 leads and the discovery of a shady private life, the whereabouts of Judge Crater never came to light. This was such a mysterious high profile case, that Joseph Force Crater became known as the “Missingest Man in New York.”
Background on Judge Crater
Born in Easton, Pennsylvania, on January 5, 1889, Joseph Force Crater had an impressive educational record. He graduated from Lafayette College and the Columbia University Law School. By 1913, he was practicing law in New York City and would marry Stella Wheeler in 1916. The marriage occurred only a year after she retained him as her attorney in a divorce trial.
Joseph Crater began to dabble in politics and eventually became president of the Democratic Party Club in Manhattan. His business dealings with the corrupt Tammany Hall leadership, which was the democratic political machine for New York City politics, allowed his law practice to become very successful. Subsequently, he was appointed as an Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court by the then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, in April 1930.
Judge Crater was a tall, big-boned, 41-year-old man who had a liking for showgirls and fine clothing. His friends recalled that on the last day they saw him, he wearing a brown double-breasted pinstripe suit, gray spats, a high collar, and a straw Panama hat.
A Mysterious Call to Crater
The story begins in July 1930 when Judge Crater and his spouse were vacationing at their summer cabin in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. Stella stated that the judge received a mysterious phone call that he never explained to her. His only words were that he had to return back to the city “to straighten those fellows out.”
The investigation revealed that it wasn’t business dealings that he was conducting. Instead, he traveled home and gave his maid the next few days off. Joseph Crater then traveled to Atlantic City with his showgirl girlfriend, Sally Lou Ritz. He returned to Maine on August 1 but then traveled back to the city on August 3. Judge Crater informed his wife prior to leaving that he would return to Maine by her birthday on August 9.
Briefcases Filled with Cash
After arriving in New York City, he met with his assistant, Joseph Mara, on the morning of August 6. He worked on his personal files in the courthouse chambers for a few hours. During this time, he had Mara cash two checks totaling $5,150 (in 2010, this figure would equal more than $67,000) and also took some campaign funds totaling $20,000. The judge and Mara then carried two locked briefcases to Judge Crater’s apartment at which time he gave Mara the rest of the afternoon off.
Crater’s Last Night in Town
That evening, Judge Crater purchased one ticket for the broadway comedy show, Dancing Partner, at the Belasco Theatre. Then he joined his showgirl girlfriend, Sally Lou Ritzi, and his attorney friend, Willian Klein, for dinner at Billy Haas’s Chophouse on West 45th St. According to the attorney, Judge Crater seemed to be in good spirits.
After dinner, the three talked outside before they went their separate ways. Either Ritzi and Klein saw the judge get into a cab at that time or they last saw him walking away from the restaurant as he headed towards the broadway show at 9:15 pm. There are different versions of the story. Nonetheless, nobody would see him again.
A Fruitless Investigation
There wasn’t any concern until ten days later when Judge Crater’s spouse called his office. She was worried because she didn’t hear from him and he missed her birthday. His office thought he was with her on vacation, and she thought he was away on business. It was only after he failed to show up for his opening day in court on August 25 that the police became involved.
They followed thousands of leads, but none of them led to Judge Crater. Initially, the money the Judge withdrew was a significant part of the investigation. However, the authorities eventually found the money in his apartment in January 1931. They also found a note inside that Judge Crater had written. The note simply said “I am very weary. Joe.”
Judge Crater’s disappearance made headline news. It even sparked various slang phrases such as “to pull a Crater,” if someone has disappeared or is ducking responsibilities. Nightclub comedians would often use the phrase “Judge Crater, call your office” as part of their act. The “Missingest Man” may have been missing, but he certainly wasn’t forgotten.
Theories About Judge Crater’s Disappearance
Many theories have surfaced as to what happened to Judge Crater. Here are some of the more popular ones:
- Someone killed him because some of his corrupt business practices were about to come to light.
- He ran off with another woman.
- Eager for a new life in Quebec, the judge arranged for his disappearance.
- While he was visiting a brothel, he died in the arms of a prostitute, and the Madam removed his body.
Stella Ferrucci-Good’s Letter
The most compelling theory surfaced on August 19, 2005, when a note surfaced after the death of Stella Ferrucci-Good at the age of 91. The letter was in an envelope that said, “Do not open until my death.” Stella’s granddaughter had found it in a metal box inside Stella’s home.
In the letter, Stella disclosed something that her late husband had told her. He was a New York City police officer named Robert Good. He told Stella that his fellow police officer, Charles Burns, and his brother Frank Burns, a New York City cab driver, killed Judge Crater.
Stella stated that Officer Burns was the bodyguard for Abe Reles of Murder, Inc., a group that provided enforcement services for the mafia. Reles was a hitman for hire who turned informant and worked with the police. A number of agents of Murder, Inc. died in the electric chair due to Reles’ testimony. Not surprisingly, Reles died in a fall from a six-story building just hours before he was supposed to testify against the mob boss Albert Anastasia.
According to Stella, Frank Burns picked up Judge Crater in his taxi cab after his dinner at the Chophouse. From there, they picked up two more men who took Crater to Coney Island and killed Crater. She said Crater’s body is buried under the Coney Island boardwalk near West 8th Street in Brooklyn where the New York Aquarium now sits. Police checked to see if construction workers had ever uncovered a skeleton in the area. However, there were no such records, and they were unable to verify Stella’s details.
Following Joseph Crater’s Disappearance
Sally Lou-Ritz, Judge Crater’s showgirl girlfriend, disappeared in August or September 1930 and was never seen or heard from again.
Judge Crater was officially declared dead in absentia on June 6, 1939.
Since Judge Crater’s disappearance on August 6, 1930, Stella Crater would commemorate that fateful day for the remainder of her life by visiting a local bar in Greenwich village. She would sit by herself and order two drinks — but have only one. Every year as she had that drink she would say “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.”
Stella died in 1969 at the age of 70, and the “Missingest Man” has remained missing ever since.