“The way to have power is to take it.” — Boss Tweed
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.
On August 6, 1930, Judge Joseph Force Crater walked out into a warm New York night and was never seen again. An intensive manhunt and a grand jury investigation failed to penetrate the clouds of mystery surrounding his disappearance, and it has become one of the enduring puzzles of American history. His story, featuring showgirls, gangsters, and politicians against a background of corruption, would prove a source of juicy speculation and easy humor for decades to come.
The politics of the big city as it emerged from the Roaring Twenties was byzantine to say the least. Tammany Hall, originally an eighteenth-century social club, had long been synonymous with the local Democratic Party. Even before the days of William M. “Boss” Tweed, who ran the club from 1860 to 1872, Tammany had also been redolent of bribery, influence-peddling, and freelance venality. More lately, reformers like Franklin Roosevelt had challenged Tammany, muting some of its power. But even Roosevelt, elected as New York’s governor in 1928, needed to tread carefully when dealing with the Tammany tiger.
In the spring of 1930 Roosevelt had rejected the official Tammany candidate put forth to fill a vacancy as justice of the state Supreme Court (New York’s trial court). Instead he appointed the 41-year-old Crater to the lucrative position, with the knowledge that Crater had the approval of the Democratic Party power Robert F. Wagner, then a U.S. Senator. Crater had served as Wagner’s law secretary for six years in the 1920s while climbing the lower rungs of New York politics.
By August 1930 both the weather and the political climate in the city were heating up. Mayor Jimmy Walker, a former songwriter, had been linked to a Tammany district leader under investigation for selling a judgeship. It was rumored that such practices were widespread in the city, and that candidates traditionally coughed over one year’s salary to the political kingmakers. It would later turn out that Crater himself had converted stocks and checks into $22,500 in cash, the exact yearly salary of a justice before a recent raise (judges received today’s equivalent of $265,000).
On August 2 Crater had gone to Maine to spend time with his wife, Stella, away from the stifling city. He returned to New York by train the next day, telling Stella he needed to attend to pressing business. He would be back in a few days. On the morning of August 6, he asked his assistant to cash checks for just over $5,000. He had an assistant help him remove six portfolios of papers from his office to his posh Fifth Avenue apartment. None of the documents was ever seen again.
That evening the dapper judge, who favored spats and high stiff collars like those worn by President Hoover, joined his lawyer friend William Klein and a young woman named Sally Lou Ritz for lobster cocktails and chicken at Billy Haas’s chophouse, on West 45th Street. He had ordered a ticket to see Dancing Partner, a comedy at the nearby Belasco Theater. Afterward Klein and Ritz headed for Coney Island, while Crater presumably went to the theater; at least someone picked up his ticket. He may or may not have hailed a cab. In any event, he disappeared off the face of the earth.
Not knowing exactly when her husband intended to return, Stella did not immediately raise an alarm. She made inquiries over the next few weeks, but Crater’s friends and colleagues discouraged her from going public with the disappearance, given the incendiary political climate.
The news finally broke on September 3. Crater’s judicial appointment four months earlier and his position as leader of a powerful Democratic club fueled speculation that his disappearance had a political motive. Senator Wagner, returning from Europe, said that he and Crater were “never more than mere acquaintances” and claimed he had supported another candidate for the post. The journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that the mystery “will continue to add to the deep uneasiness of the public concerning the judiciary.”
New Yorkers, who had been pummeled with gloomy economic news ever since the stock market crash the previous autumn, were eager for distraction. “By Friday, September 5, Judge Crater was New York’s latest obsession,” writes the author Richard J. Tofel, in Vanishing Point, his study of the case. The papers dug into Crater’s love life. Thousands of copies of his picture were circulated. A reward was offered. The district attorney convened a grand jury to look into the matter. The police followed up 16,000 leads from around the world. Crater had become “the missingest man in New York.”
Stella didn’t return to the city until January 1931, after the grand jury had given up and declared that “the evidence is insufficient to warrant any expression of opinion as to whether Crater is alive or dead.” She immediately uncovered four envelopes in a dresser that had been thoroughly searched by police. They contained $6,690 in cash, which may have included the money her husband had withdrawn on August 6. Checks and bank books indicated he had left behind nearly $25,000 in cash. He had also left a list of people who owed him money.
What did it all mean? No one could say for sure. Had Crater vanished intentionally, or had he been abducted? Was his disappearance linked to the corruption hearings that would lead to Mayor Walker’s resignation in 1932? Did it have something to do with his predilection for chorus girls? His habit of visiting nightclubs frequented by mobsters like Jack “Legs” Diamond and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll? All inquiries ended in mystery.
Plenty of witnesses saw Crater after August 6. Someone said he was herding sheep in the Pacific Northwest. Another was sure he had been locked up in a Missouri insane asylum. He was spotted shooting craps in Atlanta, manning a steamer in the Adriatic, operating a bingo game in North Africa. In 1936 a California gold prospector named “Lucky Blacky” Blackiet told Los Angeles police he had met Crater in the desert looking for gold. “I’m done with civilization,” Crater had told him. New York detectives, dispatched to investigate, found no trace of the missing jurist.
Stella had Crater declared legally dead in 1939 and collected his life insurance. Rumor had it that every August 6 she visited a Greenwich Village bar to toast her missing husband: “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.” 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. She died in 1969.
Groucho Marx often joked that he was going to “step out and look for Judge Crater.” “Judge Crater, call your office” became a standard gag of nightclub comedians. To “pull a Crater” meant to vanish. In the 1950s a Dutch psychic determined that Crater was buried in a Yonkers backyard, which was duly dug up. No Crater.
In August 2005, the death of a 91-year-old Queens woman breathed new life into the saga. Stella Ferrucci-Good left behind a letter that claimed her husband had learned over drinks that Crater had been murdered on the night of his disappearance by several men, including a taxi driver whose brother was a New York City police officer. They had buried the body under the Coney Island boardwalk at the spot where in the 1950s the New York Aquarium was built. Has Judge Crater been sleeping with the fishes all these years? Or has one more layer of mystery been added to his story? No one can say for sure.
Tammany Hall (Wikipedia): The Tammany Tiger cartoon on the masthead is the work of Bernhard Gillam, a nineteenth century confrère of Thomas Nast. Nast is credited with popularizing the donkey and the tiger as symbols of the Democratic Party and Tammany Hall, respectively.
An appreciation: the bulk of this page is inspired by or quoted from “Judge Crater Vanishes Forever,” an article by Jack Kelly in American Heritage, a moribund publication that went under in 2013, taking its website with it.
Thanks to Joem Phillips, a writer and poet of South Carolina, for introducing me to George Washington Plunkitt. Plunkitt was one of the famous, albeit not the most important of the old-time political bosses. Although he was well known in New York City political circles in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, his enduring fame came from a very short book with a very long subtitle: Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, Delivered by Ex-Senator George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Philosopher, from his Rostrum—the New York County Courthouse Bootblack Stand. Journalist William Riordan listened to Plunkitt’s talks and published them as interviews in various local newspapers. In 1905, he published them in a book, which became a classic on American urban politics, one still widely read today. Amidst political cynicism, Plunkitt also preached the virtues of hard work, sobriety, and even (as in this talk on “honest graft”) honesty. (Source: History Matters)
William Magear Tweed, “Boss Tweed,” was a politician who, with his “Tweed ring” cronies, systematically plundered New York City of sums estimated at between $30,000,000 and $200,000,000. By 1860 he headed Tammany Hall’s general committee and thus controlled the Democratic Party’s nominations to all city positions. In that same year he opened a law office through which he received large fees from various corporations for his “legal services.”
He became a state senator in 1868 and also became grand sachem (principal leader) of Tammany Hall that same year. Tweed dominated the Democratic Party in both the city and state and had his candidates elected mayor of New York City, governor, and speaker of the state assembly. In 1870 he forced the passage of a new city charter creating a board of audit by means of which he and his associates could control the city treasury. The Tweed ring then proceeded to milk the city through such devices as faked leases, padded bills, false vouchers, unnecessary repairs, and overpriced goods and services bought from suppliers controlled by the ring. Vote fraud at elections was rampant. Toppling Tweed became the prime goal of a growing reform movement.
Exposed at last by The New York Times, the satiric cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, and the efforts of a reform lawyer, Samuel J. Tilden, Tweed was tried on charges of forgery and larceny. He was convicted and sentenced to prison (1873) but was released in 1875. Rearrested on a civil charge, he was convicted and imprisoned, but he escaped to Cuba and then to Spain. Again arrested and extradited to the United States, he was confined again to jail in New York City, where he died. (Source: Encyclopedia Brittanica)