Joseph Force Crater

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Joseph Force Crater
Born(1889-01-05)January 5, 1889
DisappearedAugust 6, 1930 (aged 41)
New York City, U.S.
StatusDeclared dead in absentia
(1939-06-06)June 6, 1939
Alma materLafayette College
Columbia University
OccupationJustice of New York Supreme Court for New York County
Known forUnexplained disappearance
Spouse(s)Stella Mance Wheeler

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.

Early life and legal career[edit]

Crater was born in Easton, Pennsylvania, the eldest of four children of Frank Ellsworth Crater and the former Leila Virginia Montague.[1][2][3][4] He was educated at Lafayette College (class of 1910) and Columbia University. He was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity.[5]

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[who?] 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.

Crater issued two published opinions: Rotkowitz v. Sohn,[6] involving fraudulent conveyances and mortgage foreclosure fraud;[7] and Henderson v. Park Central Motors Service,[8] dealing with a garage company's liability for an expensive car stolen and wrecked by an ex-convict.[9]


In the summer of 1930, after the start of the first investigations of what would become the Seabury Commission, 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 proceeded onwards to Atlantic City, New Jersey, with his mistress, showgirl Sally Lou Ritzi (who used the stage name Ritz).[10] 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 $77,240 in 2018 dollars). At noon, he and Mara carried two locked briefcases to his apartment and he let Mara take the rest of the day off.[citation needed]

Later that evening, Crater went to a Broadway ticket agency, Supreme Tickets, and bought one seat from William Deutsch, the proprietor of Supreme, for a comedy called Dancing Partner[11] 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.[12] 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.[citation needed]

Last known sighting[edit]

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,"[13] and this account was initially confirmed by Sally Lou Ritz: "At the sidewalk Judge Crater took a taxicab".[14] 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.[15]

Delayed responses to disappearance[edit]

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.[16][17]


Once an official investigation was launched, the case received widespread publicity.[18] 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.[19][20][21][22]

Sally Lou Ritzi, June Brice, and Vivian Gordon[edit]

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.[23] 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.[24][25]

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.[26]

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.[15][27]

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 police graft. She was murdered five days later. Detectives searching her apartment found a coat that had belonged to Crater.[citation needed]

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.[15][27]

Open verdict[edit]

In October, a grand jury began examining the case, calling 95 witnesses and amassing 975 pages of testimony. Mrs. Crater refused to appear.[28] 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".[29][30] 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.[15] Crater's wife said that he had been murdered.[31] The case was officially closed in 1979.[32]

Mrs. Crater[edit]

Judge Crater met Stella Mance Wheeler in 1917 when he served as her divorce lawyer, and they married seven days after her divorce was finalized.[33] Mrs. Crater remained at their vacation home in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, during the search for her husband, until January 20, 1931, when she allegedly discovered checks, stocks, bonds, and a note written by the judge in a drawer that had been empty when police checked earlier.[33] Without Crater's income, Mrs. Crater was unable to maintain the couple's fashionable Fifth Avenue apartment and was evicted.[28] She petitioned to have the judge declared officially dead in July 1937; she was reportedly living on the $12 per week (approximately $209 in 2013 funds[34]) that she earned as a telephone operator in Belgrade Lakes.[35]

Mrs. Crater married Carl Kunz, a New York electrical contractor, in Elkton, Maryland, on April 23, 1938, a year before the judge was declared legally dead.[36] Kunz's first wife had hanged herself only eight days before the wedding.[32]

The judge was finally declared legally dead in 1939 thanks to Mrs. Crater's lawyer, noted New York attorney Emil K. Ellis.[37][38] She received $20,561 in life insurance (approximately $370,344 in 2013 dollars[34]). She separated from Kunz in 1950 and died in 1969 at age 70.[28]

She expressed her belief that Crater had been murdered in her own account of the case, The Empty Robe, which was written with freelance writer and journalist Oscar Fraley and published by Doubleday in 1961.[39][40]

Recent information[edit]

On August 19, 2005, authorities revealed that, after her death at age 91, they had received notes that had been written by Stella Ferrucci-Good, from Queens. In the letter, Ferrucci-Good claimed that her husband, Robert Good, a detective with the NYPD, had learned that Crater was killed by NYPD officer Charles Burns (also bodyguard of Abe Reles of Murder, Inc.) and Burns' brother, Frank. According to the letter, Crater was buried near West Eighth Street in Coney Island, Brooklyn, at the current site of the New York Aquarium.[41][42] Police reported that no records had been found to indicate that skeletal remains had been discovered at that site when it was excavated in the 1950s.[41] Richard J. Tofel, the author of Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York He Left Behind, expressed skepticism of Ferrucci-Good's account.[41]

Popular culture[edit]

The phrase "to pull a Crater" means to disappear. It is no longer widely used.[43]

For many years following Crater's disappearance, "Judge Crater, call your office" was a standard gag of nightclub comedians.[43]

As a publicity stunt for their 1933 film Bureau of Missing Persons, First National Pictures promised in advertisements to pay Crater $10,000 (equivalent to $190,000 in 2018) if he claimed it in person at the box office.[44]

In the 66th episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show Rob and Laura renew their wedding vows before a Connecticut Justice of the Peace who says he is "Judge Crater". He admits moments later it is really Krata but he deliberately mispronounces it because he loves watching people's reactions.[citation needed]

A third-season episode of Night Gallery titled "Rare Objects" suggests that Judge Crater, among other historical figures, was taken by a "collector", as a way of protecting him from harm.[citation needed]

In the 22nd episode of the first season of The Golden Girls the women are enjoying a late-night snack and Rose peeks into the refrigerator and says, "You'll never guess what I found," to Dorothy's reply "Judge Crater."[citation needed]

Judge Crater's last letter, possibly written on the day of his disappearance, was sold at auction on June 22, 1981, for $700.[45] The letter was marked "confidential" and began: "The following money is due me from the persons named. Get in touch with them for they will surely pay their debts." It was incorrectly reported that this letter was Crater's will.[46]

In Jack Finney's science fiction short story "Of Missing Persons", the narrator speculates that Judge Crater went to Verna.[citation needed]

In his novel The Man Who Never Returned (2010), Peter Quinn investigates the Crater case through the lens of a fictional detective working the case in 1955.[47]

In her novel The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress (2014), Ariel Lawhon theorizes that the women in Judge Crater's life all knew what happened to him, but refused to reveal the facts.[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ records of the members of the First Methodist Church, Easton, Pennsylvania
  2. ^ World War I draft registration
  3. ^ Joseph Force Crater in the 1900 United States Census; Easton, Pennsylvania
  4. ^ Harold Leslie Crater, Jr., The descendents [sic] of Moritz Creeter (1703–1772), who arrived at the Port of Philadelphia on the ship Mortonhouse on August 19, 1729 (privately published, 2003), p. 160.
  5. ^ The Sigma Chi Quarterly: The Official Organ of the Sigma Chi Fraternity, Volume 26 (Google eBook), p. 122
  6. ^ "ROTKOWITZ v. SOHN, 136 Misc. 265 | Casetext".
  7. ^ 239 N.Y.S. 639, N.Y.Sup., February 8, 1930.
  8. ^ "Henderson v. Park Central Motors Service, 138 Misc. 183 | Casetext".
  9. ^ 244 N.Y.S. 409, N.Y.Sup., July 11, 1930.
  10. ^ Gibson, John Winslow (2010). Judge Crater, the Missingest Person: How He Disappeared and Why They Couldn't Find Him. Indianapolis, Indiana: Dog Ear Publishing. p. 30. ISBN 978-1-60844-712-1.
  11. ^ Dancing Partner at the Internet Broadway Database
  12. ^ Garrett, Robert (August 11, 1980). "Good Night, Judge Crater, Wherever You Are". New York Magazine: 11–12.
  13. ^ "Ransom of $20,000 Asked for Crater" (PDF). New York Times. September 16, 1930. p. 1. Retrieved July 22, 2014.
  14. ^ "Search for Crater Swings to Havana" (PDF). New York Times. September 24, 1930. p. 4. Retrieved July 22, 2014.
  15. ^ a b c d "CNN Transcript: Interview with Richard Tofel, August 22, 2005". CNN. Retrieved August 4, 2010.
  16. ^ Times Wide World Photo. (September 4, 1930). WIDE HUNT IS BEGUN FOR JUSTICE CRATER, MISSING FOUR WEEKS :Drew $5,100 From Banks When Last Seen, Two Days After Tuttle Made Ewald Charges. SECRETLY SOUGHT SINCE Police Take Up the Search as Friends Express Fear He Met Foul Play. TODD TO SIFT EWALD CASE Named by Ward as Taft Asks Broader Inquiry and Socialists Accuse Walker to Roosevelt. Absent From Bench Duties. WIDE HUNT IS BEGUN FOR JUSTICE CRATER Penney Sifting Disappearance. Former Associate Appeals to Police. Reported on Business Trip.. New York Times (1923–Current file), p. 1. Retrieved August 9, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851–2007). (Document ID: 112687780).
  17. ^ CITY TO OFFER $5,000 IN HUNT FOR CRATER; CRAIN SEEKS INQUIRY :Mayor Asks Aldermen to Vote Bonds to Provide Reward for Clue to Missing Justice. HE ACTS AFTER RUMORS Unprecedented Move Is Laid to Hints That Tammany Feared Jurist's Return. CORRIGAN ASKED TO ACT He Doubts Legality of John Doe Hearing Sought by Prosecutor-- Hunt Spreads to Chicago. Mara Admits Cashing Two Checks. Mayor's Action Unprecedented. CITY PLANS REWARD IN HUNT FOR CRATER Legality of Inquiry Doubted. Mara Tells of Checks. Early Return Doubted. CRATER HUNTED IN CHICAGO. Search of Hotels Fails to Reveal Clue to Missing Justice.. (September 11, 1930). New York Times (1923–Current file), p. 1. Retrieved August 9, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851–2007). (Document ID: 11838224
  18. ^ "Wide Hunt is begun for Justice Crater, missing four weeks," New York Times, September 4, 1930, p. 1
  19. ^ "Aide denies Crater destroyed papers; hunt is pressed," New York Times, September 5, 1930, p.1
  20. ^ "Federal men scan Crater bank books," New York Times, September 6, 1930, pg. 1
  21. ^ "Family asks hunt for Judge Crater," New York Times, September 7, 1930, p.3
  22. ^ "Search for Crater near a standstill," New York Times, September 8, 1930, p. 5
  23. ^ "Sally Lou Ritz". The Charley Project. Archived from the original on June 13, 2010. Retrieved August 4, 2010.
  24. ^ "Mystery to Sally," The Daily Times (Beaver, PA), Sept. 25, 1930, p. 6
  25. ^ CHECK ON BODIES IN CRATER SEARCH. (September 28, 1930). Daily Boston Globe (1928–1960), B2. Retrieved August 9, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers Boston Globe (1872–1979). (Document ID: 1999524842).
  26. ^ NY Press Missingest Man in New York
  27. ^ a b, February 25, 2013,The Dead Woman Who Brought Down the Mayor
  28. ^ a b c "Stella Crater Kunz, Once Wed To Judge Who Vanished, Dead." New York Times (1923–Current file), September 24, 1969, (Retrieved August 9, 2011).
  29. ^ "What Happened To Judge Crater?". Retrieved August 4, 2010.
  30. ^ Cohen, Daniel MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCES, New York, Dodd Meade & Company, 1976 pages 18 and 19
  31. ^ "Crater Probe Has Shifted to West" (INS story), Chester (PA) Times, July 26, 1937, p. 1
  32. ^ a b Janet Cawley. "Column 1 :Judge Crater case slips into history Police file is closed on 'missingest' person." Chicago Tribune (1963–Current file), August 5, 1980, (Retrieved August 9, 2011).
  33. ^ a b By TOM MEEHAN. "Cause No. 13595 :It's thirty years later, there's plenty of data – but still no Judge Crater." New York Times (1923–Current file), August 7, 1960, (Retrieved August 9, 2011).
  34. ^ a b Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  35. ^ Exclusive. "JUDGE CRATER'S WIFE ENDS HOPE: Asks Missing Jurist Declared Legally Dead." Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File), July 21, 1937, (Retrieved August 9, 2011).
  36. ^ Special Dispatch to The Post.. "Crater's Widow Wed at Elkton; Husband Gave D.C. Address: Ceremony Took Place on April 23; Jurist Held Legally Dead. Judge Crater's Widow Married In Elkton Rites Crater." The Washington Post (1923–1954), July 14, 1938, (Retrieved August 9, 2011).
  37. ^ Tom Meehan, "Case No. 13595," New York Times, August 7, 1960, p. SM27.
  38. ^ "Crater Will Case Up May 26." New York Times (1923–Current file), April 28, 1939, (Retrieved August 9, 2011).
  39. ^ Crater, Stella (Wheeler). The Empty Robe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961.
  40. ^ By EMANUEL PERLMUTTER. "A Missing Person: THE EMPTY ROBE. By Stella Crater With Oscar Fraley. 210 pp. New York: Doubleday & Co. $4.50." Review of A Missing person: the Empty Robe. New York Times (1923–Current file), Book Review Section, April 9, 1961, (Retrieved August 9, 2011).
  41. ^ a b c Rashbaum, William (August 20, 2005). "Judge Crater Abruptly Appears, at Least in Public Consciousness". 'New York Times. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
  42. ^ Gendar, Alison (August 19, 2005). "JUDGE CRATER FOUND? Dead gal's secret letter may solve 1930 mystery". New York Daily News. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
  43. ^ a b "Kelly, Jack, 'Judge Crater Vanishes Forever". Retrieved August 4, 2010.
  44. ^ Cinema: The New Pictures (September 18, 1933). Time Magazine archive (subscription required), retrieved April 22, 2016.
  45. ^ Sotheby Parke Bernet, Sale No. 4652E on June 22, 1981, "Printed and Manuscript Americana," Lot 174.
  46. ^ Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1981
  47. ^ "The official website of Author Peter Quinn". New York Paddy. August 6, 1930. Retrieved August 4, 2010.
  48. ^ "The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress at".

Further reading[edit]

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