Joseph Force Crater

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Joseph Force Crater
Born (1889-01-05)January 5, 1889
Easton, Pennsylvania
Disappeared August 6, 1930 (aged 41)
New York City, New York
Status Declared dead in absentia
June 6, 1939(1939-06-06)
Alma mater Lafayette College
Columbia University
Occupation Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court for New York County
Known for Unexplained disappearance
Spouse(s) Stella Mance Wheeler

Joseph Force Crater (January 5, 1889 – disappeared August 6, 1930) was a 41-year-old New York City judge who vanished while out on a night on the town. He was last seen leaving a restaurant on West 45th Street, and entered popular culture of the 1930s as the "The Missingest Man in New York." Despite massive publicity, no trace of him was ever found, and nine years later he was declared legally dead. The disappearance added to public disquiet about corruption in city government 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 Sigma Chi fraternity.[5]

Crater's official title was Associate 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 New York Court of Appeals, whose members use the title of "Judge" instead of "Justice".) Bank records later revealed 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 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.

He 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, Judge 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 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 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 US$5,150 (equivalent to about $72,951 in 2013 funds[10]). 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 and bought one seat 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 bought a ticket, and the small group went outside.

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. When he did not return to Maine for 10 days, 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 Ritz, 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 his female friends left town abruptly and a third was murdered. Ritzi, the showgirl who had dined with him the evening he vanished, went missing from New York in August or September 1930.[23] She was found in late September 1930, living in Youngstown, Ohio with her parents. She said 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]

Another showgirl, June Brice, had been seen talking to Crater the day before he disappeared. A lawyer acting for Crater's wife believed 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 went missing the day a grand jury was to convene on the case; in 1948 Brice was discovered in a mental hospital.[26]

Vivian Gordon, a third female friend, was involved in high-end prostitution, and linked to madam Polly Adler. Gordon had liaisons with a large number of influential businesspeople, and was, on paper at least, the owner 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 been extremely upset at his murder.[15][27]

On February 20, 1931, Gordon, angry about a conviction that had resulted in the loss of custody of her 16-year-old daughter, 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. Five days later she was murdered. Detectives searching Gordon's apartment found a coat that had belonged to Crater. The publicity surrounding Gordon's killing led to the resignation of a policeman she had accused of framing her, and the suicide of her daughter. The Tammany Hall political machine's hold on the city, already weakened by Rothstein and the conflict over his former empire, was largely eliminated in the ensuing scandal, which 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 containing money and a note from the judge in a dresser drawer. 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 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] By July 1937, when she petitioned to have the Judge declared officially dead, she was reportedly living on the $12 per week (approximately $198 in 2013 funds[10]) she earned as a telephone operator in Belgrade Lakes.[34]

On April 23, 1938, a year before the judge was declared legally dead, Mrs. Crater married Carl Kunz, a New York electrical contractor, in Elkton, Maryland.[35] Kunz's first wife had hanged herself only eight days before the wedding.[32] When the judge was finally declared legally dead in 1939 thanks to her attorney, noted NY attorney Emil K. Ellis,[36][37] Mrs. Crater received $20,561 in life insurance (approximately $349,783 in 2013 funds[10]). She separated from Kunz in 1950, and died in 1969 at age 70.[28] Her own account of the Crater case, The Empty Robe, in which she expressed her belief that Crater had been murdered, was written with freelance writer/journalist Oscar Fraley and published by Doubleday in 1961.[38][39]

Recent information[edit]

On August 19, 2005, authorities revealed that they had received notes written by a woman from Queens, Stella Ferrucci-Good, after her death at 91. In the letter, 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.[40][41] 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.[40] 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.[40]

Popular culture[edit]

Though no longer in wide use, the phrase "to pull a Crater" means to disappear.[42] For many years following Crater's disappearance, "Judge Crater, call your office" was a standard gag of nightclub comedians.[42] To promote the 1933 film Bureau of Missing Persons, Warner Bros. advertised they would pay $10,000 (equivalent to about $182,802 in 2013[10] funds) to Crater if he claimed it in person at the box office.[43] In the third season episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, "Very Old Shoes, Very Old Rice", the character of Rob Petrie mistakes a judge named Judge Krata for the missing judge. In the March 26, 2000 episode of the Sopranos titled "House Arrest" The door bell rings at uncle Juniors house. Bobby asks who's that? Junior replies "Judge Crater how should I know?". In the October 24, 2001 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, titled "Terra Nova", Ensign Travis Mayweather lists Judge Crater, Amelia Earhart, and the fictional "Terra Nova" as the greatest missing persons mysteries in Earth's history. In season 1, episode 22, of the television series, The Golden Girls, titled, "Job Hunting", in response to Rose's rhetorical question "guess what I found in the freezer", Dorothy quips "Judge Crater". A 2010 novel, The Man Who Never Returned by Peter Quinn, investigates the Crater case through the lens of a 1955 fictional detective.[44] A 2014 novel, The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon, theorizes that the women in Judge Crater's life all know what happened to him, but they refuse to relinquish the facts.[45]

Judge Crater's last letter, possibly written on the day of his disappearance, was sold at auction on June 22, 1981 for $700.[46] 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.[47]

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) pg 122
  6. ^
  7. ^ 239 N.Y.S. 639, N.Y.Sup., February 8, 1930.
  8. ^
  9. ^ 244 N.Y.S. 409, N.Y.Sup., July 11, 1930.
  10. ^ a b c d Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  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. Sep 16, 1930. p. 1. Retrieved July 22, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Search for Crater Swings to Havana" (PDF). New York Times. Sep 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. 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. ^ 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).
  35. ^ 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).
  36. ^ Tom Meehan, "Case No. 13595," New York Times, August 7, 1960, p. SM27.
  37. ^ "Crater Will Case Up May 26." New York Times (1923–Current file), April 28, 1939, (Retrieved August 9, 2011).
  38. ^ Crater, Stella (Wheeler). The Empty Robe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961.
  39. ^ 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).
  40. ^ a b c Rashbaum, William (August 20, 2005). "Judge Crater Abruptly Appears, at Least in Public Consciousness". 'New York Times. Retrieved June 6, 2012. 
  41. ^ 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. 
  42. ^ a b "Kelly, Jack, 'Judge Crater Vanishes Forever". Retrieved August 4, 2010. 
  43. ^ "The New Pictures". Time. September 18, 1933. Retrieved August 9, 2008. 
  44. ^ "The official website of Author Peter Quinn". New York Paddy. August 6, 1930. Retrieved August 4, 2010. 
  45. ^ "The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress at". 
  46. ^ Sotheby Parke Bernet, Sale No. 4652E on June 22, 1981, "Printed and Manuscript Americana," Lot 174.
  47. ^ Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1981

Further reading[edit]

  • Crater, Stella (Wheeler); Oscar Fraley (1961). The Empty Robe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. p. 210. LCCN 61-8880. 
  • Tofel, Richard J. (2004). Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York He Left Behind. Chicago, Illinois: Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 1-56663-605-1. LCCN 2004052669. 
  • Gibson, John Winslow (2010). Judge Crater, the Missingest Person: How He Disappeared and Why They Couldn't Find Him. Indianapolis, Indiana: Dog Ear Publishing. ISBN 978-1-60844-712-1. 

External links[edit]