The Famously Vanished Judge Crater

The expression “to pull a Crater” is now an obsolete phrase but it once meant to vanish or, in today’s eccentric phraseology, to go missing.  In the 1930s/ 1940s, comedians were sure to get a laugh when using this line as part of a gag (or, its companion line, “Judge Crater, call your office!”), its humorous allusion so easily recognizable among audiences of the time. However, if the line was humorous it was a brand of macabre humor because what inspired it wasn’t, at least for the victim, a very humorous experience: the disappearance of Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater on the evening of August 6, 1930, once the most famous missing person case in American history.

Judge Crater spent the final hours before his disappearance in New York City. He was to see a play at the Belasco Theatre called “Dancing Partners” that was set for 9:00. Before show time, he went to dine at nearby Billy Haas’ Chophouse on West 45th Street.

Always known as being a dapper dresser, he looked particularly dapper that night sporting a double-breasted brown suit, gray spats and high collar. At the restaurant he ran into two friends, a fellow attorney and his showgirl date. Crater joined them for dinner and, according to the lawyer, he appeared to be in good spirits throughout the dinner which ended shortly after 9:00; the curtain had already gone up on the show. The three left the restaurant and, after hailing a taxicab and bidding his friends goodbye, he entered the cab and drove off. He was never seen nor heard from again.

However mysterious Crater’s disappearance may have been, his movements prior to disappearing are almost equally mysterious. Indeed, Crater shouldn’t have been in New York at all but vacationing in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with his wife Stella; the couple, by all accounts, were happy and devoted to each other. While in Maine vacationing, Judge Crater received a strange phone call in late July and told his wife that he would have to return to New York; the only explanation he would offer Stella is that he needed to “straighten those fellows out.”

Judge Crater arrived at his Fifth Avenue apartment the next day but, rather than deal with business, he soon left for Atlantic City, New Jersey in the company of a showgirl. He returned to New York on August 3 and on the morning of August 6 spent two hours going through the files in his courthouse chambers. After going through his files, Judge Crater had two checks, amounting to $5,150, cashed by his assistant Joseph Mara. Around noon, Mara helped him carry two locked briefcases to his apartment and told him to take the rest of the day off. Later that day, he bought his ticket to the theatre, went to dine, and vanished into oblivion; the judge quickly became “The Missingest Man in New York.”

Not until the disappearance of teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, would a missing person’s investigation inspire as much publicity, allegations, speculation, innuendos, gossip and, of course, jokes. The confusion started almost immediately with none other than Mrs. Crater.

When the Judge failed to return to Maine for 10 days, only then did she begin making inquiries regarding his whereabouts; and these inquiries were limited to their friends. When the judge didn’t return for the courts’ opening on August 25, his fellow justices also became concerned and began a futile and similarly private search for Crater. The police weren’t notified until September 3; by then the story was front page news. But even though Judge Crater was in all the papers, the investigation into his disappearance quickly wound up on a dead-end street.

The investigation was at a standstill and most assumed that the judge had ducked out just one step ahead of someone who was looking for him. For decades after his disappearance, his name was a slang term for dodging one’s responsibilities and “to pull a Crater” was to slip away permanently. But if the judge did go into hiding with a trunk load of cash, how do we explain what Sally Crater discovered in her apartment in January 1931? Hidden in a bureau, she found several uncashed checks, stocks, bonds, three life insurance policies and a note from Judge Crater himself. The note listed his financial assets and then added: “I am very whary (weary). Joe.” If the judge had simply run off, wouldn’t he have cashed these checks and have cashed in the stocks? And why would he have made his disappearance seem like a man who was depressed was carrying it out? Better yet, why would he disappear at all? [Dead Men Do Tell Tales]

After the endless tips and leads received by the police revealed nothing and led nowhere, the countless “to pull a Crater’ jokes grew stale and died, so did media and popular interest in the Judge’s disappearance. Crater was declared legally dead in 1939.

For nearly 60 years, the case of Judge Crater was a subject known only to historians, folklorists and nostalgia buffs; the NYPD had long ago labeled it a Cold Case (unsolved) and filed it away somewhere in their basement.

However, on August 19, 2005, Judge Crater was back in the news when police officials announced that they were in possession of notes left by a woman named Stella Ferruci-Good who had recently died at 91. These notes identified a location near West Eight Street in Coney Island, Brooklyn (now the site of the New York Aquarium) where, the woman claimed, the judge was buried under the boardwalk. Her notes also named Crater’s murders as her husband, Robert Good and another man, Charles Burn, both NYPD officers; the latter was also a bodyguard for the notorious Abe Reles of Murder, Inc.

Unfortunately, Ferruci-Good’s revelations were dismissed due to the fact that police records from the 1950s, when the area around the Aquarium would have been excavated for its construction, didn’t include any reports of skeletal remains being found there.

Judge Crater is still at rest amid the NYPD’s cold case files. Where his skeleton is resting remains anyone’s guess.

Note: I’m indebted to Troy Taylor’s “Dead Men Do Tell Tales” for most of the source material here. You should read his fine account of this mystery. For your continued and more comprehensive reading pleasure, I suggest:

“Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York  He Left   Behind” by Richard J. Tofel