Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Easton, Northampton County
Easton native Judge Joseph F. Crater's disappearance in 1930 became the most famous missing persons case in American history.
Born in Easton, Pennsylvania on January 5, 1889; Joseph Force Crater led a successful life. Appointed to the New York Supreme Court by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Crater was well on his way to becoming famous. On August 6, 1930, Judge Crater mysteriously vanished without a trace sparking the most famous missing persons case in America.
Joseph Force Crater was born on January 5, 1889 in Easton, Pennsylvania. Crater was one of four children born to his father, Frank E. Crater, an orchard owner and operator of a produce market. His mother's name is unknown. Crater began to show a passion for music during his youth, and was encouraged by his mother to play the piano. Even though his family never struggled financially, Crater still put in long hours working for his father at a young age and learned what it was like to work hard.
After attending high school, Crater stayed in Easton and enrolled in Lafayette College. He graduated in 1911 from Lafayette with honors. Upon completing his degree, Crater went on to Columbia University to pursue a law degree; he graduated from Columbia in 1916. During his time at Columbia, Crater met a woman named Stella Wheeler. Crater and Wheeler began spending a lot of time together, and he helped her get her divorce. They married shortly thereafter in the spring of 1917.
Crater began his career as a low paid law clerk in New York City. Looking for extra income, he started teaching legal classes at the City College of New York, Fordham University, and New York University. After several years of working through long hours and low income, Crater decided to go into politics. He earned his first political appointment as a secretary to New York Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner, Sr. in 1920.
After he spent some time as secretary to Robert F. Wagner, Sr., Crater set up his own law practice in 1927. He was an immediate success and was able to afford a better lifestyle. With their new-found money, Crater and his wife hired a maid, a cook, and a chauffeur; they began to entertain lavishly. Crater was even unaffected by the Wall Street financial collapse in October of 1929. His successes continued, and in April of 1930, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Crater to the New York Supreme Court to fill the spot of a jurist who had resigned.
Shortly after Crater's appointment to the New York Supreme Court inquiries into the corruption of the Democratic Party in Tammany Hall began. Tammany Hall was the Democratic Party political machine in New York City. There were rumors of large-scale bribery, improper property transactions that allowed politically connected owners to make large profits at the taxpayers' expenses, and selling of high-placed municipal jobs. Crater was under investigation because of a prior incident that occurred in early 1929 when he was appointed receiver of the foreclosed Liberty Hotel in the Lower East Side. Crater's duties were to handle the sale of Liberty Hotel and manage all the money received. He sold the Liberty Hotel to the American Mortgage Loan Company for $75,000, and then six months later, the American Mortgage Loan Company sold it back to the city for $2.85 million. There was even speculation that Crater paid off the political bosses in Tammany Hall for his appointment to the New York Supreme Court. Throughout the investigation, Crater maintained his innocence, saying he had never done anything illegal. Chief Counsel of the investigating committee, Samuel Seabury, never found evidence to prove him guilty.
During the late summer of 1930, Judge Crater and his wife, Stella Wheeler Crater were spending time at their vacation cottage in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. In late July, Crater had to return to the city to sort out some business but returned to Maine shortly after on August 1. Again, on August 3, Crater went back to New York City, promising his wife that he would return by her birthday, August 9. On the morning of August 6, Crater's law clerk said that he spent all morning in his State Supreme Court Chambers destroying documents and stuffing several others into briefcases. Crater then asked the law clerk to withdraw over $5,000 from Crater's bank account, then to arrange for a ticket to be held at the door of a Broadway Theatre for the Dancing Partners show later that night. Crater went to dinner with his mistress, Sally Lou Ritz, and William Klein. After dinner, Crater entered a taxi near Times Square; this was the last time anyone saw him alive.
August 9 came and went, and Crater's wife assumed he got caught up with work. It was not until August 29, when Stella Crater received a call from one of Judge Crater's colleagues inquiring about his whereabouts, that she began to worry. Stella Crater returned to New York City immediately and contacted Judge Crater's political associates; it was the political associates who reported him missing several days later. On September 4, 1930, newspaper headlines announced Crater's disappearance to New York City. During the next few weeks Crater's disappearance made national headlines. For several months numerous reports of sightings and rumors about Judge Crater circulated. Theories began about Crater fleeing the country to avoid prosecution over the political corruption in Tammany Hall. There were numerous other rumors about Crater being murdered because of involvement with or knowledge of the corruption. It was also speculated that he got himself into trouble because of his past representation of notorious gangsters and mobsters. The last of the conjectures was that he had run off with his mistress.
The New York City Police Department offered a $5,000 reward for any information leading to Judge Crater's whereabouts, but years went by with no new leads into the investigation. All across the country for decades after his disappearance, any time an unidentified male body was found, it was compared to the description of Crater; however, no match has been found. Also, for years after Crater's disappearance, newspapers would rerun the story on August 6. His case was the most famous missing-persons case in the nation's history for decades after his disappearance. After 55 years, the New York City Police Department declared the case officially closed in 1985.
The case lost a lot of attention as the years wore on, until 1961 when Stella Wheeler Crater published her memoir called, "The Empty Robe." For a brief time interest in the case revived, and then declined very quickly after people discovered nothing new pertaining to the case was revealed in her memoir. The case faded from attention again, until 2005 when a ninety-one year old woman, passed away and her family found a letter in her Queens, New York, home that said, "Do Not Open Until My Death." The letter contained information stating that a cab driver, Frank Burns, and his brother, a police officer, Charles Burns had killed Judge Crater and buried his body under the boardwalk at Coney Island, where the New York Aquarium currently sits. Due to the supposed location of Judge Crater's remains there is little hope of recovering any remains or information. There have been no new developments in the case since this letter was revealed in 2005.
One can sometimes hear the effects after Judge Crater's disappearance today. Most notably, when people vanish without a trace to avoid a sticky situation, others say that they "pulled a Judge Crater." People are still using this phrase even today—80 years after Judge Crater's mysterious disappearance on August 6, 1930.
Barron, James. "60 Years Ago Tonight, Judge Crater Stepped into a Taxi." New York Times (6 Aug 1990): B1+.