Mystery in History Disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater

About the disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater, history of the mystery and possible solutions to the case of the missing New Yorker.


The Event: The Disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater

When: Aug. 6, 1930

Where: New York City

The Mystery: Judge Crater hailed a cab on West 45th Street, waved good-bye to the friends with whom he had dined at Billy Haa's Chophouse, and was not seen or heard of again.

To disappear completely is always difficult, and Crater was a well-known justice of the New York Supreme Court: age 41, height 6 ft., weight 185 lb., well-dressed (his suits were made by New York's most exclusive tailor), a popular clubman, and a respected lawyer, with, gossip related, a taste for show girls.

He had recently returned from a vacation with his wife in Maine and was due back there on the ninth for her birthday. In New York he had collected a bulky file of legal papers from his office and had cashed two checks totaling $5,100, asking for large bills. These papers were never found. Mrs. Crater was unable to throw any light on her husband's disappearance, but some weeks later she found two envelopes in a desk, one containing $6,900 in cash, and the other his life insurance policies for $30,000.

Judge Crater's name has remained on the Missing Persons File (No. 13595) since 1930. Questioned in August, 1974, the chief of the bureau said, "The chances are 100% that he will never be found." Twice in the past the police had dug at places indicated by a clairvoyant, but without success.

Possible Solutions: There are no clues to Crater's fate, only suspicions. He disappeared at the time of the famous Seabury investigations into New York City graft and connections between Tammany Hall and politicians, officials, and judges. Had Crater been corrupted? Early in his career he had wanted only to teach law; later he realized that teaching could not provide the good things of life. "The best way to get ahead is to go into politics," he once said.

To obtain nomination for a judgeship in New York in those days, a man expected to pay a full year's salary. In April, when Crater was appointed, he had withdrawn $23,000 fom his bank. He may also have been mixed up in a shady deal involving a hotel receivership; the hotel was sold to the city for $75,000 and later resold for $2.8 million. Furthermore, he had received a telephone call in Maine which had upset him. He had to get back to New York right away, he had said, to "straighten those fellows out."

Was this a case of thieves falling out? Did associates kill Crater to increase their own shares, or to silence him? According to one theory, he suffered a heart attack, either while discussing a payoff with his partners or after being lured to the flat of a woman who was blackmailing him. Both such parties would have feared a murder charge arising from a death in the course of a felony, and so with the aid of underworld friends would have disposed of the body in classic gangland style in a barrel filled with concrete and dropped into the river.

Or did Crater intentionally walk into oblivion? Deeply, perhaps dangerously, involved in city politics, did he seek a new life? While on vacation in Quebec in the previous year, he had called unexpectedly at a bank. Had he done that, as he announced, to change currency, or to deposit money for future eventualities?

The search for Crater was delayed until September, by which time the trail was lost. Why had his friends and associates not reported him missing? Perhaps they feared he had gone off on a toot with a show girl, perhaps the same one he had taken to Atlantic City on Aug. 1, five days before he disappeared.

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