Judge Crater: An Odd Disappearance and Possible Murder

Last week, I told you about the disappearance and reappearance of evangelist “Sister Aimee,” Aimee Semple McPherson. This week we meet Judge Crater, once described as “the missingest man in New York.”

Joseph Force Crater

In the summer of 1930, Joseph Force Crater could look on his legal career with satisfaction. In April of that year, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court for New York County. At age 41, Crater was relatively young for this position, even if in New York, the Supreme Court is a trial court and not the appellate “Supreme Court” of most states. Some were bold enough to hint that he bought his appointment, pointing to the $20,000 he withdrew from his bank around that time. Crater’s fondness for showgirls did nothing to remove the whiff of scandal that surrounded him.

Judge Crater, the "Missingest Man in New York"
Judge Crater, the “Missingest Man in New York”

On Thursday, August 3, 1930, Judge Crater interrupted a Maine, vacation leaving his wife, Stella behind. He returned to New York, he said, to attend to some unspecified business. Instead, he took one of his mistresses, showgirl Sally Lou Ritzi, to Atlantic City. After returning from the seashore, he spent the morning of August 6 in his chambers at the Foley Square courthouse. People saw him going through documents, possibly destroying several. He then had his law clerk cash two checks for him totaling $5,150. At noon, Crater and the clerk took two locked briefcases to the judge’s apartment. He then told the clerk to take off the rest of the day.

A modern photograph of 40 Fifth Avenue, where Judge Crater and Stella lived
A modern photograph of 40 Fifth Avenue, where Judge Crater and Stella lived

Judge Crater Vanishes Without a Trace

Thursday evening, Crater dined with a lawyer friend, William Klein, and Sally Ritzi at Billy Haas’s Chophouse. The restaurant in the heart of the theater district at 332 West 45th Street. Earlier Crater had purchased a single ticket for that evening to see the comedy Dancing Partner at the Belasco Theater. The three enjoyed appetizers of cool lobster cocktails and had cold chicken for dinner.

Sally Ritzi with an unnamed actor
Sally Ritzi with an unnamed actor

Klein and Ritzi initially told authorities that after dinner, Crater took a cab in front of the restaurant. They assumed he was on his way to the theater, even though this left his dining companions on the sidewalk. They later changed their story, saying that they had taken the cab leaving Crater on the sidewalk. It was the last time anyone reported seeing the judge.

The Belasco Theater, Judge Crater's destination the night he disappeared
The Belasco Theater, Judge Crater’s destination the night he disappeared

Judge Crater’s disappearance merited only a muted response at first. Several days after he failed to return to Maine, his wife started calling friends in New York. Fellow justices also instituted a quiet search after he didn’t appear for the opening of the courts on August 25. Finally, they notified the police on September 3. The case immediately became front-page news.

What Happened Next

Investigators followed several leads that looked promising, but they turned out to be dead ends. A Grand Jury meeting in October found insufficient evidence to determine whether Judge Crater disappeared voluntarily or was the victim of a crime.

Crater’s wife, Stella, petitioned to have him declared legally dead in July 1937. The courts granted her request in 1939. She remarried to Carl Kunz in 1938 but they separated in 1950. Stella always believed her husband had been murdered. She presented that theory in her 1965 ghostwritten book, The Empty Robe. She died in 1969 at the age of 70.

Judge Crater and wife Stella shortly before he disappeared
Judge Crater and wife Stella shortly before he disappeared

Epilogue

Judge Crater quickly became part of the American lexicon. Although not in common usage today, 90 years ago “to pull a Crater” meant to disappear. Nightclub acts often included “Judge Crater, call your office” as a throwaway gag. Crater was, at least until the advent of Jimmy Hoffa, the most famous missing man in America. Like Hoffa, he never reappeared alive or dead.

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