On this day in 1930, New York Supreme Court judge Joseph Force Crater vanished on the streets of Manhattan near Times Square. The dapper 41-year-old’s disappearance launched a massive investigation that captivated the nation, earning Crater the title of “the missingest man in New York.”
Born to Irish immigrants in 1889, Crater grew up in Pennsylvania and received his law degree from Columbia University in 1916. As he worked his way up from a lowly clerk to a successful lawyer, he cultivated numerous political connections throughout New York City. In April 1930, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Crater to the state bench, passing over the official candidate put forth by the powerful and corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. Rumors swirled that Crater, whose alleged fondness for showgirls had already earned him a shady reputation, had paid off the Tammany bosses for his lucrative new job.
A few months later, on August 3, 1930, Crater returned to New York from a trip to Maine, leaving behind his wife, Stella, and promising to return within a week. His law clerk later reported that, on the morning of August 6, the judge destroyed various documents, moved several portfolios of papers to his Fifth Avenue apartment and arranged for $5,000 to be withdrawn from his bank account. That evening, he left his office, bought a ticket to the Broadway comedy “Dancing Partner” and shared a meal with his lawyer friend William Klein and a showgirl named Sally Lou Ritz at a Manhattan chophouse. His dining companions claimed they last saw Crater walking down the street outside the restaurant, presumably on his way to attend the play.
News of Crater’s disappearance broke on September 3, triggering a dramatic manhunt and investigation. The missing judge’s suspicious behavior in the days leading up to his disappearance spawned rampant speculation that he had fled the country with a mistress or been a victim of foul play. His sensational story captured so much media attention that the phrase “pulling a Crater” briefly entered the public vernacular as a synonym for going AWOL. Comedians, meanwhile, seized upon the unsolved case as fodder for their standup routines, using the line “Judge Crater, call your office” as a standard gag.
At his wife’s request, Joseph Force Crater was declared legally dead in 1939. In 2005, New York police revealed that new evidence had emerged in the case of the city’s missingest man. A woman who had died earlier that year had left a handwritten note in which she claimed that her husband and several other men, including a police officer, had murdered Crater and buried his body beneath a section of the Coney Island boardwalk. That site had been excavated during the construction of the New York Aquarium in the 1950s, long before technology existed to detect and identify human remains. As a result, the question of whether Judge Crater sleeps with the fishes remains a mystery.