In 1930, a New York judge vanished from the heart of Manhattan. Judge Joseph Crater, a prominent New York Democrat, was on his way to see a musical on Broadway when he got into a taxi cab, never to be seen again. The aftermath of his disappearance was felt profoundly in popular culture, with the term “pulling a Crater” meaning “failing to show up for something”.
Headlines at the time called Crater the “most missing man in America,” and tireless investigations into his disappearance turned up nothing of consequence in the case. So, how did a wealthy New York judge with political connections disappear from the heart of the most populous city in America?
Joseph Crater was born on January 5, 1889, in Pennsylvania. He attended Lafayette College and studied to become a lawyer, eventually working his way up the social ladder in New York City in the 1920s. He was appointed a New York Supreme Court judge by Franklin D Roosevelt when the latter was still the Governor of New York City.
In 1916, he married Stella Wheeler, and the two reportedly had a close relationship. There are rumors that Crater was a womanizer who preferred the company of showgirls and loved wild parties, but the exact nature of his relationship with the showgirls he spent time with is unknown.
Crater and Stella planned to spend the late summer of 1930 at their cabin in Maine. In late July, Crater got a phone call at the house and told Stella he’d need to return to New York to “straighten out” the people who’d called him. Instead, he spent his time in New York on that trip with Sally Lou Ritzi, a showgirl rumored to have been Crater’s mistress.
Crater traveled back to the cabin in early August and told his wife he’d be leaving once more but promised to return by her birthday on August 9. On August 6, he’d arrived back in New York City and spend the morning destroying papers and ordering a law clerk to withdraw over $5,000 in cash from the bank for him.
Crater then bought a ticket to a Broadway musical called Dancing Partner and had dinner at a steakhouse with Ritzi and a lawyer friend of his, William Klein. His friends report he was in good spirits and acting normal during dinner. His dining companions later told authorities that the last time they’d seen Crater, he got into a taxi cab to travel down the street to see the musical.
Ritzi and Klein were the last people to report a confirmed sighting of Crater. As for what happened to him, investigators were never able to piece together a rational theory. While Crater had certainly made enemies throughout his career, none had left any concrete evidence that they had a motive to kill the judge.
Some have speculated that Crater may have fled his old life. The $5,000 he took from the bank was recovered by his wife, who maintains that she thinks her husband was murdered by either a criminal organization or political enemies.
A grand jury in October of 1930 was unable to conclude what happened to Crater, leaving the case open. He was legally declared dead in 1937. And, while various leads have appeared over the years, nothing definitive has ever surfaced to indicate what could have happened to the judge.
According to sources from Manhattan, Stella Wheeler would enter a bar in Greenwich once a year every August 6 after her husband’s disappearance and order two drinks. She’d offer a toast to Crater, wishing him luck wherever he was, before downing her drink and leaving the other on the counter.