Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Judge Crater, Call Your Office!


This post is brought to you by Susan Page Davis.

Judge Joseph Force Crater disappeared on August 6, 1930, and was one of the most famous missing persons in America for the next fifty years.

Judge Crater told friends on that fateful evening that he was going to attend a Broadway play called Dancing Partners. They saw him get into a taxi outside a Manhattan restaurant, and after that, we don't know of anyone who saw or spoke to him again.

Some people think the judge deliberately disappeared. Was his story about going to the theater just an alibi, so he could slip away that night without anyone missing him?

Others think he was involved in illegal activities and murdered by organized crime thugs. No firm evidence was ever found, and a decade later, he was declared legally dead. He never came back, and Judge Crater’s name became a byword for mysterious disappearances.

One thing that has always fascinated me about this occurrence was that Judge Crater had a summer home in Belgrade, Maine, the town where I grew up.  His wife, Stella, was in Maine at the time of his disappearance. She expected him back by August 9, which was her birthday, but he never came.

Over the years I’ve read various things. Some articles state that his wife thought he was on a business trip, while his colleagues in New York thought he was at the cottage with her. Some folks thought he’d been kidnapped, though no bids for ransom ever surfaced. Some speculated that he was the victim of a blackmail scheme gone bad, or that he committed suicide, or that he had amnesia and was living somewhere under another name.
 
Here are some things that are known about his disappearance:

On August 3, he received a telephone call at his cottage in Maine. Immediately afterward, he started to pack to return to New York. He didn’t tell his wife who had called or what they wanted.
 
 
He took a train, leaving the family car and his chauffeur, Fred Kahler, in Maine. He stayed at his apartment in Manhattan. When the judge didn’t return to Maine, his wife became worried. She couldn’t get hold of the judge. After waiting several days, she sent
Fred Kahler to New York to make inquiries.

When Kahler reached the Fifth Avenue apartment, the maid the Craters employed was there. He asked when she had last seen the judge. She said on August 4, after he came down from Maine. He had told her that she could take a few days off and didn’t need to clean again until the seventh. She hadn’t seen him since.

Kahler reported this to Mrs. Crater, and she hired private investigators to find out where her husband was. They didn’t turn up anything right away, so she began inquiring of his business friends. No one seemed to know where he was, but they assured her that the judge’s strong worth ethic would require him to be back at his post on the bench by his next scheduled session, beginning August 25.  But the judge never showed up.

In addition to practicing law, Crater had made lots of political connections over the previous ten years. His ultimate goal was a place on the Supreme Court. He was earning a lot of money and getting rich. He had been appointed to the New York State Supreme Court by New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, four months before his disappearance. His future looked good.

When Crater failed to appear in court, one of the state’s supreme court justices telephoned Mrs. Crater. She told him what little she knew. On September 3, nearly a month after he’d vanished, the story broke in the newspapers.
 
The police got involved the next day. They learned that the judge went to his office on August 4, and also to a doctor’s appointment. On the 5th, he again spent the day at the office, ate lunch with another judge and dinner with his doctor, then played cards late into the evening.

On August 6, he spent some time locked in his office and apparently pulled a lot of papers from his files. He sent his personal assistant, Joe Mara, to cash two large checks, totaling more than $5,000. Mara helped him take six expanding cardboard folders and two briefcases full of papers from the office to his apartment. He then dismissed Mara, who later told police Crater said, “I’m going up Westchester way for a swim. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Mara found this very odd.

The judge went to the theater ticket office to order his ticket for the play, which was later picked up by a man. No one knows for sure if it was Crater. He went to dinner with two friends and left them on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. They said he was in good spirits when they last saw him.

The police investigation turned up connections to Tammany Hall, the political machine that controlled city politics, and some rather shady financial deals. People demanded to know how deeply the judge had been involved in some of these cases. But the bigger question remains: What happened to Judge Crater? Nobody knows to this day.

So, what do you think happened? Comment below and you'll be entered in our giveaway.


Susan Page Davis is the author of more than fifty published novels. A history major, she’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com .




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28 comments:

  1. Oh I would LOVE to read this book! Sounds intriguing!

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  2. Thanks for commenting, Connie. My mystery "Breaking News" was inspired by Judge Crater's disappearance, but is about fictional characters and a politician's disappearance. In this month's big giveaway, I'm giving away "Westward Christmas Brides," but the winner can substitute one of my other books if they prefer.

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  3. Thank you, Susan, for sharing this most interesting post. I was not aware of Judge Crater or his disappearance. I can only speculate that he might have been doing some business with undesirable people and got in over his head. What a dreadful thing to happen and his poor wife.....

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

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    1. It's an intriguing mystery, Melanie. I first heard about it when I was in high school and it was written into the Dick Van Dyke Show as part of a joke. Rob and Laura discovered they were not legally married because she had lied about her age, so they went to a judge to renew their vows, and he said, "I'm Judge Krata." Rob's jaw dropped, and he said, "No, not THAT Judge Crater. I just like to see the look on people's faces." (or something close to that, and he spelled it out.) So I had to find out what that was all about, and learned he had connections to my home town.

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  4. My thoughts are based on the activity of the mob at the time. Probably buried in cement in some buildings basement or the walls of new construction. He was probably fleeing from whomever those files were connected too. That's my theory. Being from Illinois there were alot of mob stuff going on here. Especially in Southern Illinois (surprise, surprise). It was worse than the Chicago corruption. Illinois has mysterious disappearances from that time period as well. Interesting post.

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    1. Interesting you should say that. There was a later report--I think 2005 or so--that on the death of a NY woman, her family found a sealed letter among her effects. It said her then-deceased husband knew who had killed Judge Crater and where he was buried--under the boardwalk on Cony Island. Well, the police took it seriously and started digging. They did find remains there, of several people, but I couldn't find follow-ups saying whether they had ever established if one of the bodies was Judge Crater's. So far as I know, it's still unsolved.

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  5. Wow. I had never heard of Judge Crater. What kind of doctor's visit did he have? Checkup? Dentist? Wonder if the doctor had some news? Love your unusual happenings of the past. Wish someone would come forward and say what happened to him!

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    1. I'm not sure about the doctor's visit, Sally. I do know the judge had a slightly injured finger and that was checked. Apparently he'd had it smashed in a car door a few weeks earlier and it was still bothering him. I don't know if that was the sole purpose of the appointment, though.

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  6. I love to read mysteries, but I would not make a good detective. I know that even today with all the surveillance and tracking technology that people disappear. I don't have any theories about Judge Crater, but thank you for the interesting post!

    lindajhutchins@gmail.com

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  7. You're welcome, Linda! In 1930 and 1931, the police conducted one of the most massive manhunts ever for Judge Crater and followed up on thousands of tips, but none of them panned out. So you are not the only one who has no clue. You're right, though. Today, that box office would have a surveillance camera, and so would businesses all along the streets in NY. It's a lot harder to vanish today, but not impossible.

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  8. Interesting story. I suspect the mob got him. As a judge, surely he put away some bad dudes in his day. But the fact that he withdrew all that cash makes it sound like he ran away. It would be interesting to know.

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    1. Yeah, I wondered if he was trying to pay off a blackmailer or pay a kickback on a deal, but I do think his disappearance had to do with politics and/or organized crime.

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  9. What an intriguing story! Thanks for sharing it.

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    1. You're welcome, Rebecca. Thanks for coming by.

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  10. Lots of suspense & intrigue here. I think he wanted to disappear but the other agent in the plot turned against him & put him to rest... never to be found !
    dkstevensne at outlook .com

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    1. Oooo, that sounds like the gist of a good plot, Deanna.

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  11. I don't remember hearing about Judge Crater disappearing, and I was a history major.
    Sounds like the judge planned his disappearance: taking the train instead of his chauffeur, telling the maid to take time off, telling his assistant he was going swimming. He must have been up to no good.

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    1. It kind of does, doesn't it? That's part of what makes it so fascinating--there are so many "clues" that go off in different directions. A lot of people at the time thought he had run off with an actress or something like that. Or committed suicide.

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  12. Let's see....aliens...amnesia... How about witness protection!? I think he is alive, in disguise, and living in New Zealand with the kiwis!

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    1. Aliens--love it! I don't think the witness protection program as we know it was in place then, but there could have been someone helping him disappear and not be found. Some people reported seeing him in exotic places, but the ones the police could follow up on proved to be false. You never know, do you, Lisa? Nice seeing you here.

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  13. Very suspicious! My conspiracy theory is that he knew the crap was about to hit the fan so he left town and started a new life in Mexico. Or the mob got him.

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    1. Either of those would work, IMO. Here's a thought, Heidi--what if the chauffeur or the maid was lying? Or the office assistant. All it takes is one misdirection in the mix. All we know is what they SAID. But did it really happen that way? Oh, man, I do feel another mystery plot coming on! And people ask me where I get my ideas ....

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  14. Thanks for an intriguing story, Susan. I'm thinking he went off with his money and found a new place to live, a new identity, and a new life. Even maybe a little changing of appearance. That would make a good story if he was right under people's noses and nobody recognized him. :) If he was murdered or committed suicide...case closed. But if he had a new life with a new family...ah think of all the complications down the line with descendants and new mysteries to unravel.

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  15. You may be right, Martha! I'm sure his wife wondered if he did that. Oh, yes, I can see a family saga of intrigue.

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  16. Seems a sad sort of tale and I bet the mob got him...it's just too hard to fight the mob. truckredford(at)gmail(dot)com

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    1. I can't argue with you there, Eliza. It's hard to remember sometimes that this was a real person, not a novel. These things really happened. That thought truly is sad.

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  17. This is one case I'm not sure I even want to guess about - there are just way too many different things that could have happened to him. Heck, he could be at the bottom of the East River in NY and we would never be able to find him! This was a great post Susan, very mindboggling!
    kam110476 at gmail dot com

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  18. Thanks! It certainly is an open-ended case.

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