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.
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.
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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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