Friday, January 05, 2007

Judge Crater, Please Call Your Office

Years after his unexplained disappearance, Judge Joseph F. Crater's wife Stella mused: "I have wondered often whether Joe simply walked out of the life we had together. What woman wouldn't? Yet, always, I tell myself that he would not have run away. He was too much of a fighter. No matter what anyone says, he was a decent, fine, wonderful man."

New York Supreme Court judge Joseph F. Crater was born on this day in 1889 in Easton, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Lafayette College and Columbia Law, he was a Manhattan lawyer, a law professor at Fordham and NYU, and a footsoldier in New York City's Tammany Hall political machine when Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to fill the unexpired term of a resigning trial judge in April 1930.

On August 6, 1930, Crater hailed a cab on West 45th Street, waved goodbye to the couple with whom he had dinner that evening, and was never seen again. Earlier in the day he had withdrawn $5,100 in large bills from two of his bank accounts and carefully collected a bulky file of legal papers from the files in his office.

Did he go into hiding on his own? Was he murdered by political enemies? Theories about his disappearance abounded: some said he went off on a toot with a showgirl (he was fond of the theater and popular with show people); a punch-drunk fighter claimed he found Crater operating a bingo joint in Africa; a man going to the electric chair in New York told the story that Crater was murdered by gangsters as revenge for Crater sending one of their associates to jail after he accepted a bribe to let him go free; and some earnest prospectors out West said they met him out in the desert, presumably looking for Jacob Waltz's Lost Dutchman mine.

All efforts to find him failed, and he was declared legally dead in 1939. There was evidence that he may have been involved in a shady real estate deal involving the City of New York, and he disappeared during a highly visible investigation of Tammany Hall. Stella always maintained that politics had been the reason for his disappearance.

In 2005, Mrs. Stella Ferrucci-Good, a 91-year old Queens housewife, died leaving behind a letter claiming that Judge Crater was murdered by her husband, a New York cop, and a cab driver, and that he was buried under the boardwalk at Coney Island, at the present site of the New York Aquarium. Although police confirmed that human skeletal remains were found at the Aquarium excavation site in the 1950s, they were immediately buried in a Potter's Field on Hart's Island, making any possibility of an identification just about hopeless.

For many years, Crater's disappearance was a popular parlor room puzzle, and the object of many jokes. "Judge Crater -- please call your office!," became a favorite graffiti slogan, found around the world for a number of years.

Incidentally, Crater wasn't the first New York Supreme Court judge to disappear. 101 years before Crater's disappearance, Judge John Lansing also disappeared under mysterious circumstances -- without any showgirls, Tammany Hall intrigue or Queens widows to provide pat explanations.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a punishment cell at Farnsworth, a POW camp 18 miles southwest of Hanoi, deeply scrathed in a dark corner near the floor was, "Judge Crater, please call your office." It brought a small smile to an otherwise sad period of existence.

Ed Leonard
POW, Laos 1968 - 1973

7:47 PM  

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