Roger writing the LAWmag
Sep 2012

The Disappearing Judge

There are many strange cases in the law,  many of which are featured in LAWmazing, but few match the sheer mystery surrounding the disappearance of justice Joseph Force Crater  in New York City in August of 1930.

Crater was born in 1889 in Pennsylvania and obtained his law degree from Columbia University.

In early 1930, Franklin Roosevelt,  then governor of the state of New York, appointed him to the New York Supreme Court.

Joseph Force CraterIn Crater's four months on the job, he had the occasion to issue only two written opinions:

  • Rotkowitz v. Sohn, 239 N.Y.S. (2d) 639 (1930); and
  • Henderson v. Park Central Motors Service, 244 N.Y.S. (2d) 409 (1930).

In the summer, he retreated to his cottage at Belgrade Lakes, Maine  where the events leading to his disappearance began.

Unbeknown to everybody, the judge had a few girlfriends including Atlantic City showgirl Sally Lou Ritz.

He left his wife behind at their cottage for a rendezvous with Ms Ritz in Atlantic City,  returning to Maine and his wife on August 1.

Crater then left Maine again, telling his wife this time that he was going back to New York to deal with some business but he would be back in Maine for her birthday on August 9.

He was then seen at his judge's office in New York City on August 6 - the last day he was ever reported alive - where he stayed for two hours, and arranged to withdraw over $5,000 in cash but by oddly asking his law clerk to cash two checks in that amount for him; peculiar money laundering activity for a sitting judge.

The stage was set for the last act, the last known events in his life. He went out to dinner with his girlfriend Ms Ritz and a lawyer-acquaintance (William Klien). The plan was to follow that with a showgirl event on Broadway. Crater, it seemed, had a thing for naked women other than his wife.

It was 9:15 p.m.

Klien and Ritz got into a taxi but instead of joining them for the short ride to the show, Crater walked away and was never seen again. Klein and Ritz assumed that he had a change of heart and must be heading to the train station to return to Maine.

Neither Klien or Ritz reported the strange behavior or that he did not join them at the Broadway show. It was only when he did not return to Maine that his wife eventually began to make inquiries, especially with local and new York City hospitals, as did the New York Supreme Court when he did not show up for the opening of the Court session after the summer recess, on August 25.

By the beginning of September, newspapers across the country were carrying the story of the missing judge. The police department of New York City issued a handout with his picture and the headline:

"Honorable Joseph Force Crater.  Missing Since August 6, 1930."

A missing person's file made open until 1979 when it was finally closed.

A 2004 book on the disappearance, Rocherd Tofel's Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York He Left Behind, presents this theory:

"... the judge ended his life in the arms of a prostitute at the brothel run by the celebrated madam Polly Adler."

As she became aware of his double life, Mrs Crater speculated that he had been murdered but there was no evidence, certainly no body. Six months after the disappearance of her husband, she finally worked up the courage to return to their New York apartment where she found the judge's will and a long note containing a list of everyone who owed the judge money. The final words on the note were for her eyes only:

" I am very weary. Love, Joe."

Eventually, the missing person investigation wound down until it was but a file in the New York City police department. The incomplete post mortem was well summarized by the August 1937 issue of the Legal Chatter:

"On August the 6th, former Supreme Court Justice Joseph Force Crater of New York will be legally dead. His wife will become his widow; his insurance, totaling some $40,000 will become collectible. What really happened to Judge Crater? Police are willing to eliminate suicide and amnesia. A man cannot kill himself and then hide his body-and Crater's body has never been found."

Crater would have done better to heed the hundreds of Latin maxims that could of provided him with basic guidance as to the conduct of his life. But in the end, it was a simple English expression that gives us the best clue as to his whereabouts:

Live by the sword. Die by the sword.


Posted in Law Fun, Legal History

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