Decades Later, the Disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater Remains a Mystery


Judge Joseph Force Crater and his wife relax, just days before his disappearance on Aug. 6, 1930. Bettmann/Getty Images
Judge Joseph Force Crater and his wife relax, just days before his disappearance on Aug. 6, 1930. Bettmann/Getty Images

When we think about a person of political power disappearing, we might consider the "hiking the Appalachian Trail" excuse (i.e., having an affair) before imagining a reality where the person truly is straight-up missing. But in 1930, Americans were transfixed by the story of New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater, who walked out of Billy Haas' Chophouse and vanished without a trace.

But as hosts Holly Frey and Tracy V. Wilson explain in an episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class, that's just where the story begins — a story that includes corrupt Tammany Hall politics, dalliances with feathered showgirls and so many supposed sightings of the judge that you'd think he was traveling with Elvis.

Crater's disappearance has all the hallmarks (or should we say clues) of a classic crime novel. In August 1930, Crater was in the middle of an idyllic summer vacation in Maine with his wife, whom he met when he was hired to represent her during a divorce. He had just been appointed a justice of the New York Supreme Court by then-Governor Franklin Roosevelt, and there were a few rumors swirling that his appointment was greased with some serious cash passing between hands. But when he abruptly told his wife he needed to head back to New York for business and would return soon, she didn't think anything of it. Suddenly leaving for work wasn't that unusual for a busy new judge.

But perhaps Crater's wife, Stella, would've been less understanding had she known what the judge was up to back in the city. He went to his office and destroyed some documents, and shuttled others to his apartment. And just like any good crime story, money was involved — Crater withdrew thousands of dollars that day from his accounts. (Cue suspicious music and nervous glances.)

Covering all his "someone with something to hide" bases, he then went to dinner with a friend of his ... plus a showgirl named (you can't make this up) Sally Ritz. It turned out that the judge had a thing for the dancing women, which only adds to the mystery of his disappearance.

As Tracy and Holly turn up their trench coat collars to look into the case in this this episode of the podcast, they find that there are many theories about where Crater ended up the night he was last seen, Aug. 6. From brothels to buried under the New York Aquarium, everyone has a hunch on Crater's whereabouts. And you'll want to stay tuned into the episode for a twist ending, when a dramatic note upended the search for Crater in 2005.