In the evening hours of August 6, 1930, prominent New York judge Joseph Force Crater walked out of a Manhattan restaurant, and was never seen again. His case became one of the most enduring mysteries of the early twentieth century, even as the story has gradually disappeared from public memory. So what really happened that fateful night?
Started From the Bottom
Looking back on Crater’s early life, there’s nothing to suggest he would become embroiled in scandal, drama, or intrigue of any kind. He was born in the sleepy town of Easton, Pennsylvania to a well-off family. As a young adult, he was fairly promising: he attended the private, liberal arts Lafayette College before enrolling at Columbia University. A good old boy, Crater was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity—and his ability to make connections and please people would soon rocket him to infamy.
In April 1930, at the age of 41, Crater became a judge for the New York Supreme Court. He was relatively young for a role that most men spent their entire lives chasing down, but no one thought much of it—at first. In fact, for a time it seemed like he had it all: a lovely wife, Stella; a summer cabin in Maine; and the power to hand down policy-altering decisions from his high position.
In mere months, it would all unravel.
Crater, it appears, was in the pocket of the Tammany Hall Society, an infamous New York political organization at the time. Shortly before he became a judge, Crater withdrew $20,000 from his bank account, a move many people interpret as payoff to worm his way into the upper echelons of the law. Not a great look, and you know what happens when you fall in with a bad crowd…
By the summer of 1930, court was adjourned, and Crater paused his corrupt rulings to retire up to his cabin in Maine with his wife Stella. But he couldn’t escape so easily: In late July, Stella reported that Crater got a strange phone call. He refused to give her any information about it, and only told her that he had to return to the city to “straighten those fellows out.”
He kissed her goodbye, left, and arrived at his New York apartment the next day. Curiously, however, instead of taking care of whatever business he had, he decided to go on a little vacation to Atlantic City, New Jersey, picking up his showgirl mistress Sally Lou Ritzi along the way. Yes, of course Crater had a mistress. In fact, he had at least three: Ritzi, June Brice, and Vivian Gordon.
Crater’s reasons for going to Atlantic City are hazy: was he trying to escape some shady figures who were waiting for him in New York? Did he just want to gamble? How much did Ritzi know about his mysterious phone call just days before? Whatever the case, Crater was still alive and well when he returned to his wife in Maine on August 1st. There was just one thing: he had to go back to New York. Again. Even so, Stella reported that Crater seemed to be in good spirits about his second trip, and she wasn’t particularly suspicious.
She should have been: it was the last time she would ever see him.
Without a Trace
In contrast to his movements after the evening of August 6th, Crater’s actions just before his disappearance are very well documented—but they are also extremely bizarre. Just hours before he vanished, he was seen at the courthouse frantically shredding documents. Crater also had his law clerk cash two checks worth over 70,000 of today’s dollars, asked him to bring two locked suitcases over to his apartment, then gave the man the day off.
That night, Crater bought a ticket for a Broadway show and went over to have dinner with Ritzi and his friend William Klein at Billy Haas’s Chophouse. Much like Stella, both Ritzi and Klein recalled that Crater was in a good mood throughout the dinner and that nothing seemed to be amiss. But when the three companions exited the restaurant and parted, something—no one knows what—went horribly wrong.
Both Ritzi and Klein initially claimed that Crater got in a cab outside the restaurant, presumably to make it to his Broadway play. Later, after it was clear that Crater had vanished, they changed their story to say they had gotten the cab, while Crater had walked away. These were a crucial few seconds, but however they really transpired, one truth remained: Crater never reappeared.
And so began the long, twisted fallout.
For various reasons, Crater was not officially reported missing until almost a month later, on September 3rd. As soon as he was, police and media alike began desperately searching the cold trail for clues—and what they found was shocking. Crater had emptied out his safety deposit box in his final days, and the two locked briefcases he had put in his house had disappeared along with him. But the worst was yet to come.
Because then police found the mistresses, and one of them was dead.
Both Sally Ritzi and June Brice had fled New York after Crater’s disappearance, though both of them denied having anything to do with it. Ritzi was tracked down at her parents’ house in Ohio and claimed she had returned home to care for her ailing father. Police never quite believed her, but they couldn’t get anything satisfactory out of her.
June Brice was found in a mental institution decades later. During the height of Crater’s case, lawyers argued that Brice’s mobster boyfriend had blackmailed and then killed the judge. By the time police found Brice, however, she was in no state to give testimony on these events.
And then there was Vivian Gordon. Gordon was a high-powered call girl who knew the kingpins of New York’s underworld intimately. In 1931, she offered to testify about government corruption in light of Crater’s disappearance—and was murdered just five days later. When police searched her house, they found a disturbing item: Judge Crater’s coat.
All of these leads are tantalizing—but none of them ended up leading anywhere definitive. Gordon was dead. Ritzi and Brice stayed quiet. Crater remained missing.
Though his body was never found, Crater was officially declared dead on June 6, 1939, almost nine years after he vanished. In a trial concerning his disappearance, the jury’s only certainty was that they could not determine what happened to him, and though promising evidence has come out as recently as 2005, it has amounted to nothing. Sadly, we have no further clues about Judge Crater’s ultimate fate—though most assume that he was murdered.
But by whom? For what purpose? How, and where? What were Crater’s mistresses not saying? We may never know.