Justice Joseph Crater: The Missingest Man in New York

CULTURE | November 17, 2019

Justice Joseph Crater. Source: (historicmysteries.com)

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the mysterious disappearances of Jimmy Hoffa and Amelia Earhart; however, before either of them disappeared, there was the case of Justice Joseph Crater, the New York Supreme Court judge who was last seen on August 6, 1930. Despite numerous leads, the judge was never found, and his disappearance is considered the longest unsolved missing persons case in New York history, earning Crater the title of the “Missingest Man in New York.”

Crater was born on January 5, 1889, in Easton, Pennsylvania, the son of Irish immigrants. His father, Frank Crater, owned an orchard and operated a produce market. Crater was raised in Easton and remained there after graduating high school to attend Lafayette College. He later went on to obtain a law degree from Columbia University, graduating in 1916. While at Columbia, he met Stella Wheeler and, after helping her get a divorce, the two of them married in 1917.

After working several years as a law clerk, while simultaneously teaching legal classes to supplement his income, Crater decided to go into politics. His first political position was secretary to New York Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner. In 1927, Crater opened his own law firm which proved quite successful. Then in April 1930, Crater was appointed to the New York Supreme Court by then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Tammany Hall & 14th St. West, New York City, 1914. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Crater’s reputation up to this point was less than stellar. Not only was he known to have a weakness for showgirls, but there were also rumors that he had dealings with organized crime, specifically with regards to the Democratic Party of New York, Tammany Hall. In 1929, Crater had been under investigation for his handling of the sale of Liberty Hotel to the American Mortgage Loan Company, which was later sold back to the city for a profit exceeding $2 million. While there was no evidence proving Crater had done anything illegal, the incident cast suspicion upon his character and many speculated that he had obtained his appointment to the New York Supreme Court through bribery.

In July 1930, Crater and Stella were at their summer cabin in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, when Crater, according to his wife, received a strange phone call. Crater wouldn’t tell Stella who it was from, but only that he had to go back “to straighten those fellows out.” Crater then went home, gave the maid a few days off, and went to Atlantic City with one of his showgirls, Sally Lou Ritz. He returned to Maine on August 1, but left again on the 3rd, this time telling his wife that he would return before her birthday on the 9th. However, he never returned.

Back in New York on August 6, Crater and his assistant, Joseph Mara, went through his personal files at the courthouse, moving some of them to his apartment in locked briefcases. He also had Mara cash two checks, totaling more than $5,000, and took more than $20,000 in campaign funds. He then had Mara take the afternoon off. That evening, Crater purchased a ticket for a Broadway show and had dinner with a colleague, William Klein, as well as Sally Lou Ritz. He was last seen leaving the restaurant and heading to his show.  

Newspaper reporting the disappearance of Crater. Source: (pinterest.com)

When Crater failed to return for Stella’s birthday, she assumed he had gotten caught up with work. It wasn’t until August 29, when she got a call from one of his colleagues who believed Crater to still be on vacation that she began to worry. She returned to New York and contacted Crater’s political associates who then reported him missing. Crater’s disappearance made the newspaper headlines on September 4, 1930. Crater was never found and was eventually declared legally dead in 1939.

A number of theories were posited to explain the disappearance. At first, the money seemed the biggest clue, but it was discovered still in his apartment. There was speculation that he had run off with another woman, furthered by rumors that Sally disappeared the same month. Others suspected that he fled because his corrupt political dealings were about to be exposed. More extreme theories suggested suicide or amnesia. But the most recent theory occurred after a woman named Stella Ferucci-Good died, leaving behind a letter in an envelope that read “Do not open until my death.”  

New York Aquarium. Source: (Wikipedia.org)

According to the letter, Ferucci-Good’s late husband, a police officer named Robert Good along with brothers, Charles Burns, police officer, and Frank Burns, cab driver, had killed Crater and buried his body under the boardwalk near W. 8th Street in Brooklyn. That site had already been excavated in the 1950s in order to build the New York Aquarium. No human remains were found at that time; however, the technology of the time may not have been adequate to detect them. Therefore, while this letter might be the answer to the ninety-year-old mystery, there is no way to know for sure.

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