Born January 5, 1889
Disappeared August 6, 1930 (aged 41)
New York City
Status Declared dead in absentia
June 6, 1939
Alma mater Lafayette College
Occupation Justice of New York Supreme Court for New York County
Known for Unexplained disappearance
Spouse(s) Stella Mance Wheeler
Joseph Force Crater (January 5, 1889 – disappeared August 6, 1930, declared legally dead June 6, 1939) was a New York State Supreme Court Justice who vanished amid political scandal. He was last seen leaving a restaurant on West 45th Street in Manhattan, and entered popular culture as one of the most mysterious missing persons cases of the twentieth century. Despite massive publicity, the case was never solved and was officially closed 40 years after he disappeared. His disappearance fueled public disquiet about New York City corruption and was a factor in the downfall of the Tammany Hall political machine.
Early life and legal career
Crater was born in Easton, Pennsylvania, the eldest of four children of Frank Ellsworth Crater and the former Leila Virginia Montague. He was educated at Lafayette College (class of 1910) and Columbia University. He was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity.
Crater's official title was Justice of the New York Supreme Court for New York County, which is a trial court despite the designation "supreme" (New York's highest court is the Court of Appeals). Bank records later revealed that he withdrew $20,000 shortly before taking up the position in April 1930 at the relatively young age of 41. This caused suspicion[who?] that a payment to Tammany Hall politicians had secured his appointment. While acting as official receiver in a bankruptcy, Crater sold a property at a tiny fraction of the $3 million that the city paid to get it back shortly afterward. The huge profit generated in the transaction later caused speculation that he had been killed in a dispute over the money made on a corrupt scheme, although no evidence of corruption was ever found.
Crater issued two published opinions: Rotkowitz v. Sohn, involving fraudulent conveyances and mortgage foreclosure fraud; and Henderson v. Park Central Motors Service, dealing with a garage company's liability for an expensive car stolen and wrecked by an ex-convict.
In the summer of 1930, Crater and his wife Stella Mance Wheeler were vacationing at their summer cabin in Belgrade, Maine. In late July, Crater received a telephone call. He offered no information to his wife about the content of the call, other than to say that he had to return to the city "to straighten those fellows out". The next day, he arrived at his 40 Fifth Avenue apartment, but instead of dealing with business, he made a trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, with his mistress, showgirl Sally Lou Ritzi (who used the stage name Ritz). He returned to Maine on August 1, and traveled back to New York on August 3. Before making this final trip, he promised his wife that he would return by her birthday on August 9. Crater's wife stated that he was in good spirits and behaving normally when he departed for New York City. On the morning of Wednesday, August 6, Crater spent two hours going through his files in his courthouse chambers, reportedly destroying several documents. He then had his law clerk Joseph Mara cash two checks for him that amounted to $5,150 (equivalent to about $73,834 in 2017 dollars). At noon, he and Mara carried two locked briefcases to his apartment and he let Mara take the rest of the day off.
Later that evening, Crater went to a Broadway ticket agency (Supreme Tickets) and bought one seat from William Deutsch (proprietor of Supreme) for a comedy called Dancing Partner at the Belasco Theatre. He then went to Billy Haas's Chophouse at 332 West 45th Street, where he ate dinner with Ritzi and William Klein, a lawyer friend. Klein later told investigators that Crater was in a good mood that evening and gave no indication that anything was bothering him. The dinner ended a little after 9 p.m., shortly after the curtain rose on the show for which Crater had bought a ticket, and the small group went outside.
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