Today in 1930: Judge Joseph Crater famously vanishes in NYC

August 6, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryIt was 80 years ago today that Joseph Crater stepped out of a New York City chophouse, said good-bye to his two dining companions, headed down West 46th Street and disappeared into the city night, never to be heard from again.

The disappearance of the New York State Supreme Court justice was one of the most famous missing-persons cases of the 20th century. New Yorkers were so familiar with the headline-grabbing story that “pulling a Crater” became the local slang term for vanishing without a trace.

To this day, no one knows for sure what became of the judge, but there are dozens of theories. Some speculated that he ran off with his mistress. Others believed he was killed by operatives for Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic Party political machine – possibly to protect Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of New York (and the one who appointed Crater to the high court).

Joseph Crater police reward posterRobert Tofel, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of a 2004 book on Crater’s disappearance, has an even more sordid theory: After leaving the restaurant, the judge attended a Broadway comedy and then made his way to a high-class brothel, where he expired from natural causes. The brothel’s proprietor, a well-known madam with numerous Tammany Hall connections, could then have asked someone – one of her mobster friends, perhaps – to quietly dispose of the body. (Tofel’s theory is based on details from an early draft of a bestselling book authored by the madam.)

In any case, the suddenly famous judge was known for decades as the “missing-est man in America” – until a man named Jimmy Hoffa pulled a Crater in 1975.

For more about the investigation and its ripple effect through Tammany Hall, pick up Richard Tofel’s book, “Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater, and the New York He Left Behind.”