The judge, Joseph Force Crater steps into a taxi in New York and disappears never to be seen again.
NEW YORK — You can come back now, Judge Crater. Everybody’s dead.
Sixty-five years ago, on Aug. 6, New York State Judge Joseph Force Crater caught a cab in midtown Manhattan and completely vanished.
His disappearance captured the imagination of America, mired in the Great Depression and has never entirely let go.
Groucho Marx joked he was going to “step out and look for Judge Crater,” while nightclub comedians quipped, “Judge Crater, please call your office.”
Mad magazine ran a cartoon showing Lassie having finally found the missing judge, while on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a judge reassured an anxious Rob and Laura Petrie that, no, he wasn’t “that” Crater – his name was spelled K-r-a-d-a.
Pulling a Crater, i.e. disappearing, became part of the lexicon.
Jokes aside, experts in the case have determined that the 41-year-old Crater spent the morning of Aug. 6, 1930, hastily packing up papers in his office and cashing large personal checks at two separate banks.
Named to the bench by then New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Crater had been a judge for just four months.
That evening, Crater ate dinner at a steakhouse on West 45th Street with friends, one of them a showgirl. He was last seen getting in a cab at 9:15 p.m., headed to the theater.
Was he silenced by the mob? Did he flee for his life? Did he leave his wife for another woman? Everyone had a theory.
“Every kid grew up wondering, where did Judge Crater go?” said Lincoln Diamant, author of books on New York history.
The Crater craze took hold less than a year after the stock market’s devastating crash, he noted.
“People were trying to steady themselves and get a grip on things and then somebody totally disappeared before their eyes,” he said.
Over the years, Crater was spotted, like Elvis, in the most unlikely places–running bingo games in Africa, prospecting for gold in California, herding sheep in the Northwest.
Most people suspected the mob had hired a hit man to silence Crater for what he supposedly knew about political corruption in New York. The historian for the city Police Department, John Podracky, said that’s become the semiofficial consensus.
Others thought the judge disappeared in fear. One theory had him fleeing to avoid forced to testify in a corruption probe.
Still others imagine his motives lay elsewhere. There’s a theory he was killed for dallying with a gangster’s girlfriend, and another that “Good Time Joe,” as he was known, took off with one of several mistresses.
As for Crater, he would be 106–a tough age for someone on the run for 65 years.
But New Yorkers still wonder. They ask after Crater at the New York Historical Society, the reference librarian said.
“We don’t have an update,” she said. “It’s the same old mystery.”