Day 927: Justice Joe Pulls A Crater

originally published July 15, 2014

At the sputtering end of the era of utmost corruption within the governance of the city of New York, people had to – in the parlance of today’s aspiring gangstas – get got. Arnold Rothstein met his untimely end in 1928 (spoilers to any Boardwalk Empire fans), and in the wake of his demise the final vestiges of the Tammany Hall fist of political smarminess were poised to become rubble. This wasn’t the end of corruption in New York of course, only the final curtain for this particular brand of centralized evil.

On the filthy payroll were cops, city officials and judges – hell, if the Tammany Hall machine were still around they’d probably be using those Times Square Elmos to peddle fenced goods. Unfortunately for the families of those who were caught up in this web of political malfeasance, when someone was rubbed out, there wasn’t always an accompanying explanation.

This brings us to the mysterious vanishing of Associate Justice Joseph Force Crater of the New York Supreme Court. Here was a man poised in the toasty glow of a biopic-worthy legal career: sitting on the second-highest court in New York at age 41 and allegedly a contender for the next open spot on the US Supreme Court. Then one day, he vanished. Did he flee? Was he dispatched from this planet via a snub-nosed messenger? Was he secretly a ghost the entire time? No, probably not that last one.

In the summer of 1930, Justice Crater was vacationing with Stella, his wife, at their cozy cabin in Belgrade, Maine. Crater had only been appointed three months earlier, but he felt he deserved a little break. He received a call in late July, and announced to Stella that he needed to return to New York “to straighten those fellows out.” Nothing else was said, and the next day he was back in the couple’s swanky Fifth Avenue apartment.

Whatever pressing business had summoned Justice Crater to New York, it would have to wait until after his wild weekend in Atlantic City with his showgirl mistress, Sally Lou Ritzi. This guy couldn’t have been more of a cliché if he wore a tommy gun over his shoulder.

Crater returned to Maine on August 1, then packed up to head back to New York again on August 3. He told his wife he’d be back in time for her birthday on the 9th, and according to his wife he was in good spirits before he left. He’d just spent a weekend in Atlantic City shtupping a showgirl – of course he was in good spirits.

On the morning of August 6, Justice Crater spent two hours going through his files at work, suspiciously destroying some of them, then sending Joseph Mara, his law clerk, out to cash two checks. This gave the judge $5,150 in cash (roughly $72,700 in 2014 bills). A payout for someone trying to shake him down? Maybe. A nest-egg for a quick getaway to some far-off land? Perhaps. Crater dismissed Mara for the remainder of the day and booked himself a ticket to a Broadway show at the Belasco Theatre.

Crater went out for dinner that night with Sally Lou Ritzi and William Klein, a lawyer buddy. Crater was in good spirits when the party broke up around 9:00, and he left on his own to see the show. That was the last time anyone saw the judge alive.

It took his wife ten days to report Crater missing. It wasn’t until the judge missed work on the 25th that the manhunt began.

In the aftermath of Justice Crater’s disappearance, Sally Lou Ritzi scooted out of New York, back to her family in Youngstown, Ohio, ostensibly because her dad was under the weather. For the next seven years she would be subjected to police questioning, but she never let loose any details juicier than the ones I described above.

June Brice, another showgirl, was known to be among Crater’s stable of floozies, and she was spotted talking to the judge the day before he vanished. One of Stella Crater’s lawyers had a theory involving June and a blackmail scheme that had resulted in Crater’s murder. But the day the grand jury was to convene on the case, June went missing. She wasn’t discovered until someone tracked her down in a mental hospital in 1948.

Then there’s the Vivian Gordon angle. Vivian was a high-end hooker, often seen around town with Jack “Legs” Diamond, a gangster who was known to associate with Justice Crater and Arnold Rothstein. In February 1931, Vivian announced herself to the person running the official inquiry into city corruption, and declared that she’d be willing to testify about some of the back-door dealings and shady goings-on among the powerful people she knew. Five days later, Vivian was murdered. One of Crater’s coats was found in her apartment, suggesting a possible link between their fates.

Other suspicious doodads trickled into the case file: Crater’s safe deposit box had been emptied. Two locked briefcases that Crater and Joseph Mara had brought from his office to his Fifth Avenue apartment on August 6 were gone. Some six months after Crater was last seen, his wife discovered envelopes containing cash and an extensive detailing of who owed Crater money in a dresser drawer – one that the police would have searched in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance.

What the hell happened to this guy?

We’ll probably never know. Stella Crater had run out of money and was living on the pitiful $12 a week she earned as a telephone operator in 1939 before Justice Crater was officially declared dead, thus unleashing his hefty life insurance settlement. The case was officially closed by the NYPD in 1979.

In 2005, a lady named Stella Ferrucci-Good passed away at age 91. In her possession were notes that pinpointed a location along the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, where the New York Aquarium now sits as the final resting place for Justice Joseph Crater. The paperwork in her possession (which had been sealed in an envelope marked ‘Do not open until I am dead’) fingered NYPD officer Charles Burns and his brother Frank – both of whom had strong ties to organized crime, as well as names that would be used for characters on TV comedy shows years in the future – as being responsible for the judge’s murder.

The location in question had been excavated in the 1950’s for the aquarium’s construction, and no skeletal remains are known to have been found. But this final clue in Justice Crater’s case will keep amateur sleuths on the hunt for the truth for ages.

The reality is that Joseph Crater was a corrupt bastard, and he may have died the way corrupt bastards are destined to die: via some shadowy act of evil in the black of night. Or maybe he simply liquidated his assets and went on the permanent lam. For decades afterward, the term to “pull a Crater” was colloquial slang for making a sudden disappearance. If nothing else, at least Crater contributed a punchline to the lexicon for a while.

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