Kate Hohl makes her fiction debut in the Department of First Stories of our current issue (May/June 2023) with the evocative historical crime story “The Body in Cell Two.” She’s clearly well versed in history, including famous true crime cases, as you’ll see in this fascinating post. We hope to see more from her at both novel and short-story length soon! —Janet Hutchings
Gangsters. Chorus girls. Corrupt Tammany Hall politics. The disappearance of a prominent judge and subsequent manhunt. Sounds like the plot of a mystery novel. Or maybe a pitch for a limited series on Netflix. But once upon a time, these were the elements in a real-life missing person case that captivated the nation. A story so big that every detail of this unsolved mystery was splashed across the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast.
Before Amelia Earhart, there was Judge Crater. In 1930, Crater, a New York Supreme Court justice walked out of a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen and seemingly vanished into thin air. Once touted “the mystery of the century”, Judge Crater’s disappearance baffled law enforcement and spawned countless amateur sleuths determined to crack the case.
I first stumbled across Judge Crater’s name while watching an old William Powell movie. In it, Powell’s character refers to someone “pulling a Crater.” When I heard the phrase referenced in two other movies, I had to know more. As someone who loves to read and write historical mysteries, I became fascinated with this real-life case of a missing person.
Here are the details that are generally regarded as facts: August 9, 1930, was a hot day in New York City that slipped into a hazy and humid night. Judge Crater hailed a cab after having dinner with two friends at Billy Haas’ Chophouse located on 330 West 45th Street. Sally Lou Ritz (a writer would be hard-pressed to craft a better name) a showgirl and the judge’s rumored girlfriend, and William Klein, an entertainment lawyer, would be the last people who claimed to see Judge Crater alive.
So, what secrets and scandals had transpired in Crater’s life that led to his disappearance on that night in Prohibition era New York?
Joseph Force Crater was born in 1889 into a wealthy family in Easton Pennsylvania. Crater’s grandfather owned a grocery store and surrounding orchards that were the source of the family’s wealth. After graduating cum laude from Lafayette College, Crater decided to study law. Much to his mother’s dismay, he chose Columbia over Harvard. Somewhat prophetically, his mother declared that the New York City of 1910 was a “horrible place. A den of iniquity.” After graduating from Columbia Law school, he took a job at New York University, teaching law at night. During the day he worked as a secretary for Robert F. Wagner, a big name in local New York politics. Crater worked for him up until Wagner’s 1926 election to the United States Senate. Crater, blessed with charm and quick wits, soon realized that politics could be his path to easy money, so he threw himself into the local dealings of Tammany Hall.
Crater would often work late hours on party affairs, mixing business with pleasure. That dedication paid off. He formed relationships with influential figures like charismatic New York Mayor James J. “Jimmy” Walker, Governor Alfred E. Smith, and then New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Friendships that seemed to cement Crater’s future in New York Democratic politics.
As a member of Tammany Hall and the Cayuga Democratic Club, Crater also rubbed shoulders with gangsters and bootleggers like Jack “Legs” Diamond, a notorious gangland figure of the time.
During the height of Prohibition, Crater frequented the speakeasies that went on to become some of the most famous and glamorous nightclubs in the world: The Stork Club, the Cotton Club, the 21 Club. By all accounts, Crater’s marriage to Stella Mance Wheeler was strained by his playboy lifestyle.
Ten years after he’d left Easton, Pennsylvania for the bright lights of New York, Crater was flourishing. In 1929, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the governor of New York, named him to the state Supreme Court. Rumor had it that Crater’s next step on the political ladder would be an appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Then came the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, that sparked the Great Depression. A time of soup lines and dance marathons. Shirley Temple was a box office darling and “Happy Days Are Here Again” topped the hit parade in 1930, but few Americans were living the good life. Unemployment skyrocketed, people lost their houses, and the Dust Bowl with the resulting crop failures meant that many were caught in a downward spiral of poverty.
But unlike so many other Americans, Crater not only managed to hold onto his money, he grew his fortune. Tammany Hall politicians had countless creative schemes to make money from its constituents and by all accounts, Crater was an enthusiastic participant in many of them. One deal might have proven to be his undoing.
In 1929, Crater was made Receiver in a high-profile foreclosure. Libby’s Baths, a hotel located at the corner of Christie and Delancey Streets were indebted to Irving Trust—a firm with Tammany Hall ties—to the tune of a hefty $1.5 million (over $27 million in today’s dollars). Libby’s was forced into foreclosure by Irving Trust before they could file for bankruptcy. As Receiver, Crater was tasked with trying to maximize profits for the lender, Irving Trust. Rumors pointed to the fact that Crater cashed in on both sides.
In the days before his disappearance, while staying with his wife at their summer house in Maine, Crater received a call from New York. He told his wife he had to return to the city to “set some people straight.” Upon his return to his office, his law clerk claimed that the judge withdrew five thousand dollars from the bank and packed it into two suitcases that he brought to his apartment on lower Fifth Avenue.
On that hot August night in 1930, Judge Crater arranged to go to see a Broadway show with Sally Lou Ritz, his girlfriend who was rumored to have gangland ties. Sally Lou later claimed that she decided not to accompany Judge Crater to the show. At 9:15 pm Crater, wearing a green and brown pinstripe suit and a straw Panama hat, climbed into the back of a cab in front of Billy Haas’ Chophouse deep in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen and was never seen again.
In those days before cell phones and social media, it took four weeks before anyone realized that Crater, along with the suitcases that contained the five thousand dollars, was missing. His business and political colleagues believed he had rejoined his wife up in Maine at the family’s summer house. His wife thought he was still away on business. When his disappearance was finally discovered it hit the front page of the newspapers like a bomb. A high-profile judge with connections to powerful businessmen, politicians and organized crime, the story was immediately newsworthy. A nationwide manhunt ensued, with false sightings reported almost daily.
But Crater had disappeared without a trace.
Police initially believed that Crater had taken the money and hopped a train out of town to avoid the scandal of being implicated in a corruption investigation. Then came the speculation that Crater may have been kidnapped or murdered because of his connections to organized crime. The media attention ratcheted up to a frenzy when his wife Stella Wheeler Crater went public with her belief that her husband had been the one investigating corruption in the New York justice system and had, in fact, received death threats.
Crater’s disappearance shone a spotlight on the illegal activities of Tammany Hall and was one of the contributing factors that led to the downfall of the political machine. The political career of mayor Walker was one of the casualties.
To “Pull a Crater” became synonymous with someone vanishing without a trace. Comedians of the day integrated the phrase “Judge Crater, call your office!” into their acts. There were countless reports of Judge Crater sightings a la Elvis Presley through the years, all revealed to be hoaxes. In 1939 almost ten years after his disappearance, he was declared legally dead.
Over the years, there have been many theories about the case. That Crater was the victim of a gangland hit, his body dumped in the Meadowlands. A policeman’s widow believed she found evidence that her husband, a New York City police officer and his brother, a cabby, killed Crater and buried him under the boardwalk in Coney Island, at the site where the Aquarium would be built. Another story went that Crater was buried in someone’s garden in Yonkers, but no human remains were ever found there. In 1979, missing person’s file number 13595, a case that had stayed open for fifty years, was officially closed.
As the legend of Judge Crater has faded over time, the New York City that he inhabited has also slipped away. The building that housed Billy’s Chophouse on W. 45th Street was torn down in the 1960’s and replaced with a nondescript brick apartment building. The Stork Club and the Cotton Club are long gone. The 21 Club, the legendary eatery that opened on New Year’s Day 1930, the year that Crater went missing, finally shuttered its doors in 2020, a casualty of the pandemic.
The world has significantly changed since that day Judge Crater climbed into a taxi and headed west toward Ninth Avenue never to be seen again. But our fascination with true crime and unsolved mysteries remains as strong as the day he disappeared.
A fascinating story, indeed! Peter Quinn wrote a fine novel about Crater, THE MAN WHO NEVER RETURNED. Worth reading for those with an interest in the man, the era, or historical mysteries.
The detail in this post is incredible, and the writing is top-notch. I’m looking forward to more historical mysteries from writer Kate Hohl.
A fascinating case and intriguing write up! Can’t wait to read more from Kate Hohl.
If important historical events had been presented to me this way in high school, I would’ve gotten an “A”! The details the writer has carefully chosen to set the stage are vivid and exciting; I felt as if I were in NYC back in 1930 watching Judge Crater get into that cab. I’ve read “The Body in Cell Two,” and it is terrific. I couldn’t stop reading. Kate Hohl has the gift of making true crime read like a thrilling page-turner of a novel, and fiction feel not just electric but entirely captivating and real. More from Ms. Hohl, please!
This is an interesting historical vignette written in a very readable way. Truth is often stranger than fiction!
This blog post leaves me wanting to know more about Judge Crater and his mysterious disappearance. Kate Hohl’s evocative writing transports the reader to another time and place which they can clearly see and smell and hear. Well done!