The Missingest Man in America
Joe Crater had barely enough time to unwind at his summer home in Belgrade Lakes when his vacation was interrupted by a mysterious phone call. History has never revealed who was on the other end of the line. Crater had been at his camp on Great Pond only a single day when he learned of a business matter he had to attend to back in New York. He told his wife he had to go and "clear up a few things . . . straighten out a few people." He assured her he'd return in just a few days — within a week at the most — so that he'd be back for her birthday.Then, as the story goes, he had his chauffeur drive him to the local depot and he boarded a train bound for the city.
For Joe and Stella Crater this was the routine stuff of summer. The couple had been vacationing in Maine for more than a decade, moving into a pleasant camp on a woody cove on the largest of the Belgrade Lakes for a few months of fishing, relaxing, and enjoying the quietude. On one side of their modest two-story cabin was a busy sporting camp, across the cove was a girls' summer camp. Days were filled with motoring about in a chauffeured boat, lounging, visiting with neighbors. Simple pleasures.
The world Crater inhabited in New York City was anything but simple. By most accounts he liked the showgirls, and his work and his social circles put him in contact with the eminent personalities of the city. And, some say, with organized crime. The small town in Maine, all lakes and woods and serenity, was the perfect antidote. But it wasn't uncommon for Crater to be summoned back to Gotham — that's what happens when you're a New York Supreme Court Justice.
What occurred after the phone call, though, was decidedly out of the ordinary. Crater spent a couple of days at work in his chambers, had a few lunches with colleagues, spent evenings at the theater, visited with at least one showgirl, stopped at a bar owned and frequented by gangsters, made several large financial transactions, and then, on an evening in early August 1930, he simply disappeared.
In the years before Jimmy Hoffa vanished, the Crater case was the highest-profile missing persons incident in the country. The search for the judge was epic in scale. By 1961, when Stella Crater wrote her memoir, The Empty Robe, the investigation had already cost $750,000, and had spread to every continent. More than three million posters were put up in a quest for information that reached all the way around the world.
The judge became known as "The Missingest Man in America," and speculation about his whereabouts ran rampant. If somebody was lost in the years before World War II, he or she was said to have "pulled a Crater." Everyone had a theory of what became of Judge Crater — it was a mob hit, a political rival took him down, his wife did it, the judge faked his own drowning to escape Stella and run off with a showgirl, he was attempting to get away from a Tammany Hall scandal, he was still alive somewhere living on a tropical island.
Clues left behind by a woman who died in Queens last August may finally provide some answers to NYPD case # 13595, the city's longest-running, unsolved missing-persons mystery. The letters that Stella Ferrucci-Good left behind in an envelope marked "Do Not Open Until My Death" have New Yorkers — and Mainers in the Belgrade area — talking about the judge again.
Belgrade Lakes, Maine, 1930. The small communities a few miles from Augusta had been undergoing a transformation. The towns of Belgrade and Belgrade Lakes were stunningly picturesque places, with hills rolling along and between a series of seven ponds and a lake. Beautiful as they were, though, they were mostly enjoyed by the apple farmers and woodcutters who lived there. Shortly before the turn of the century, as local writer Esther Perne points out, "the farmers figured out that they could become guides" and make a living having a lot more fun. And so they did, turning the Belgrade Lakes region into a world-class fishing vacation spot. Soon the huge and luxurious Belgrade Lakes Hotel went up, and it was hopping with affluent rusticators from Boston and New York. Writers like E.B. White and Eugene O'Neill famously spent summers in Belgrade. Sporting camps and kids camps and private camps appeared on each of the area's large basins. People would spend their days on the water, trolling for trophy trout and salmon, and their nights eating out, drinking and bowling in town.
This was the scene that Joe Crater and his new wife, Stella, found themselves in when they came to the area to visit family friends in 1916. In her book, Stella Crater recalls how, one night at their friend's camp, after singing songs around a fire, Joe turned to her and said, "I love this, Stell," and he promised to buy her a place there. In 1919 he did just that, purchasing a modest camp, with an icehouse out back and an adjacent cottage for their cook and chauffeur. Very simple by today's standards, it had a long screened-in porch facing the lake, a large fieldstone fireplace at the back, and a small yard blanketed with pine needles. And it was just a few steps away from their friends, the Allens. Joe built Stella a gazebo that was perched on pilings right above the lake.
The Craters really did love life in Belgrade Lakes, especially Stella, who typically moved in and spent the whole summer. Joe commuted back and forth to New York, coming up for a few weeks at a time, whatever his schedule allowed. "Belgrade Lakes, which we both enjoyed so much was, and is, quiet and peaceful," Stella wrote. "The people are down to earth. There, in its restful embrace, Joe wasn't 'judge,' but simply 'Joe.' "
The couple would often bring along their niece for the summer, and when she needed someone to play with, they looked a few doors down the lake. "They didn't know what they were going to do with Harriet," remembers Esther Pierce, who has been summering near the Crater cottage since about the time the judge bought it. "So I imagine my mother said, 'My little girl would play with her.' " For one summer, Esther and Harriet palled around, running back and forth on the trail between their cottages.
"I never even asked her if she had a last name," Pierce says. "I was probably nine or ten." The pair had a grand old time, but they tried to keep out of the judge's way. "He wasn't very fond of children. We mostly stayed outdoors and played a lot. He was a nice-looking man but kind of surly. Quite a domineering personality. Really annoyed with me and Harriet at times."
Young Esther Pierce marveled at these people from New York. "He represented the city side of things, and I was really a country girl," she says. "When Judge Crater had company, they'd ring a dinner bell and the city women would walk over to the kitchen all dressed up in heels. Stella had lots of company from New York; they always liked to show the place off. It wasn't really a showy camp, but they had money. When the people from New York came, they were thrilled with the camp and the lake."
One of Pierce's favorite memories of the Craters was getting to ride in the judge's boat. "He loved fishing with a fishing guide. He had a beautiful mahogany boat, and he'd always have a chauffeur driving it. They'd get to their special spot, catch a fish, and go over to an island where the guide would clean and cook the fish. Then the chauffeur would come and get Harriet and me and bring us over to the island. We would sit in the back seat and the chauffeur would go real fast."
Try as he might, Joe Crater could never escape New York. Business always took him away from his idyllic lake. "This was the Prohibition Era," Stella Crater wrote in her memoir. "A time of widespread and daring corruption among men in high office. Some constantly were seduced by bribes. It was said judgeships were on the block for the highest bidder. One of the most violent and lawless eras ever known, it was a period in which many men in various walks of life were out to make all they could in as short a time as possible."
At least according to Stella, this wasn't true of Joe Crater. He played the game, she admits. A young lawyer, no matter how talented, had to have help and "make certain contributions," in order to advance in politics. "Joe did both, I am sure. But even surer am I that all he did, or received, was righteous and above board." Stella Crater finds herself making a lot of statements like this in her book, coming to the defense of her husband's name.
Whatever tactics he may have used, this son of a Pennsylvania grocer rose quickly through the ranks at Tammany Hall, the legendary Democratic social club in the city, first by getting a job as a clerk with New York Supreme Court Justice Robert Wagner. It was only a few years before the Craters found themselves moving from their home in Harlem up to Fifth Avenue, where they had a suite next to Governor Al Smith.
Crater was acquainted with all of the big names of New York at the time — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, the legendary mayor Jimmy Walker — and even knew some people Stella wished he didn't. When Crater mentioned that he knew gambler Albert Rothstein, who was mysteriously murdered, Stella was amazed. "How in the world did you meet a man like that?" she asked him. "You meet all kinds of people when you're a lawyer, Stell," he replied.
And even more when you're a judge. Crater's seat on the Supreme Court bench came in April of 1930, just five months before he disappeared, when his old pal Judge Wagner, then a U.S. Senator, suggested his name to FDR — Al Smith's successor as governor — when a judgeship came open. Even though he was young, at forty-one, it made a certain amount of sense. Wagner called him "one of the most brilliant new minds in the New York legal field." Joe Crater later told Stella, "No less than FDR himself has said, I've been told privately, that I have it in me to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court." That the new justice was a loyal Tammany man didn't hurt.
Tammany Hall was notorious for doing things its own way, electing mayors and governors and even U.S. presidents from its ranks, and it became synonymous with cronyism. Just as Crater was becoming a justice, a former member of the Supreme Court, Samuel Seabury, was retained by the New York legislature to look into all the allegations of Tammany corruption that were surfacing. Seabury's investigation resulted in two magistrates being removed from office, three others resigning, several police officers going to prison, and Mayor Jimmy Walker being driven from office. Crater's name frequently came up in one of the biggest scandals at the time, involving the sale of judgeships Stella mentioned.
One afternoon, a month before he disappeared, Joe lolled in a hammock by the lake while Stella read the paper. She noticed that a New York district attorney was about to issue subpoenas in the Ewald-Healy case in which it was alleged that Judge George F. Ewald paid Tammany leader Martin J. Healy the sum of ten thousand dollars for his appointment to the bench. Crater was friendly with both men, and many historians wonder whether this is where the disappearance story begins.
During that summer, the Craters were enjoying themselves at their camp. "We tramped through the woods hand in hand, canoed on the placid lake, fished in happy silence, and played bridge and penny ante with various groups of our longtime friends among our neighbors," Stella wrote. Then they drove north to Quebec for a quick vacation.
In July, not long after Stella had read about the Ewald-Healy case in the paper, Crater told her he had to go to Atlantic City on business. "It is a political meeting connected with the Healy matter," he said. "It isn't anything serious."
He returned to the camp on August 2 after driving all through the night with his chauffeur. They joked with Stella that they made the trip faster than the Bar Harbor Express, a train that ran from the city up the Maine coast. That day they went boating with their friends the Traubes, racing around the lake. Then they had dinner with the same couple in the village and went bowling. At some point during the evening Joe excused himself and either made or took the phone call that led to him leaving.
As he was departing the next day, he assured Stella he "wouldn't miss that poker party we're going to have [on your birthday] for anything in the world." After that, Stella writes, "he kissed me fondly and walked out — clear out of my life. For I never saw him again."
Back in New York, Crater was seen by several people, going to the theater on two occasions, and making some financial transactions — withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars from various accounts — that would raise suspicions later. The last anyone saw of him, he was walking down Forty-fifth Street on the evening of August 6. His companions thought he was about to get into a cab.
Over the course of the next week, Stella Crater waited patiently back in Belgrade, just as she often did. Her birthday came and passed. Joe had ordered her a new red canoe but wasn't around to see it delivered.
It was almost a month before news broke in Belgrade Lakes that the judge had gone missing. On Thursday, September 4, 1930, the Kennebec Journal ran a large, front-page story. Manifest Efforts of Friends and Employees at Maine Resort to Evade Quizzing as to Whereabouts of Judge, ran the subhead to the piece, which claimed that two automobiles known to be owned by the Craters were seen driving to Belgrade Lakes on the previous Saturday. In one they assumed was Stella. Who was in the other, the writer wanted to know.
Crater stayed in the headlines for much of the following week, and suspicions ran rampant that the judge was in Belgrade. The New York police dispatched detectives to question Stella Crater and her neighbors. The Kennebec Journal reporters said that she and her family spokesman, Mr. Traube, were evasive and that something didn't seem to be adding up.
"Though Mrs. Crater was seen and recognized going through the lake village by several people on two occasions today, inquiry at the Traube camp, next to Crater's, brought further insistent denials that Mrs. Crater was there or that she had been in the village."
When a boat was found floating in Great Pond, the FBI dragged the lake to see if they could find a body. The locals couldn't help but notice all this, of course. Esther Pierce, thirteen at the time, says, "I don't think I was aware of all that police activity." But another longtime resident, Lyle Strickland, 80, sure was, and he has his own tale. It's fascinating, but it doesn't necessarily jibe with the known facts of the case.
When he was very young boy, Strickland says, Judge Crater came to visit his father's strawberry farm. Also at the farm that day was a local man, Walter Knowles, who worked for the railroad, and, when Crater learned of this he started interrogating him. "He was particularly interested in Knowles' ability to stop a train," says Strickland, a former contractor and road commissioner in Belgrade.
Crater, it seems, wanted to get on a train, but as anonymously as possible. "He didn't want anyone to see him getting on and off. Knowles said, 'I can flag you down a train,' and Crater really perked up at that." The pair made arrangements to meet at night on a dark road up the tracks from the train station. Strickland was supposed to come along, with his father. "I suppose that'd be part of his disguise, having a kid in the car.
"On that night we went up to Foster Point Road and drove along it until we met a man walking," Strickland continues. "His pant legs were wet up to the knees. The story goes around town that Crater was drowned. Well what [Crater] did, he had this place picked out, and got out and set his boat adrift. That's why his pants were all wet."
Knowles was successful at flagging the train down, according to Strickland, and the judge got on. He was generous to his helpers. "Crater gave my father a hundred dollar bill," says Strickland. "And he said 'Don't tell people where you got this.' "
The town was abuzz for weeks with the news of Crater's disappearance. Strickland recalls the FBI moving in and "commandeering" the local phone exchange. He also remembers fishermen making their own searches of the lake. "Some of the fishermen who'd hang around the Liar's Bench [a guide hangout], they'd go out and look for his body. I guess a reward was offered for a while."
In August 2005, a Queens resident turned over to the police letters written by her grandmother. In these Stella Ferrucci-Good stated that her husband was responsible for killing Judge Crater, with the help of a New York City cop and his cabby brother. The trio murdered the judge, for reasons untold, and then buried him under the boardwalk at Coney Island. In the August 19, 2005, New York Post story that broke this news, it was noted that "Police sources confirmed that skeletal remains had been found there in the mid-1950s. They said those remains are now being examined to see if they can be linked to Crater."
Makes for a nice tale, says Richard Tofel, a former assistant publisher at the Wall Street Journal and the author of the 2004 book, Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater, and the New York He Left Behind. "This didn't strike me as a terribly real story," he says. "I've no doubt that this woman was sincere in her belief, but the idea that there would have been a body dug up on a boardwalk in New York in the 1950s and a police officer would not have thought — at that time — that it was Judge Crater, that seemed incredible."
Tofel thinks the Queens woman's story has other major flaws. He doesn't think the judge got into a cab, which is how most stories of the disappearance left him. "As I demonstrated pretty well in my book, there was no cab. That's not part of history, that's part of the myth. So to begin there you're beginning with a myth. I spoke to a police detective at the time and he didn't think much [of her story] either."
The story that seems to make the most sense to Tofel, according to his book, was one that came to light in the decades after Crater's disappearance. A New York madam named Polly Adler later claimed that the judge died in the act in her brothel and she had some associates dispose of the body. Tofel writes, "The Adler story squares with all of the evidence in the Crater case."
Stella Crater apparently came to the conclusion that her husband was killed. She remarried to a man from Waterville and spent winters there and summers in the Belgrade Lakes. She died in a Mount Vernon, New York, nursing home in 1969.
As Richard Tofel writes in his book, "Stella told interviewers beginning in the 1950s that she believed her husband was murdered." In her book she seemed to buy into the notion that he was slain by mobsters, having become entwined with a showgirl who was trying to extort money from him and who also disappeared a month after he did. Sources at the New York City Police Department say there "have been developments" since the Ferrucci-Good letters surfaced, but they have so far declined to make a statement.
Perhaps the story will come to a conclusion this summer. Or perhaps the mystery of Judge Crater will continue to confound authorities — and continue to captivate a little fishing resort in central Maine.