"Judge Crater, call your office."
About 50 or so years ago it was not unusual to hear a comic on television come up with a line like this. And he did not have to worry that the public would not get the joke.
In the 1950s and early 60s Easton native Judge Joseph Force Crater and his story were part of national folklore. In 1954 when a skeleton was found in a mine near Friedensville, newspapers speculated it was Crater. But, alas the judge had false teeth and the skeleton had a full set of his own.
The story began in Easton where Crater was born to a well-to-do family in a home at 5th and Ferry Streets in 1889.
The Crater's fortune rested on a produce business founded by Crater's grandfather. It was estimated that it was worth half a million dollars when the judge was born. "I have unloaded more carts than you could count," Crater liked to tell his wife after he became a successful attorney.
Crater graduated cum laude from Lafayette College. An old friend Dr. John H. West described Crater this way: "A sparkler, the type who would attract attention anywhere, tall, medium complexioned, dark- hair and eyes, a natty dresser, positive, witty, with plenty of poise -- the kind who could warm up to anybody and fit in anywhere."
After Lafayette, Crater went to Columbia University Law School. He did so well that he was hired to teach courses at Columbia. But as he told his wife Stella, "Stell, there are many things I want out of life and teaching will certainly not provide them. So I have decided to go into politics."
Crater plunged into Tammany Hall, New York's Democratic machine. He was a defense lawyer and a good one. That his clients were hardly the social equals of a man of Crater's education did not bother him. Though ward heelers, political bosses and in some cases bootleggers and gangsters were among his clients, he told his wife everyone was entitled to a fair trial.
In Crater's case being high minded was also lucrative. In the late 1920s his income was between $75,000 and $100,000 a year. He acquired an expensive co-op apartment, a cook, maid and chauffeur. When the stock market crashed in 1929 he told his wife not to worry. "Frankly, Stell... playing the stock market is like taking dope, so I never speculated by any manner or means."
On April 8, 1930 Crater was nominated by New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt to fill the unexpired term of New York State Supreme Court Judge Joseph M. Proskauer. There was talk that if Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Crater could be nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
That summer, as they had for many years, the Craters planned to go to their home at Belgrade Lakes in Maine. Sometime in the spring, Judge Crater told his wife he had some things to clear up in the city and suggested she go up alone. She did and did not see her husband until late June. Stella Crater noted he looked worn and tired. When she tried to ask her husband about the investigations into Tammany Hall then going on, he told her he did not want to talk about it.
On August 3rd Crater told his wife he was returning to New York that night on the Bar Harbor Express. Promising to return on August 9th, her birthday, he kissed his wife "fondly," as she recalled, and walked out of her life forever.
Crater's last known day on earth was August 6, 1930. He went to his office and gathered all his documents together. Then he had his legal aide go to the bank and get him $10,000. He put $5,000 in one envelope and $5000 in another, and put them in his pocket. His aide took the documents to his apartment. The case that contained them was later found there empty.
That evening Crater stopped at a Broadway ticket service. He asked for a ticket for the popular play "Dancing Partners" for that night. The agent said he could get one and would leave it at the theater box office.
Then Crater, dressed in a pin-striped brown suit, high collared shirt and Panama hat, walked to Billy Haas's Chop House on West 45th Street where he met two friends, theater attorney William Klein, and show girl Sally Lou Ritz. After dinner they walked out to a curb and Crater hailed a taxi. A tan one arrived promptly. Saying good night to his friends Crater stepped inside.
It was 9:15 August 6, 1930, and Judge Crater drove off into legend, never to be seen again, at least not by anyone who knew who he was. Someone that night did stop at the box office for Crater's ticket to "Dancing Partners." But they remain unknown. It was a month before Crater's wife told police he was missing.
A theory put forward in the 1950s was that Crater had double-crossed some gangster who got sent up the river to Sing Sing, despite giving Crater $5000 to see that did not happen. Crater was kidnapped and taken to New Jersey for revenge and ransom, the tale goes, and finally when he would not cooperate and laughed at the ransom demands, he was killed outside Newark, his face covered with acid to make his corpse untraceable, and his body dumped into the Passaic River.
But there are plenty of other theories. It is claimed that it was Ritz and Klein who got into a cab and drove away leaving Crater on the street corner. Ritz disappeared later that year and was never found. Was she killed because she knew too much? In 2005 a theory emerged that Crater had doubled-crossed gangster Legs Diamond and was buried under a Coney Island boardwalk. Though Judge Crater jokes may no longer raise an obvious grin, perhaps somewhere in eternity, he is having the last laugh.
Allentown, PA 18102