July 15, 2011Vol. 13, No. 6

The Man Who Never Left Belgrade

Judge Crater

He's surfaced once again! Belgrade's Most Famous Missing Person, Joseph Force Crater, a judge who had been recently appointed to the New York State Supreme Court in 1930 by then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, is the subject of renewed speculation in the book The Man Who Never ReturnedThe Man Who Never Returned by Peter Quinn.

Published by Overlook Press in 2010, Quinn's book about Crater's disappearance on August 6, 1930 has been labeled a history mystery, a fictitious rendition of a true story that for all the investigative world knows could be just as Quinn has penned it.

Quinn's forte is New York City, understandable since the author was corporate director for Time Warner, and although most of the 336-page book does not leave the cityscape, for those brought up in Belgrade with tales and lore about Crater, it is interesting to be apprised of Crater's other life.

Since the beginning of Belgrade's tourist trade, what local residents knew and still know of the people who seasonally settle here in terms of their "away" lives is practically nothing.

Crater was no exception: he was a New Yorker of better means indeed, rich who had the typical totally unpretentious lakeside summer cottage, the younger attractive wife, the elegant mahogany speedboat, and a maid, a cook and a chauffeur. His lifestyle was nothing out of the ordinary for the Belgrades in those days. He came to Great Pond for peace and quiet and fishing and slipped away occasionally and a little bit mysteriously for business and that, too, was not out of the ordinary, and still isn't, for summer residents.

Cover of Peter Quinn's book.

But in Quinn's book we find out where he went and what that place was like, and, even though Crater's motives are conjured, the life and story of the tumultuous times in New York City isn't. The Quinn story is set in 1955, twenty-five years after Crater disappeared, and although many scenes reflect the Fifties, there are also many flashbacks to the Thirties and Forties.

In terms of the New York that Crater trod, politics were turbulent and corrupt, the Depression with its massive unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy was settling in, and Governor Roosevelt had no desire to be attached to a scandal, which Crater, in Quinn's setting, might be.

Quinn describes Crater as a Tammany member, who worked the polls, proved himself an ace at arguing New York's election laws and was made law secretary to a Tammany bigwig. This in turn led to his being recommended to the Governor for an appointment to the State Supreme Court, at the tender age of forty. He was appointed to an interim position and set to run for a full fourteen-year term the following November. During the summer, there was some cloudy issue about a full-scale investigation into a practice on the part of unnamed politicians to sell appointments to the bench, and just as the inquiry was about to begin, in August 1930, State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Force Crater bid two dinner companions good night, entered a cab, and was never seen again.

Judge Crater's gazebo still sits perched on the rocks at the edge of Great Pond.

In regard to Belgrade, Quinn has changed the name of Great Pond and the layout of the community, i.e. Belgrade Lakes Village, is somewhat altered, but he got the role of Belgrade right. References to a cabin in the pines, retreating there from New York City for peace, the single law officer who doubled as a carpenter (or was it the other way around), the general suspicion of the brigade of reporters and snoops who descended on the area, the understanding "summer" neighbors, and the loyalty of locals in protecting their vacationers from publicity all smack of accuracy.

Eighty years later remnants of the Judge Crater legend remain in the Belgrades: his cabin, his ice house, his former kitchen across the road (kitchens were often in separate buildings in those days to minimize risk of fire) and his "summer house" a rustic open gazebo overhanging the lake shore.

Will there ever be any answers to his disappearance questions? Probably not, although interest is periodically piqued by new discoveries of old graves. Interest is also piqued by new books about Crater. The Man Who Never ReturnedThe Man Who Never Returned is one of them. It is well written, and it is available at the Belgrade Public Library, unless a man named Crater has checked it out.