Perhaps we'll never know

Hundreds of questions, many decades old, continue to perplex us as the millennium's end approaches.

January 02, 2000|By Ernest F. Imhoff

IF WE'RE SO smart as we begin the year 2000, where's Judge Crater?

Who really discovered America, and how'd they get here? .....What happened to D.B. Cooper, the parachuting hijacker?

Where is Eric Robert Rudolph, the suspected abortion clinic bomber?

What happened to Brad Bishop, the alleged killer and burner of his Maryland family?

What befell Raoul Wallenberg, savior of Hungarian Jews during World War II?

Why did the Hindenburg blow up and (two months later) Amelia Earhart crash?

What caused the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald to plunge to the bottom of Lake Superior without a distress call?

If extraterrestrial life is out there, what and where is it?

If Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy, who else was involved?

When will the Earth's population stop exploding and its people stop exploding each other?

Our popular culture tells us that the year 2000 marks the start of a new millennium, when pure arithmetic tells us that it will actually occur next year.

So, depending on what you want to believe, we've either started the third millennium or we're at the end of the second. Either way, unanswered 20th century questions survive by the hundreds. Theories flourish but like talk, they're cheap. Either nobody knows the answers or those who do aren't talking.

One day we may get definitive answers to clear up the mysteries, but maybe not. A century ago people wondered about the true identity of Jack the Ripper, the killer of 10 or more London prostitutes. They also pondered the disappearance of all aboard the Mary Celeste, the ship found floating in perfect shape in the Atlantic in 1872. We still don't know either answer.

In 1898, many Americans got war fever because they thought Spain was responsible for the explosion that sank a U.S. battleship in Havana's harbor. Now, it seems possible that the blast was caused by the accidental detonation of ammunition.

Being in the dark -- not knowing -- is as much a human condition as seeing the light.

Answers, when they come, are often incomplete.

Science may have decided the universe started with a big bang, but what preceded that and where will it all end?

If the weird coelacanth fish was thought dead for millions of years and then found alive in 1938 off Africa, what other strangers live on Earth?

Now that climber George Mallory's body was found on Everest 75 years after his death, did he reach the top?

If Sacco and Vanzetti didn't kill the two South Braintree, Mass., shoe factory workers in 1920, who did?

Other interesting questions linger.

Take Judge Joseph Force Crater. He vanished in 1930, was declared dead in 1939 and had his case closed by New York City police in 1979. After years of probes, he survives as both a classic mystery and a resilient joke of the 20th century. You miss work a couple days, you're Judge Crater. He was seen more often around the world than Elvis.

People still talk about Judge Crater but no one does anything about him.

Crater was a newly named Supreme Court justice of New York state. He lived at 40 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan. He was 41 years old. He stood 6 feet tall. He weighed 185 pounds and was thought to be in good physical condition.

Crater was born in Easton, Pa., in 1889, graduated from Lafayette College and Columbia Law School and served as a private lawyer and Tammany Hall Democratic member. He mixed with New York's big shots like Sen. Robert F. Wagner, whose friendship got him appointed to the bench by Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Crater was a ambitious man who knew gangsters, yet he wanted to be on the country's Supreme Court. He had a penchant for expensive suits, the theater and showgirls. He was married with no children, and his nickname was "Good Time Joe."

In August 1930, wife Stella and he rested at their summer home in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. One day Crater got a mysterious phone call. Without offering details, he told her he had to go to New York on a quick trip "to straighten out those fellows." He boarded the Bar Harbor Express.

From Aug. 4 to 6, friends, a doctor and others saw him in New York. On Aug. 6, he had two checks cashed for $5,100, said he wanted to see a Broadway show, "Dancing Partners," that night, met a lawyer friend and his showgirl friend, had dinner with them at the Billy Haas Restaurant on West 45th Street, said goodbye to them outside after 9 p.m., stepped into a taxi cab and vanished.

The rest, as they say, is mystery. Unsavory rumors began. Senator Wagner said he hardly knew the man. A grand jury studied hundreds of letters and reports, took 1,000 pages of testimony and concluded in November 1930 that it hadn't a clue about Judge Crater.

Was he murdered or did he disappear on his own because of Tammany Hall politics, debts, his refusal to kick back money for his judgeship, girlfriends, hoodlum buddies, enemies he made as a lawyer, a simple stickup gone bad or a religious conversion?

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