A Q&A with Stephen Riegel, the author of “Finding Judge Crater,” a book that offers insight into a notorious unsolved mystery
“The book is the first to consider all the available evidence in the case and to offer a well-substantiated explanation of what happened to Joe Crater and why.“
— Stephen J. Riegel
SUP: Stephen, can you tell readers what your book is about in a few sentences?
Riegel: My book takes a new look at a famous old, unsolved missing person case – that of Judge Joseph Force Crater, who stepped into a taxicab in the middle of Manhattan on August 6, 1930, and was never seen or heard from again. Despite a massive manhunt across the country and the world that stretched over three decades, the New York Police Department and other investigators were unable to support or favor any of the numerous explanations of Crater’s disappearance, nor even answer more basic questions such as whether he vanished of his own accord or involuntarily at the hands of others. Making extensive use for the first time of new sources, including the NYPD files and court records, and taking a closer look at the missing man’s colorful life, time, and place – Manhattan at the end of the Jazz Age – the book is the first to consider all the available evidence in the case and to offer a well-substantiated explanation of what happened to Joe Crater and why.
SUP: What drew you to this subject?
Riegel: The subject of this book appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, having a background in the study of American History, the historical aspect of the story, which touches on Franklin D. Roosevelt and national politics, attracted me. I also became interested in the very different New York City of the Roaring Twenties – Tammany Hall, Mayor Jimmy Walker, its nightclubs, culture and corruption, all of which Crater figured in – that my book tries to portray. Also, as a lawyer practicing in the city, I better understood his successful legal and judicial career and its possible role in his disappearance, and the practice of law and the courts in the 1920s figure prominently in the story. Finally, the unsolved aspect of his disappearance presented a challenge and puzzle that I wanted to try to piece together.
SUP: Were there any other books on Judge Joseph Crater used as research, or is this book the first of its kind?
Riegel: This is the first comprehensive book-length treatment of Crater’s disappearance, so almost all of my research was done in primary sources. Only one other non-fiction account of his case previously has been published; recent attempts to solve the case have been in historical novels.
SUP: Can you describe the research process and difficulty?
Riegel: I did not find the research process for this book particularly difficult. Much of the research was done in libraries, archives and collections here in New York City. I was granted access to the NYPD files through a Freedom of Information Law request, and spent many hours in the basement of NYPD Headquarters, reviewing and taking notes of the contents of the remaining police files, but the people there who helped me were very cooperative throughout. My research also entailed extensive time reviewing the contemporary newspaper and magazine articles about the judge’s disappearance on a daily basis, which in conjunction with the NYPD files, gave me a real time sense of how the search progressed in the initial months of the investigation.
SUP: Would you say any part of Judge Crater’s disappearance has set a precedent for how similar cases are dealt with today?
Riegel: I don’t think so. The Crater case was unique, very much of its time and place.
SUP: What would you say will be the most fascinating aspect of this book for readers?
Riegel: Some readers of the book may be drawn mainly to its who-done-it aspect – its marshalling of the evidence in the case developed over thirty years, its analysis of the evidence against the different theories of Crater’s disappearance, and its presentation of a convincing explanation of how Crater disappeared and why. Others may find most interesting the book’s depiction of a rapidly transforming New York City at the end of the Roaring Twenties and the start of the Great Depression.
SUP: Who do you think will most enjoy this book? Who is the intended audience?
Riegel: I hope this book will appeal to a few audiences – those interested in famous historical mysteries, cold case/true crime investigations, New York City and State’ history, and lawyers and others curious about legal practice and history.
Stephen J. Riegel is a practicing litigator and former federal prosecutor in New York City who appears in some of the same courts Crater did. He also has degrees in American history from Princeton University and Stanford University. He has published articles on legal history.