Written by Silvia Pettem
AT 9:15 P.M. ON AUGUST 6, 1930, New York State Supreme Court
Justice Joseph Force Crater was seen in midtown Manhattan near the intersection
of 8th Avenue and West 45th Street. Then, the judge disappeared forever. On the
west coast, in Hollywood, California, in 1922, film director William Desmond
Taylor was found dead, shot in the back in his own home, yet no one was ever charged
for his murder.
Why was Crater never found, or Taylor’s killer never
determined? Why did two of the most prominent cases of their era go unresolved?
Today, we can sometimes take modern technology and law enforcement resources
for granted. When, however, we take a fresh look at unsolved cases from the
past, we need to remember that our predecessors could only work with the
evidence-gathering and investigative tools available to them at the time.
When reviewing decades-old missing person cases or re-visualizing
past crime scenes, today’s investigators need to view their cases under a lens
of time; that is, to put them in historical perspective. In reflection,
consider the following:
Judge Joseph Force Crater
No one knows what
happened to Judge Joseph Force Crater. He was last seen either getting into a
cab outside of Billy Haas’s Chophouse, or waving as someone else drove off.
Either way, he left behind one of the most tangled and convoluted missing-person
cases in the 20th Century.
The judge’s disappearance elicited many theories, but no
conclusions. After meeting for months, a grand jury stated, “The
evidence is insufficient to warrant any expression of opinion as to whether
Crater is alive or dead, or as to whether he has absented himself voluntarily,
or is the sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of
An initial search was hampered by delayed police
involvement, as Judge Crater’s wife chose not to report that he was missing but
relied, instead, on private investigators. That’s not to say that the private
investigators weren’t doing their jobs, but they may have missed out on the
personal connections that police officers of their era formed with neighborhood
residents as they walked their beats. Weeks later, the judge’s wife finally did
contact law enforcement, but, by then, her husband’s trail had gone stone cold.
The good news was that once the police were involved, so,
too, was the press—although sensationalism could, and did, interfere with
investigative journalism. Long before television, the internet, and cell
phones, competing newspaper reporters pounded the streets in hopes of elusive exclusive
“scoops.” Police freely communicated with the press and with each other. In the
late 1920s, they began to rely on the then-recent invention of the teletype
machine, allowing them to quickly and efficiently send and receive typed
messages over dedicated telephone lines with other law enforcement agencies.
Presumably, they included details on Judge Crater.
Further complicating the mystery were conflicting motives.
While his status gave ample cause for someone to do away with him, Judge
Crater’s personal affairs offered reason for him to absent himself voluntarily.
Incomplete, missing and/or destroyed case reports, however,
make it impossible to know if the early 20th Century police investigation into
Judge Crater covered the basics and/or considered every option. Sadly, since
the police were not involved right away, they never had the chance to
adequately do their jobs. Did they thoroughly interview everyone the judge had
come in contact with the day of (and in the days preceding) his disappearance?
How well-trained were the investigators? How sharp were the memories of the
If Judge Crater was reported missing today, his high-profile
and certainly suspicious disappearance would have been handled very differently
through our current technological advances and new investigative methods.
Credit cards came into use in the 1950s, and police picked up on the obvious––that
most people leave paper trails. A few businesses began using surveillance
cameras in the 1970s, and today they’re pervasive, allowing investigators to
track individuals and others they contact. Now that we’re well into the internet
age and police continue to analyze credit cards and bank transactions, they
also download call history from land lines and cell phones (with geo-tracking
capabilities), and carefully sift through missing persons’ social media
In 2005, 75 years after Judge Crater went missing, a long-hidden
clue pointed to the possibility that he had been murdered, as well as to the
location of his remains. Sometimes, to shed new light on a cold case, all
that’s needed is the passage of time. Apparently, a deathbed declaration implicated
a cab driver and a police officer. They allegedly picked up Judge Crater, then drove
him to Coney Island where one of the men, or an accomplice, shot the judge and
stuffed his body under the beach-side boardwalk.
A few years later, the boardwalk was moved. Then, in the
1950s, the area was excavated as the site for the New York Aquarium. As anyone who watches old
movies of the film noir genre is aware, big-city docks and boardwalks have long
been used as dumping grounds for bodies. But the likelihood of finding Judge
Crater’s remains, today, is slim.
retrospect, the grand jury hearings brought out the judge’s former contacts and
scrutinized his bank transactions. But, a surveillance camera on the street
corner, or a cell phone in the judge’s pocket, might have made all the
difference in solving his case.
William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor shot more than 60 silent films, but
none of the plots on the silver screen had the lasting intrigue that surrounded
the drama of his own murder in 1922. A servant found the 49-year-old Hollywood,
California movie director lying on the floor of his home. Taylor had been shot
in the back, but his sudden demise was overshadowed by the glitz and glamor of
Hollywood celebrities, many of whom became suspects.
Their opulent lifestyles included an excess of drinking,
drugs, and romantic intrigues that co-mingled with sensationalized press coverage
and a clearly incompetent investigation. In the end, fiction got so mixed up
with facts that the press, at least, could no longer differentiate between the
two, so they reported on both.
Lost in a seemingly endless parade of multiple suspects,
however, was the dashing and debonair man himself––the director who seemed a
perfect fit within the Hollywood scene. But he had led a separate life, and
only in death was his true identity revealed to the public.
Taylor was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, in Ireland.
As a young man in the 1890s, he settled in New York City where he worked in an
antique store and married a chorus girl. Then, in 1908, he left his wife and
daughter and mysteriously disappeared––only to later burst upon the silent
screen in California. His brother, Denis Gage Deane-Tanner, followed him to New
York City, and he similarly disappeared. From then on, Denis lived in William’s
shadow, and their lives became uncannily intertwined.
Before Taylor became a director, he acted on the stage and
then in silent films. In 1914, he took the leading role in a melodrama, Captain Alvarez. A few years later, the movie was rereleased and shown all
over the country. Far away, in New York, Taylor’s wife and the couple’s then-16-year-old
daughter went to see the film. Suddenly, when Captain Alvarez’s image was
flashed upon the screen, the mother exclaimed to her daughter, “That’s your
father!” They had not heard from him or even had known that he was alive in
nearly a decade.
A special investigator, who wrote the
only known substantial account by one of the officers actually involved in the
investigation, stated that a few days after Taylor’s murder, his office
received a letter from a man in Denver, Colorado who claimed to have known both
Taylor and his brother. According to the investigator, Taylor “had won the
love of his brother’s fiancée, and for many years the younger brother had
hunted the older, swearing vengeance.”
On February 2, 1922, the day after Taylor’s murder, his then-current
valet came early in the morning, as usual, to his employer’s home where he found
the body. The police arrived, but they neglected to fingerprint any items or
furniture in the room. And the first “doctor” on the scene concluded that
William (lying flat on his back) died of a stomach ailment.
After the doctor left and never returned, a medical examiner
turned over William’s body and found a gunshot wound and blood on the floor. As
soon as word got out, newspaper reporters called in hastily written stories to
their newspaper offices. Meanwhile, the plot thickened, and it thickened so
quickly that it curdled.
The Los Angeles District
Attorney’s Office apparently was motivated to keep Taylor’s murder under
wraps, perhaps because it came immediately on the heels of the scandalous trial
of Roscoe C. “Fatty” Arbuckle, another actor/director who was acquitted for the
rape and manslaughter of a silent-screen actress. In addition to a fed-up district
attorney (whom some sources said was being paid off), there was speculation
that the “movie bosses” controlled the police. The consensus was that they
needed to either make a quick arrest or make the whole case go away.
Three days after the
murder, the coroner held an inquest. Unlike Judge Crater’s months-long inquest,
Taylor’s lasted less than one hour. His valet stated there was no
robbery, as nothing in the house was missing. The only conclusion made by the
jury was that the director had “come to his death from a gunshot wound
inflicted by an unknown person with homicidal intent.” As soon as the verdict
was read, the police rushed off to continue their search for
their-then-number-one suspect, Taylor’s former
valet whom they believed was none other than Taylor’s brother. Whether that was
true or not, or whether the former valet was acting as the brother’s agent, was
never determined. After the murder, no trace of either of them ever was found.
Now, a century later, there still are multiple theories as
to who fired the fatal shot, including a whole parade of Hollywood characters,
the mother of a lovesick actress, and even the director’s brother. Taylor’s
murder isn’t likely to be solved, as no evidence––not even the .38 caliber revolver
that killed him––has been found. But there’s still the possibility that, as in
Crater’s case, some new information may resurface.
Clearly, in Taylor’s murder, the police barely covered the
basics. Implications were made that bribes accepted by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office forced its office to pull investigators
off the case. The lack of fingerprinting at the crime scene is a mystery in
itself, as the procedure has been in use in the U.S. since the early
1900s. With few other preservation tools, one would think the police would have
dusted for prints.
If Taylor’s case was being handled today,
police would have included fingerprinting in their crime scene investigation. Then,
depending on what they found and with the Next Generation Identification
(NGI) system, they would try to identify the
perpetrator by searching (on their own computers) for prints that
resemble digital photographs. Also, in today’s home-security-conscious times, a
celebrity like Taylor probably would have had a webcam mounted by his front
door, along with motion-sensitive lights and an alarm system.
Given today’s technology and level of professional training,
there is no excuse for incompetent, incomplete investigations. Cases like Judge
Crater’s disappearance and Desmond Taylor’s murder would be an embarrassment to
present-day investigators. But we really do have to remember
to view these and other unsolved cases through the lens of time. Will they, one
day, be solved? They just need to remain in the public eye. Sometimes, all that
is needed is a fresh pair of eyes, and they just might be yours.
About the AuthorSilvia Pettem is a Colorado-based historical
researcher, newspaper columnist, writer and author. After local history
research led her to the identification of a decades-old murder victim, Pettem
switched from writing about history to the genre of true crime. In Cold Case Chronicles: Mysteries, Murders
& the Missing (to be released by Roman & Littlefield in June 2021),
she combines her interest in history with a passion for solving cases involving
missing persons and unidentified remains. Silvia can be reached at email@example.com or via her website, www.silviapettem.com.