A Mystery Solved? Don’t Count On It

When word broke that the legendary Judge Crater case may be solved soon, I received phone calls from friends telling me that my grandfather was all over the news. But my grandfather wasn’t Joseph Force Crater. My grandfather was Maurice Bloch—a name that’s vanished from New York’s political scene, remembered only by Robert Morgenthau, filmmaker Ric Burns and civic activist George Spitz.

Bloch, who died at 38 after being diagnosed with a routine case of appendicitis, was the Democratic leader in the State Assembly from 1924 until 1929. He managed Robert Wagner Sr.’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 1926 and played a key role in Franklin Roosevelt’s gubernatorial campaign in 1928. His career and his mysterious death became intertwined with Judge Crater’s fate when I stumbled across a letter from F.D.R. that mentioned my grandfather as the sponsor of a judge who was associated with Crater. I’ve been researching the connection for years, which is why some friends actually thought that Crater, not Bloch, was my grandfather.

Maurice Bloch died in 1929, at a time when the buying and selling of judicial nominations was at its height. He was corresponding with F.D.R. about obtaining a State Supreme Court nomination in 1929, but the plan was foiled because it was too late to nominate Bloch for a seat that had been vacated in August by Tammany Hall’s candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, Thomas C.T. Crain.

Instead, Bloch went back to work managing that year’s State Assembly races and helping to plan F.D.R.’s 1930 re-election campaign. Roosevelt planned to appoint Bloch’s law partner, John A. Mullen, to the bench temporarily, with the understanding that Mullen would step down after the 1930 session and allow Bloch to run for the seat. But the appointment became stalled in late 1929, when various Tammany factions were quarreling over who should get the post.

Then Bloch died, suddenly, on Dec. 5, 1929, in Roosevelt Hospital. It was a huge story at the time, because Bloch was a rising star in New York politics. An obituary in The New York Times stated that Bloch was found “deal”—not “dead.” A typo, or a Freudian slip? What’s more, there’s a question mark on my grandfather’s death certificate next to his cause of death. There was no autopsy; his death was attributed to “exhaustion”—an odd way for a healthy 38-year-old to die.

In the meantime, F.D.R. still hadn’t filled the vacant State Supreme Court seat that my grandfather wanted. Another one became vacant a few weeks later, when Joseph Proskauer resigned. Judge Crater got the job. A few months later, he got into a cab and was never seen again.

Crater and Bloch knew each other very well through Senator Wagner—Crater had been Wagner’s law secretary and Bloch had been Wagner’s protégé. Crater and Bloch (and Mullen and Wagner) were doing Tammany business together for years before Bloch died and Crater vanished.

Recent news reports indicate that a bad cop—ironically named Good—murdered Crater with the help of two accomplices and buried him in Coney Island. The remains of five people had been found at the Coney Island site in the 1950’s, and now tests are being conducted to see if one set of remains could be Crater’s. If the tests are positive, a 75-year-old mystery will have been solved—but I still have questions about my grandfather’s death, and what connections there might be between the fates of Maurice Bloch and Joseph Force Crater.

The biggest stain on Bloch’s character involved the indictment of a General Sessions judge named Francis X. Mancuso from East Harlem. Mancuso was forced to resign his post amidst a financial scandal. My grandfather used his influence to get a Tammany man named Amedeo A. Bertini on the bench to replace Mancuso. Then, according to the plan, my grandfather would get Crain’s spot. Like in baseball, Bloch and his friends were looking to make a double switch.

Bertini was soon found to have withdrawn $100,000 from his bank account at the time of his appointment. There’s a picture of him at Crater’s swearing-in; he looks spooked. Crater was a frequent visitor to Bertini’s chambers after the $100,000 was withdrawn. Some of that money, I suspect, was to be used for Bloch’s judicial campaign. Why else would Bloch nominate Bertini, who was largely considered unqualified?

During the ensuing investigation of Bertini, Crater surely would have been called to testify about his relationship with his friend and fellow judge, who refused to waive immunity. But he was nowhere to be found.

Though Bloch’s death was attributed to exhaustion, I suspect a more sinister turn of events. I do know that a well-connected aspiring judge died for no apparent reason, not long before another judge disappeared forever. Even if the police and the press close the books on Judge Crater, I’ll still be keeping them open. A Mystery Solved? Don’t Count On It