In Retrospect: Through the Lens of Time
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.

This article appeared in the November-December 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that full issue here.

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:

  • Did the original investigators cover the basics?
  • Did they leave any clues unexamined or leads unpursued?
  • Did they consider every reasonable option and make full use of the technology then available?
  • What would law enforcement officials do differently today?

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 crime.”

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 interviewees?

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 postings.

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.

In 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 Author
This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it 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 This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or via her website, www.silviapettem.com.

 
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