If the name “Judge Crater” means anything to you, you’re probably not so young anymore. Though superseded in the popular imagination by Jimmy Hoffa after the Teamsters’ Union honcho vanished in 1975, State Supreme Court justice Joseph Force Crater was once known as the “missingest man in New York.” Last seen leaving a Midtown Manhattan restaurant in 1930, Judge Crater was the subject of a massive manhunt and media frenzy. Vaudeville comedians turned the one-liner “Judge Crater, call your office” into what today we would call a meme, and “to pull a Crater” became a slang term for disappearing.
Associated with corrupt politicians at Tammany Hall, pricey call girls and infamous mobsters, the judge is widely assumed to have been murdered, but his body was never found. And like Hoffa, a number of locations have been suggested as his final resting place, including the Coney Island site where the New York Aquarium now stands. But another candidate was in our own back yard: a subcellar reputed to lie beneath the Peter Barmann Brewery, once located at the corner of Barmann Avenue and South Clinton Avenue in Kingston, just across the tracks from the Wiltwyck Cemetery.
No human remains turned up when the old brick building was demolished sometime in the 1960s, but plenty of local lore still clings to the brewery’s history. Much of it was associated with the notorious Hudson Valley-based bootlegger/mob boss Jack “Legs” Diamond, who was widely rumored to have been a pal of Judge Crater – until, perhaps, some deal went awry.
The young Peter Barmann immigrated to Kingston from Bavaria in 1857 and learned the brewmeister’s trade from his uncle, Balthazer Schwalbach, who ran the Jacob’s Valley Lager Bier Brewery on Union Avenue (now Broadway). Barmann took over the business upon Schwalbach’s death in 1881, began a bottling operation in 1884 and had such success with it that he relocated the renamed Barmann Brewery to the site just south of Greenkill Avenue a year later. The company increased production of Jacob’s Valley Lager Beer, Thuringer Hofbrau, ale and porters each year, approaching 17,000 barrels annually by the turn of the century.
Peter Barmann died in 1908 and Peter Jr. and his wife Susan took over, but the enactment of Prohibition in 1920 forced such businesses underground – sometimes literally. It was Legs Diamond who bailed out the brewery financially, transporting its products to his speakeasies in New York, Albany and Troy. (The Barmanns were not in control of the family brewery at that time, according to a relative.) His smuggling operation was particularly ingenious: Brewery employees reportedly hired plumbers to go down into Kingston’s sewer system late at night and install a pipeline of rubber hose that led from the brewery’s basement, right under the streets of Midtown to an innocent-looking warehouse on Bruyn Avenue, where the brews were bottled or kegged for shipment.
That era ended in 1931, when a spectacular raid by the Internal Revenue Service’s elite Flying Squadron yielded what the newspapers of the day called a “Million Dollar Seizure” and the arrest of several of Legs Diamond’s cronies. The brewery never regained its financial footing even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933; it was bought out by the Jacob Ruppert Brewing Company and had ceased operations by 1941.
But Barmann Brewery memorabilia continues to turn up on the local yard sale circuit, and an avid collector/amateur historian named Thierry Croizer maintains a fascinating webpage about his finds at www.angelfire.com/ny5/brewerianakingston/barmann.html. According to Croizer, nothing remains of the brewery building but some fragments of the foundation. But you might want to go for a stroll in the area known to Kingston old-timers as Barmann Park once the weather turns nice. Give a thought to the memory of those larger-than-life Prohibition Era characters, Legs Diamond and Judge Crater; then, just for the heck of it, pull out your cell phone and call the office.