James Riddle “Jimmy” Hoffa (February 14, 1913 – disappeared July 30, 1975) was an American labor union leader and author who served as the President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) union from 1958 until 1971. He vanished in late July 1975 at age 62.
Hoffa was a union activist from a young age, and was an important regional figure with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) union by his mid-twenties. By 1952, Hoffa had risen to national vice-president of the IBT, and served as the union’s general president between 1958 and 1971. He secured the first national agreement for teamsters’ rates in 1964. Hoffa played a major role in the growth and development of the union which eventually became the largest (by membership) in the United States with over 1.5 million members at its peak, during his terms as its leader. He was a civil rights supporter and expressed this in many statements.
Hoffa became involved with organized crime from the early years of his Teamsters work, and this connection continued until his disappearance in 1975. He was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud in 1964, in two separate trials. He was imprisoned in 1967 and sentenced to 13 years, after exhausting the appeal process. In mid-1971 he resigned as president of the union, an action that was part of a pardon agreement with President Richard Nixon, to facilitate his release later that year. Nixon blocked Hoffa from union activities until 1980 (which would have been the end of his prison term, had he served the full sentence). Hoffa, hoping to regain support and to return to IBT leadership, unsuccessfully attempted to overturn this order.
Hoffa vanished in late July 1975, having last been seen outside the Machus Red Fox, a suburban Detroit restaurant. He was declared legally dead in 1982. His disappearance gave rise to many theories as to what happened to him.
A collection of papers related to Hoffa is cared for by the Special Collections Research Center of The George Washington University. The collection contains a variety of materials, including newspaper and magazine articles, trial transcripts, copies of congressional hearings, and publicity materials.
Hoffa’s critics say that he enriched himself at the expense of the teamsters. His defenders claim that “dedication as an American labor leader for more than 40 years, as well as his widely recognized accomplishments on behalf of teamsters and all working people in America” should not be forgotten.
Early life and family
Jimmy Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana, on February 14, 1913, to Indiana natives John and Viola (née Riddle) Hoffa. His father was of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. His father died in 1920 when Hoffa was seven years old, and the family moved to Detroit in 1924, where Hoffa was raised and lived the rest of his life. Hoffa left school at age 14 and began full-time manual labor to help support his family.
Hoffa married Josephine Poszywak, an 18-year-old Detroit laundry worker of Polish heritage, at Bowling Green, Ohio on September 24, 1936; the couple had met during a non-unionized laundry workers’ strike action six months earlier. The couple had two children: a daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, and a son, James. The Hoffas paid $6,800 in 1939 for a modest home in northwest Detroit. The Hoffa family later owned a simple summer lakefront cottage in Orion Township, north of Detroit.
Early union activity
Hoffa began union organizational work at the grassroots level through his employment as a teenager with a grocery chain, a job which paid substandard wages and offered poor working conditions with minimal job security. The workers were displeased with this situation and tried to organize a union to better their lot. Although Hoffa was young, his bravery and approachability in this role impressed fellow workers, and he rose to a leadership position. By 1932, after defiantly refusing to work for an abusive shift foreman, who inspired Hoffa’s long career of organizing workers, he left the grocery chain, in part because of his union activities, and Hoffa was then invited to become an organizer with the Local 299 of the Teamsters in Detroit.
Growth of the Teamsters
The Teamsters union, founded in 1903, had 75,000 members in 1933. As a result of Hoffa’s work with other union leaders to consolidate local union trucker groups into regional sections and then into one gigantic national body—work that Hoffa ultimately completed over a period of two decades—membership grew to 170,000 members by 1936. Three years later, there were 420,000; and the number grew steadily during World War II and through the post-war boom to top a million members by 1951.
The Teamsters organized truck drivers and warehousemen, first throughout the Midwest, and then nationwide. Hoffa played a major role in the union’s skillful use of “quickie strikes”, secondary boycotts, and other means of leveraging union strength at one company, to then move to organize workers, and finally to win contract demands at other companies. This process, which took several years from the early 1930s, eventually brought the Teamsters to a position of being one of the most powerful unions in the United States.
However, trucking unions in that era were heavily influenced, and in many cases controlled by, elements of organized crime. For Hoffa to unify and expand trucking union groups, he had to make accommodations and arrangements with many gangsters, beginning in the Detroit area. Organized crime influence on the IBT would expand as the union itself grew.
Hoffa’s rise to Power
Hoffa worked to defend the Teamsters unions from raids by other unions, including the CIO, and extended the Teamsters’ influence in the Midwestern states, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s. Although he never actually worked as a truck driver, he became president of Local 299 in December 1946. He then rose to lead the combined group of Detroit-area locals shortly afterwards, and advanced to become head of the Michigan Teamsters groups sometime later. During this time, Hoffa obtained a deferment from military service in World War II, by successfully making a case for his union leadership skills being of more value to the nation, by keeping freight running smoothly to assist the war effort.
At the 1952 IBT convention in Los Angeles, he was selected as national vice-president by incoming president Dave Beck, successor to Daniel J. Tobin, who had been president since 1907. Hoffa had quelled an internal revolt against Beck by securing Central States regional support for Beck at the convention. In exchange, Beck made Hoffa a vice-president.
The IBT moved its headquarters from Indianapolis to Washington, D.C., taking over a large office building in the capital in 1955. IBT staff was also enlarged during this period, with many lawyers hired to assist with contract negotiations. Following his 1952 election as vice-president, Hoffa began spending more of his time away from Detroit, either in Washington or traveling around the country for his expanded responsibilities.
Teamsters Union presidency
Hoffa took over the presidency of the Teamsters in 1958, at the convention in Miami Beach, Florida. His predecessor, Dave Beck, had appeared before the John Little McClellan-led US Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor or Management Field in March 1957, and took the Fifth Amendment 140 times in response to questions. Beck was under indictment when the IBT convention took place, and was convicted on fraud charges later that year at a trial held in Seattle, and imprisoned.
– Teamsters union expelled
The 1957 AFL–CIO convention, held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, voted by a ratio of nearly 5-1 to expel the IBT from the larger union group. President George Meany gave an emotional speech, advocating removal of the IBT, and stating that he could only agree to further affiliation of the Teamsters if they would dismiss Hoffa as their president. Meany demanded a response from Hoffa, who replied through the press, “We’ll see.” At the time, IBT was bringing in over $750,000 annually to the AFL-CIO.
– National Master Freight Agreement
Following his re-election as president in 1961, Hoffa worked to expand the union. In 1964, he succeeded in bringing virtually all over-the-road truck drivers in North America under a single national master-freight agreement, in what may have been his finest achievement in a lifetime of union activity. He then tried to bring the airline workers and other transport employees into the union, with limited success. During this period, he was facing immense personal strain as he was under investigation, on trial, launching appeals of convictions, or imprisoned for virtually all of the 1960s.
Hoffa had first faced major criminal investigations in 1957, as a result of the John Little McClellan Senate Labor Subcommittee’s work. He avoided conviction for several years, but when John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he appointed his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General. Robert Kennedy had been frustrated in earlier attempts to convict Hoffa, while working as counsel to the McClellan Subcommittee. As Attorney General from 1961, Robert Kennedy pursued the strongest attack on organized crime that the country had ever seen, and he carried on with a so-called ‘Get Hoffa’ squad of prosecutors and investigators.
– Prison sentences
In 1964, Hoffa was convicted in Chattanooga, Tennessee, of attempted bribery of a grand juror, and was sentenced to eight years. This case resulted from an earlier matter, the Test Fleet case, the trial for which had been held in Nashville, Tennessee. Hoffa was implicated by one of his close associates, Edward Grady Partin, a Louisiana teamster, who went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with the information that led to Hoffa’s conviction. Hoffa was also convicted of fraud later that same year for improper use of the Teamsters’ pension fund, in a trial held in Chicago. Hoffa had illegally arranged several large pension fund loans to leading organized crime figures. He received a five-year sentence to run consecutively to his bribery sentence. Robert F. Kennedy, who had pursued Hoffa for several years, since the McClellan-led U.S. Senate Labor industry hearings of 1957, stepped down as Attorney General in 1964, after the second Hoffa conviction, to run successfully for the New York seat in the November 1964 United States Senate election.
– Appeals denied
Hoffa spent the next three years unsuccessfully appealing his 1964 convictions. Appeals filed by his chief counsel, St. Louis defense attorney Morris Shenker, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. He began serving his sentences in March 1967 at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.
– Appoints Fitzsimmons as caretaker president
Just before he entered prison, Hoffa appointed Frank Fitzsimmons as acting Teamsters president. Fitzsimmons was a Hoffa loyalist, fellow Detroit resident, and a longtime member (since the 1930s) of Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit, who owed his own high position in large part to Hoffa’s influence. Despite this, Fitzsimmons soon distanced himself from Hoffa’s influence and control after 1967, to Hoffa’s displeasure. Fitzsimmons also decentralized power somewhat within the Teamsters’ union administration structure. During the Hoffa era, Hoffa had kept most power in his own hands.
On December 23, 1971, less than five years into his 13-year sentence, Hoffa was released from prison, when President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to time served. Following his release, Hoffa was awarded a Teamsters’ pension of $1.7 million, delivered in a one-time lump sum payment. This type of pension settlement had not occurred before with the Teamsters.
The IBT endorsed Richard Nixon, the Republican Party’s candidate, in his presidential reelection bid in 1972; in prior elections, the IBT union had supported Democratic Party nominees, but had also endorsed Nixon in 1960. Suspicion was soon raised of a deal for Hoffa’s release connected with the IBT’s support of Nixon in 1972. It was alleged that a large sum of money, estimated to be as high as $1 million, was paid secretly to Nixon. Evidence was also alleged of a secret bribe paid in 1960.
While glad to regain his freedom, Hoffa was very disappointed with the condition imposed on his release by President Nixon that prevented Hoffa from engaging in union activities until March 1980. He accused the Nixon administration senior figures, including Attorney General John N. Mitchell and White House Special Counsel Charles Colson, of depriving him of his rights by initiating this clause; Mitchell and Colson both denied this. It was likely imposed upon Hoffa as the result of requests from senior Teamsters’ leadership, although IBT President Frank Fitzsimmons also denied this.
Hoffa sued to invalidate the non-participation restriction, in order to reassert his power over the Teamsters, and John Dean, former White House counsel to President Nixon, was among those called upon for depositions in 1974 court proceedings. Dean, who had become famous as a government witness in prosecutions arising from the Watergate scandal by mid-1973, had drafted the non-participation clause in 1971 at Nixon’s request. Hoffa ultimately lost his court battle, since the court ruled that Nixon had acted within his powers by imposing the restriction, as it was based on Hoffa’s misconduct while serving as a Teamsters’ official.
Hoffa faced immense resistance to his reestablishment of power from many quarters and had lost much of his earlier support, even in the Detroit area. As a result, he intended to begin his comeback at the local level with Local 299 in Detroit, where he retained some influence.
In 1975, Hoffa was working on an autobiography titled Hoffa: The Real Story, which was published a few months after his disappearance. He had earlier published a 1970 book titled The Trials of Jimmy Hoffa.
Hoffa disappeared at, or sometime after, 2:45 p.m. on July 30, 1975, from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox Restaurant at 6676 Telegraph Road in Bloomfield Township, an affluent suburb of Detroit. According to what he had told others, he believed he was to meet there with two Mafia leaders: Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano. Provenzano was also a union leader with the Teamsters in New Jersey, and had earlier been quite close to Hoffa. Provenzano was a national vice-president with IBT from 1961, Hoffa’s second term as Teamsters’ president.
Hoffa arrived first, around 2:00 in the afternoon, but after waiting nearly 30 minutes, none of the other members arrived. Annoyed, he called his wife and said that he was going to wait a few more minutes before giving up. This was the last time that she ever spoke with her husband. Hoffa was last seen by a truck driver who claimed to have seen Hoffa in a maroon 1975 Mercury Marquis Brougham that pulled out of the restaurant parking lot and almost hit the driver’s truck. The truck driver, who had been making deliveries in the area, pulled up next to the car and immediately recognized Hoffa sitting in the backseat behind the car’s driver. The truck driver also noticed a long object covered with a gray blanket on the seat between Hoffa and another passenger. The truck driver thought it was either a shotgun or a rifle. He did not get a good look at anyone else in the car.
When Hoffa did not return home that evening, his wife then reported him missing. Police found Hoffa’s dark green 1974 Pontiac Grand Ville, unlocked, at the restaurant, but there was no sign of Hoffa or any indication of what happened to him. Extensive investigations into the disappearance began immediately, and continued over the next several years by numerous law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. The investigations did not conclusively determine Hoffa’s fate. For their part, Giacalone and Provenzano were found not to have been near the restaurant that afternoon, and each denied he had scheduled a meeting with Hoffa.
Hoffa was declared legally dead, and a death certificate was issued, on July 30, 1982, seven years after his disappearance. His disappearance has given rise to many rumors and theories as to what happened to him.
– Claims and developments
In 1989, Kenneth Walton, the head of the FBI’s Detroit office, told The Detroit News he knew what happened to Hoffa. “I’m comfortable I know who did it, but it’s never going to be prosecuted because… we would have to divulge informants, confidential sources.”
In 2001, the FBI matched DNA from Hoffa’s hair—taken from a brush—with a strand of hair found in a 1975 Mercury Marquis Brougham driven by longtime friend Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien on July 30, 1975. Police and Hoffa’s family had long believed O’Brien played a role in Hoffa’s disappearance. O’Brien, however, had previously denied ever being involved in Hoffa’s disappearance or that Hoffa had ever been a passenger in his car.
In a 2003 episode of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters, the locations in Giants Stadium where Hoffa was rumored to be buried were scanned with a ground penetrating radar to see if any disturbances were present that would indicate a human body had been buried there. They found no trace of any human remains.
In the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Closing of the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, author Charles Brandt claims that Sheeran, a professional killer for the mob and longtime “friend” of Hoffa’s, confessed to assassinating Hoffa. According to Brandt, Chuckie O’Brien drove Sheeran, Hoffa, and fellow mobster Sal Briguglio to a house in Detroit. He claimed that while O’Brien and Briguglio drove off, Sheeran and Hoffa went into the house, where Sheeran claims that he shot Hoffa twice behind the right ear. Sheeran says that he was told that Hoffa was cremated after the murder. Sheeran also confessed to Fox News reporters that he murdered Hoffa. While investigators did find traces of blood in the Detroit house where Sheeran claimed the murder happened, they also determined it was not Hoffa’s.
On June 16, 2006, the Detroit Free Press published in its entirety the so-called “Hoffex Memo”, a 56-page report the FBI prepared for a January 1976 briefing on the case at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Although not claiming to conclusively establish the specifics of his disappearance, the memo indicates that law enforcement’s belief is that Hoffa was murdered at the behest of organized crime figures who deemed his efforts to regain power within the Teamsters to be a threat to their control of the union’s pension fund. The FBI has called the report the definitive account of what agents believe happened to Hoffa.
In the 2009 book The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, Richard Kuklinski claims to have been responsible for Hoffa’s murder. By his account, Kuklinski killed him with a hunting knife, burned the body for “a half hour or so” in a 55-gallon drum, then welded it shut and buried it in a junkyard. He goes on to describe how, when an accomplice began to talk to the authorities, the drum was dug up and placed in the trunk of a car, which was then compacted and sold along with hundreds of other compacted cars, and subsequently shipped to Japan as scrap metal for manufacturing new vehicles.
On September 26, 2012, Roseville, Michigan police announced that they would take soil samples from the ground under a suburban Detroit driveway after a person called and told police he believed he witnessed the burial of a body around the same time as Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance. No evidence of a body was found in samples taken September 28, 2012 and tests for decomposition of human remains were analyzed by Michigan State University’s forensic anthropologists who determined that there were no signs of human remains.
In January 2013, reputed gangster Tony Zerilli implied that Hoffa was originally buried in a shallow grave, with the plan that Hoffa’s remains would later be moved to a second location. Zerilli contends, however, that these plans were abandoned, and Hoffa’s remains lay in a field in northern Oakland County, not far from the restaurant where he was last seen. Zerilli, however, denied any responsibility for or association with Hoffa’s disappearance. On June 17, 2013, the Zerilli information led to a property in Oakland Township in northern Oakland county owned by Detroit mob boss Jack Tocco. After three days the FBI called off the dig. No human remains were found and the case remains open.
Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa, is the current president of the Teamsters’ Union, having served in that position since 1999. Jimmy Hoffa’s daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, retired as an Associate Circuit Judge in St. Louis County, Missouri, in March 2008. One year later, she agreed to serve as an Associate Attorney General to the Attorney General for the State of Missouri, Chris Koster, as Chief Counsel of the Division of Civil Disability and Workers Rights. She retired from that post in March 2011.
In popular Culture
Hoffa was portrayed by Robert Blake in the 1983 TV-film Blood Feud, Trey Wilson in the 1985 television miniseries Robert Kennedy & His Times, and by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 biographical film Hoffa. In the 1978 film F.I.S.T., Sylvester Stallone portrays Johnny Kovak, a character based on Hoffa.
In the first season of Saturday Night Live, then known as NBC’s Saturday Night, Hoffa’s disappearance was referenced in episode 15’s sketch “Jill Carson: Guidance Counselor!”. The school in which the eponymous Jill Carson worked was named “The Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Question Mark High School”.
In the 1980 comedy feature Nine to Five, complications and misunderstandings lead Lily Tomlin’s character, Violet Newstead, to believe that she murdered her boss. Being accompanied by her two friends and co-workers, Doralee Rhodes and Judy Bernly (played respectively by Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda), she decides to get rid of a corpse that she thinks is her boss’s body. When she tells the two ladies her plan, Doralee tells her that anyone will find the body, to which Violet responds, “Oh-hoh, crazy am I? They never found Jimmy Hoffa!”
Homer makes several allusions to Hoffa including his association with gangsters and Hoffa’s mysterious disappearance in The Simpsons episode “Last Exit to Springfield.”
In the sitcom Frasier, Frasier makes a passing reference to Hoffa in the third-season episode, “A Word to the Wiseguy.”
In many cultural media it’s said that it’s easier to find something, than for the FBI to find Jimmy Hoffa.
In the 1990 film Ghost, Patrick Swayze in a scene as the ghost jokes about how his living colleague would get buried next to Jimmy Hoffa.
The Aimee Mann B-side “Jimmy Hoffa Jokes” (1993, from Say Anything single) refers to her relationship with an unnamed partner as no longer being funny, much like the eponymous Jimmy Hoffa jokes.
On the NBC talk show “The Tonight Show,” host Johnny Carson quipped that “when they removed evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup, they found Jimmy Hoffa underneath.”
In the Rocko’s Modern Life episode “Skid Marks”, one of the lines at the DMV is labeled “Jimmy Hoffa”.
In the TV series, “House of Cards”, the protagonist Frank Underwood makes a reference to Hoffa saying, “You wanna play 6 degrees of separation, you could throw in Jimmy Hoffa and the pope”.
In Ace Ventura Pet Detective it is said “They’ll find Jimmy Hoffa before they find any humpback whales.”
In the 2003 film Bruce Almighty, the protagonist, Bruce, portrayed by Jim Carrey, uses God’s powers to locate Jimmy Hoffa’s body so he can get a news story.
In the February 2004 episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire spinoff titled Super Millionaire, Robert ‘Bob-O’ Essig (who won a million dollars), asked a $2.5 Million question about Hoffa’s disappearance, which he walked away from and the correct answer is A) Machus Red Fox.
In the 2004 song by Young Dro, titled “cartoon” he says he’ll lay you where Jimmy Hoffa lay.
In the Major Crimes episode Hindsight, Part 3, lawyer Peter Goldman (Curtis Armstrong) sarcastically tells the police he has Jimmy Hoffa in his car when they are searching it.