I read a lot of things. Typically, I like sci-fi and fantasy- stuff by Brandon Sanderson. A lot of weird stuff too, like “Perdido Street Station” by China Meiville and “The Color out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft.
However, sometimes I like to branch out of wheelhouse, and read crime fiction. I recently wrote a review for “Altered Carbon”, a cyberpunk whodunit mystery. I’ve read all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories, and a bizarre amount of Israeli Spy Drama.
The point I’m trying to make is that I went into The Irishman completely blind, and thought it was a typical crime novel about Italian mobsters ala the Sopranos or Scarface or Carmine Falcone from Batman or The Penguin from Batman or Two-Face from Batman.
I was all set for cigar smoking thugs saying “badda bing badda boom” and playing blackjack real money. Suffice it to say, I was surprised to learn that the entire story is allegedly real, told from the lips of one of the most tightly involved men in the actual, very real mafia.
Before the movie came out, “The Irishman” (book) was actually titled “So I Heard You Paint Houses”. Painting houses was a mob euphemism for killing someone, because the blood splatter would paint the walls. The title directly references the first words exchanged between Jimmy Hoffa, the infamous leader of The Teamsters (a worker’s rights union) and the man who, by his own assertion, killed Jimmy Hoffa: Frank Sheeran.
Frank Sheeran was an Irish American who grew up in Darby, Pennsylvania. He joined the military in 1941, during World War II, and fought across Italy, France, and Germany. He served for a total of 411 combat days- the average was a quarter of that, only around 100 days. By the end of the war, Sheeran was no doubt desensitized to violence, suffered from PTSD (which wasn’t a recognized disorder yet) and became an alcoholic.
He was poor, and desperate to get some cash, he worked a number of odd jobs that brought him into connection with “Skinny Razor” (Felix DeTullio) and Russel Bufalino. Frank would become a close, personal friend to Russel, who brought the man further and further into the Mafia, and, eventually, into connection with his other friend, Jimmy Hoffa.
Over the course of his life, Frank Sheeran claimed to have been involved in 25 to 30 murders, and a wild variety of scandals and hits that range from deeply intriguing to cartoonish scheming. As an advocate for the Teamsters union and worker rights, Jimmy and Frank handled negotiating negotiations on behalf of employees. They arranged pensions, fought for better working hours, and increased pay/benefits.
Of course, being mobsters, they did this in dirty, underhanded ways. The pension fund, for instance, was used in the mob’s predatory loan shark scams. Money would be lent to someone who needed it, and the mob would reap the interest, while the rest went back into the fund. This was the golden goose of the workers union. Negotiations with employers involved every dirty trick in the book, from arranging strikes to violently persuading the employer to come around to the right way of seeing an issue. In the book, Sheeran takes credit for a number of such instances.
One of the most comical was when Jimmy intended to start negotiations with “management” in Arlington, Virginia. Frank came up with a scheme worthy of Saul Goodman: He spiked one of the two coffee urns with laxatives, and paid college students $50 each to occupy the stalls in the building’s bathrooms. About half the opposing negotiating team drank from the urn, and spent the enter session sprinting to find the nearest available toilet. Jimmy had 50% less opponents to argue against.
It was not all fun and games. Of the more serious claims Frank Sheeran made include the murder of Crazy Joey Gallo, which Frank claimed to have done himself. He also claimed to have delivered three high-powered rifles that were used in the JFK assassination (he never met Lee Harvey Oswald- but Jack Ruby, he knew).
Finally, he also claimed to have personally killed Jimmy Hoffa, after Jimmy had mouthed off about potentially releasing evidence to the FBI that would incriminate the mob if anyone tried taking him out. So he was taken out. Frank Sheeran’s confession, if it’s to be believed, would solve a mystery that’s been burning in the minds of investigators for over 30 years.
Theories about what happened to Hoffa ranged from “he was dumped in the Florida Everglades” to “He’s buried under Giants Stadium”. But, according to Frank, the truth was that the man was blamed, cremated, and tossed who-knows-where.
Which makes a lot more sense.
Is Any of it True Though?
The lynchpin of the entire book, however, is Frank’s credibility. Even Charles Brandt, the author and interviewer, knew that credibility was going to be the novels largest problem. Frank had given Brandt a letter, supposedly written by Hoffa, that turned out to be a “laughable” forgery. Frank later admitted he had made it as some kind of insurance.
Frank was also cagey about certain details, as he refused to be a rat for members of the mob that were still alive- and some that weren’t. Frank Sheeran’s various claims also contradict other claims- some made by Sheeran in the past, and others from evidence, and others from other mobsters. The alleged driver during the Hoffa hit, Chuckie O’Brian, flat out denies everything… but that’s not exactly definitive evidence.
Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifles were supposedly acquired via mail order, but Frank claims to have delivered them to somebody who eventually passed them on to Oswald. However, the JFK assassination is full of so many holes and questions, moldy Swiss cheese is more trustworthy. Frank claimed to have personally killed nearly 30 people, but the claims were never verified. Of course, if they had been, most of the murders probably wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
I doubt we’ll ever know the whole truth, but, for what it’s worth, I find Frank Sheeran’s deathbed confession highly believable. But what do I know? I’m a professional blogger. At the very least, “The Irishman” is a fascinating insight into the inner workings of one of the largest criminal organizations ever to exist, and it is written superbly.
One last anecdote I can’t help but share: In Delaware, the Teamsters union debated whether or not to support the republican candidate or the Democrat candidate for Senate. In the end, they decided on the democrat. The politician’s campaign ads made claims about his republican opponent, but many weren’t true.
The Republican opponent wanted to respond by presenting the claims next to the truth, but the Teamsters set up a picket fence outside of the Newspaper distribution center, and none of the trucks could leave. The public, uninformed of the Republican candidate’s response to the claims, voted in the Democratic candidate. Can you guess that candidate’s name?
Joe Biden. I doubt that made it into the movie.
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