Once a giant of the American labor movement, albeit a flawed one, Jimmy Hoffa has now been reduced to the punch line of virtually every joke that involves a sudden and mysterious disappearance. His name was resurrected most recently when archeologists discovered the long-lost bones of King Richard III buried beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. The remains of Hoffa, who disappeared on the afternoon of July 30, 1975, have yet to be found, and, if author E. William Henry is correct, they never will be.
Henry, a lawyer, worked for Robert Kennedy on his brother John’s successful 1960 campaign for the U.S. presidency and was subsequently appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. His closeness to Robert, who became his brother’s attorney general, gave him special insight into the younger Kennedy’s campaign to “get Hoffa”—both for his criminal mismanagement of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as its president and for the union’s affiliation with known gangsters. After outwitting and outlawyering his nemesis in earlier courtroom encounters, Hoffa finally was convicted of jury tampering and sent to prison, where he chafed and schemed for four and a half years until President Richard Nixon commuted his 13-year sentence to time served.
An engaging writer, Henry begins his story by probing the almost instinctive enmity between the scrappy, blue-collar Hoffa and the patrician, overachieving Robert Kennedy. He then goes on to describe, in dramatic detail, the series of legal clashes between the two men. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Robert became less of a thorn personally, but by this time Hoffa’s offenses were so blatant that other federal officials continued to hound him. He entered prison in early 1967 as defiant as ever, wholly convinced that he could find a way to hold on to his control of the IBT. But Nixon’s commutation of his sentence came with strings attached that thwarted his plans for good.
At the time of his disappearance, Hoffa was still resisting being sidelined from the union he had built into a personal empire. Henry relies on the confession of a mobster and strong ancillary evidence to conclude that Hoffa was shot twice in the head the afternoon he went missing and that his body was taken promptly to a mob-controlled waste disposal facility in a Detroit suburb and incinerated. Thus was born a myth—and a punch line.