The mystery of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, a Clay County native who rose to become one of the most powerful and controversial union bosses in U.S. history, lives on across the nation and also in his Wabash Valley hometown.
Just this week, FBI agents searched a weedy field near Detroit looking for any evidence of Hoffa’s fate. The former Teamsters leader was last seen on July 30, 1975, when he was to meet with two mob bosses at a Michigan restaurant.
This week’s search, triggered by a tip from a former Mafia figure, turned up nothing — except the fact that the Hoffa mystery still captures the public’s imagination.
In downtown Brazil, the Clay County Historical Society Museum features an exhibit on Hoffa, complete with photos, copies of family legal documents and several books about Hoffa.
“I imagine we’ve had four or five [retired Teamster] truck drivers come in and look at” the exhibit, said Larry Branum, afternoon host at the museum and a member of the historical society. Despite his 1964 conviction for jury tampering and misuse of union pension funds, Hoffa retains the admiration and respect of many museum visitors today, Branum said.
In his day, Hoffa was not universally loved within organized labor, however. The Clay County museum exhibit features a mocking “Teamsters Coloring Book” published while Hoffa was still around by a rival union that clearly accuses Hoffa and his closest allies of greed, kickbacks and other shady dealings.
The first page in the coloring book depicts a portly Hoffa with cash overflowing from his pockets. The text under the drawing plays on Hoffa’s middle name, Riddle, which was his mother’s maiden name.
“The ‘R’ stands for Riddle. Guess whether I will do as much for you as you will do for me. Color my pockets green,” states the book, which also attacks other Teamster leaders.
Jimmy Hoffa was born in 1913 and lived the first 10 years of his eventful life in Brazil. His first home was on North Vandalia Street, but he lived the longest in a home at 315 E. Church St. in a place now home to a parking lot for Hardee’s, a fast-food restaurant on National Avenue, according to Ken Turner, a member of the Clay County Historical Society.
Directly across from Hoffa’s Church Street home was the Lambert Street School, which Hoffa attended, Turner said. The school, an impressive structure built in the 1870s, was torn down as part of a WPA project during the Depression, he said.
Like his old school, each of the three homes in which Hoffa lived in Brazil has been torn down over the years. A third residence, home to one of Hoffa’s uncles, was at 64 N. Ashley Street.
Now, little remains of this famous Clay County native apart from the exhibit at the museum, although Hoffa’s father’s is buried in an unmarked grave in the Cottage Hill Cemetery east of Brazil on Indiana 340, Turner said.
During his prime, Jimmy Hoffa occasionally returned to Clay County to visit relatives, including once in 1963, the year before his conviction, according to a 1992 Tribune-Star interview with surviving relatives.
Hoffa also had family ties in Vermillion County and the small town of Cunot in Owen County. In fact, one of the Hoffa legends states that big, fancy automobiles, such as those you might see associated with underworld figures, were seen cruising through a Cunot cemetery soon after Hoffa’s disappearance, leading to local speculation the union boss was buried there, Turner said.
Hoffa’s father, John, a blacksmith in coal mining, died in 1920 when Jimmy was still very young. A few years later, Jimmy’s mother, Viola Riddle Hoffa, took her family to Clinton and then to Detroit.
Viola Riddle had been a farm girl living near Jessup in Parke County when she met Jimmy’s father, whose family had lived in Cunot, Turner said. John and Viola were married in Parke County. Jimmy’s mother likely moved her family north to Detroit after her husband’s death to find better opportunities to earn a living to provide for her four children, he said.
“She had the four children who were just really young,” Turner said. “Detroit was on the boom” at the time.
Now, more than 35 years after his disappearance, the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa continues to fascinate people around the world.
“He was a well-known, controversial figure,” Turner said. “There’s all kinds of speculation what happened to him.”
This week’s failed search north of Detroit only fuels that continuing mystery, giving it new life. And, meanwhile, the most enduring “riddle” surrounding this famous Clay County native remains unsolved.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org