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Out of the Jungle
Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class


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American Soil

Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.-FRIEDRICH ENGELS

When James Riddle Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana, on February 14, 1913, American socialism had reached its apex. Just twelve years after its founding, the Socialist Party could boast of a membership of more than 100,000, the election of 1,200 party members to public offices across the United States, and the ongoing publication of more than 300 periodicals. Most impressive was the widespread popularity of another native of west-central Indiana, Eugene Debs, who received more than 900,000 votes as the party's nominee in the 1912 presidential election. But over the next several years, during Hoffa's childhood, the United States provided a stark answer to the query posed by Friedrich Engels at the close of the nineteenth century. Jimmy Hoffa's America crucified Eugene Debs and set fire to his world.

In the fall of 1925, Debs wrote a letter to his local newspaper in Terre Haute bitterly lamenting the fate of both his hometown and his country. Debs had returned to live in Terre Haute after his release from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he had served three and a half years for violation of the Espionage Act-the penalty for having given a series of antiwar speeches during World War I. The leader of the Socialist Party of America saw a new world when he moved back to the town of his childhood. The party he had spent much of his life building was nearly destroyed, the victim of government repression and a postwar right-wing resurgence. Most painfully, he saw that America, and even Terre Haute, had been fully transformed by modern industrial machinery. Aged and depleted from his years in prison, Debs lacked the energy and spirit to renew the fight for socialism but held out hope that others might take up the work of redeeming what he saw as a fallen America. Gone were the "simplicity and beauty" of pioneer life in the Wabash Valley, he wrote to the Terre Haute Tribune. "This is predominantly a business age, a commercial age, a material and in a larger sense a sordid age, but the moral and spiritual values of life are not wholly ignored by the people." Having never moved from Christian socialism to the "scientific" doctrine of his immigrant comrades, Debs looked not to objective conditions for salvation but to what he believed to be the God-given moral sensibility of human beings. "Sentiment, without which men are lower than savages, is still rooted in and flowers in the human soul and makes possible the hope that some day we shall seek and find and enjoy the real riches of the race."

The socialist utopia that Debs imagined closely resembled his own memories of the "beloved little community" of Terre Haute during his youth, "where all were neighbors and friends." While this surely was a romanticized description, the small Indiana city in the late nineteenth century did offer sources of inspiration for a communitarian such as Debs. Established at the intersection of the Wabash River and the National Road and promoted as a railroad link between the eastern markets and St. Louis, until the turn of the century Terre Haute developed slowly enough to allow it to remain an exemplar of small-town American republicanism. Despite the presence of the Terre Haute and Indiana railroad and the Vigo Iron Company, the predominantly native-born and Protestant white population enjoyed the close social relations of a decentralized economy. Most businesses employed only a handful of people, and even the railroad maintained a personalized work environment by limiting its hiring to familial and friendship networks. Workers were more likely to identify with their employers than to feel class antagonism towards them. Added to this was a pervasive Christian evangelicalism, handed down from the Second Great Awakening, that imbued the community with the ethics of self-sacrifice and social responsibility.

As an adult in a rapidly changing world, Debs was motivated by a longing for his "beloved little community" and a fear that it would be buried under the advance of industrial capitalism. But unlike most workers who shared these feelings, Debs's intellectual training enabled him to articulate them. His father, the product of a wealthy Alsatian family, introduced him to the works of the greatest French writers and social theorists, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo. From his early immersion in Enlightenment thought Debs developed a view of the world as a single community, which, paired with the lessons of Terre Haute's culture of social obligation, created in him a sense of responsibility for the entire human race. He aspired to be a manager of others, to correct the human impulses that threatened social harmony. A teenage friend expected him either to become the owner of a large business or to join the railroad and "step into a Master Mechanics job in charge of all the engine men." Indeed, as a leader of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen-whose motto was "Benevolence, Sobriety and Industry"-Debs viewed the trade union as an instrument of moral discipline. "It is no small matter to plant benevolence in the heart of stone, instill the love of sobriety into the putrid mind of debauchery, and create industry out of idleness," he wrote in 1881. "These are our aims, and if the world concedes them to be plausible, we ask that they find an anchoring place in its heart."

As smokestacks grew higher, railroad lines stretched longer, and moral depravity sank deeper in Terre Haute and the rest of America, Debs's inclinations naturally turned him toward socialism. Flowing directly from his yearning for the classless Christian community of his imagined youth and his ambition to oversee it, Debs's socialism shared the basic principles of socialists around the world, but it bore his own distinctive mark. Within a collectively managed political economy, workers would organize, discipline, and regulate themselves and thereby "work out their own salvation, their redemption and independence." But to transform workers into responsible social managers, socialism would have to be above all a moralizing mission. "What is Socialism?" Debs rhetorically asked a crowd of party members. "Merely Christianity in action." And who would bring it about? "The martyred Christ of the working class."

Twenty years later, in prison, his movement crushed, his health shattered, and the world outside lost to capitalism, Debs wrote a letter to a friend that described a troubling dream he had had: "I was walking by the house where I was born-the house was gone and nothing left but ashes. All about me were ashes. . . . The house was gone-and only ashes-Ashes!"

Rising from those ashes was not the phoenix of socialism or a new Christ of the working class, but something else altogether. The fuel for the railroad engines and blasting furnaces that incinerated Debs's Terre Haute came from coal mines a few miles away, in the towns where Jimmy Hoffa spent the first eleven years of his life.

In the late nineteenth century, Clay County accounted for more than half of Indiana's coal production. Much of that coal was put on railroad cars in Brazil, the county's seat and largest town, and shipped sixteen miles west to Terre Haute. In 1910 John Cleveland Hoffa and Viola Riddle Hoffa moved to Brazil from nearby Cunot, a farming town where Viola was raised. The relocation was necessary for John, since the headquarters of his employer, Ben Mershon, an independent coal prospector, was in Brazil. John Cleveland Hoffa was a member of the third generation of Hoffas in Indiana. His German ancestors had immigrated to Pennsylvania, then moved west along the National Road, ultimately settling in Indiana in the early nineteenth century. John and Viola, who was of Irish descent, moved themselves and their newborn daughter, Jenetta, into a house in "Stringtown," the neighborhood in Brazil with the highest concentration of miners. In the front room of the house, Viola gave birth to their second and third children: William Henry in 1911 and James Riddle, on St. Valentine's Day, 1913.

By 1913 Brazil had reached its peak as a boomtown. After a geology survey in 1871 revealed that the land around the town contained two trillion tons of coal, the little stopover along the National Road took off. Within three years Brazil's population grew from a few hundred to a few thousand, and by the time of Jimmy Hoffa's birth it topped out at 11,000. Like most fast-growing mining towns during this period, Brazil was a world apart from Debs's Terre Haute. The prospects for upward mobility and workers' identification with employers had been greatly diminished by the concentration of the mining industry into the hands of a few companies. State regulations and contracts won by the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) had raised wages and improved working conditions for coal miners, but the deep-shaft mines surrounding Brazil were still deadly. Explosions, fires, and cave-ins were commonplace, as were less spectacular fatalities caused by intense heat, poisonous vapors, pneumonia, and black lung.

The culture of Brazil expressed the pain and desperation created by its economy. Violence, suicides, drunkenness, prostitution, and gambling were common features of everyday life. In the 1910s, Brazil featured one saloon for every 500 residents. Most were concentrated on Meridian Street, a few blocks from the Hoffas' home, which was known as "Bloody Row" for the frequency of its drunken brawls and homicides. Battles between white and black miners were especially vicious in a town that had attracted significant numbers of African Americans from the South. The rest of Stringtown was dotted with brothels and gambling houses, including one operated by Hoffa's uncle and namesake, James.

Of course, all this sinning prompted a great amount of repentance. Like other Indiana coal towns, Brazil had almost as many churches as saloons. One of the largest was the First Christian Church, which the Hoffas attended every Sunday. Their participation, however, came more from a sense of obligation than from belief. "We weren't a very religious family," Hoffa later recalled. This attitude is evident in his bored, mechanical account of a typical Sunday morning:

Dressed starch-white-clean, we trooped off to the Christian Church of Brazil to attend a rather formal service patterned after the eastern Congregational Church order of worship. The standard operating procedure was to begin with the singing of a hymn, followed by a prayer, with the congregation still standing, then the singing of the doxology, 'Praise God from whom all blessings flow. . . .' Then came the reading of the Scripture lesson, to which, ultimately, the sermon made reference. That was followed by a choral selection and the offertory, the taking of the collection.

Through indifference, both Hoffa and his brother, who later followed him into the Teamsters, escaped the Christian sense of duty that had defined Eugene Debs's life:

Mother went home after church services, but we had to remain for Sunday school, a session lasting nearly an hour in which we learned the meaning of some passage in the Bible, customarily based on a little "Reader" that was handed to us each week by our Sunday-school teacher. . . .

All told it made for about two and a half hours of inactivity, and I am grateful that neither Billy nor I was ever graded for our attentiveness or application to the subject matter under consideration.8

Hoffa's father spent much of his time traveling to surrounding counties on prospecting trips with Mershon. One day in 1920 he returned early from one of these trips, disoriented and exhausted. About a week later he died of unknown causes, just short of his fortieth birthday. Viola Hoffa was now forced to support the family, which had added a fourth child, Nancy, in 1915. She washed and ironed laundry for coal miners, cleaned houses in the town's wealthy neighborhood, and cooked in a restaurant, but the amount of money she received for these jobs was too small to sustain five people. By 1920, wages in Brazil had begun to decline, especially for women. The town's economic growth ebbed during the war as several of the local mines were found to be "worked out." Hoffa's mother decided to move the family to Clinton, located eleven miles north of Terre Haute on the Wabash River, which had surpassed Brazil as the boomtown of the region and where several relatives from the Riddle family lived.

Clinton was even further removed than Brazil from Debs's vision of producer republicanism. In 1920, the town's thirty-two mines were producing nearly two million tons of coal annually but not much republicanism. Like Brazil, Clinton had grown quickly, fallen under the domination of a few companies, and suffered all the social destruction attendant upon coal mining. But Clinton's population was far

different from Brazil's, and light-years from Debs's Protestant, Anglo-Saxon neighborhood. The separation between workers and employers was especially pronounced. Beginning at the turn of the century, family networks brought thousands of Italian immigrants to work in the mines. They filled the north side of the town, creating the largest concentration of Italians in Indiana. Viola Hoffa moved her family into a small house near her sister's home on North Third Street, in the heart of "Little Italy." There, with the help of the three children, she operated the "Hoffa Home Laundry," washing and ironing the coal-blackened clothes of mine workers. Jimmy and Billy picked up bundles of laundry from customers, gathered wood to fire the laundry tubs standing in the yard, delivered the clean clothes, and collected the money.

Having moved to Clinton the year Prohibition was put into effect, the Hoffas saw the birth and growth of an industry that became second only to coal in the area. In the 1920s, Clinton quickly gained notoriety as one of the bootlegging centers of Indiana, with illegal stills in the surrounding forests supplying the speakeasies in Little Italy and other towns in the coal belt. The Hoffas also witnessed the transformation of Clinton into one of the roughest towns in the Midwest, where violence often moved out of the mines and into the town's streets. Police raids on bootleggers frequently resulted in shoot-outs, federal attacks against the town's sizable Socialist Party branch were equally fierce, and strikes called by the United Mine Workers were typically met with armed resistance from scabs and cops. Stirred into this explosive mix were various Italian criminal organizations and a highly visible local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which held marches down the main streets in Little Italy to intimidate the Catholic, "un-American" immigrants.

For four years, the Hoffa family managed to eke out an existence in their turbulent neighborhood, but by 1924 Clinton's economic base had begun to wither. The mechanization of mining and a declining demand for coal closed several mines, depressed wages, and squeezed the already meager profits of the Hoffa family business. Viola was forced to move again, and this time she chose the biggest boomtown in the Midwest. In 1924 the family packed up, left the relatives, and headed for Detroit...

Excerpted from Out of the Jungle by Thaddeus Russell Copyright 2001 by Thaddeus Russell. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.