Union official and gangster Frank Sheeran, to be played by Robert De Niro in "The Irishman," claims he killed Jimmy Hoffa — but did he just make it up?
When Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino come together for a film, people pay attention. That’s especially true when the film is slated to be a modern-day Godfather and based on the true story of none other than Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran no less.
Well, mostly true, at least. The Irishman is inspired by a book by Charles Brandt titled I Heard You Paint Houses, which details the deathbed confessions of notorious Philadelphia mobster Frank Sheeran and more specifically, his role in the murder of his friend, famously disappeared Jimmy Hoffa.
While Sheeran was undoubtedly up to no good during his time alongside mafia leaders such as Russell Bufalino and Angelo Bruno, his infamous deathbed confession, as well as many of his other confessions in the book, are still yet to be verified.
De Niro will take on this Irish hitman, but how close is his character to the real-life mobster? Since truth is often stranger than fiction, here’s what we know for sure about Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran.
Frank Sheeran’s Descent Into The Philadelphia Mafia
Though he became known as “The Irishman” during his days in the Philadelphia mafia, Frank Sheeran was actually born an American in Camden, New Jersey in 1920. He was raised by an Irish Catholic working-class family in a borough of Philadelphia, where he experienced a rather normal, crime-free childhood.
As he later said in Brandt’s book, “I wasn’t born into the mafia life like the young Italians were, who came out of places like Brooklyn, Chicago, and Detroit. I was Irish Catholic from Philadelphia, and before I came home from the war I never did anything really wrong.”
“I was born into some rough times. They say the Depression started when I was nine years old in 1929, but as far as I was concerned our family never had money.”
In 1941, Sheeran enlisted in the military and was sent to Italy to fight in World War II. Here he clocked a total of 411 days of active combat — an especially high number for American soldiers during this brutal war. During this time he took part in numerous war crimes, and by the time he returned to America, he found himself numb to the idea of death.
“You get used to death. You get used to killing,” Sheeran later said. “You lost the moral skill you had developed in civilian life. You developed a hard covering, like being encased in lead.”
This feeling would prove useful to the Irishman upon his return to Philadelphia, however. Now a six-foot-four man working as a truck driver, Sheeran caught the eye of the Italian-American Bufalino crime family. More specifically, mafia boss Russell Bufalino himself — played by Joe Pesci in the film — who was looking for a bit of muscle.
Frank Sheeran started working odd jobs for Bufalino and the pair became close friends. As the Irishman would later describe the older godfather, he was “one of the two greatest men I ever met.”
Thus began Sheeran’s life as a mafia hitman. It was an easy transition to this kind of rough-housing from the violence of war. As Angelo Bruno, another major Philadelphia mob boss, told him before his first hit, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
According to his confessions in I Heard You Paint Houses, one of Sheeran’s most famous hits was on “Crazy Joe” Gallo, a member of the Colombo crime family who had started a feud with Bufalino and was killed at his birthday party at Umberto’s in New York City.
Sheeran said of this hit, “I didn’t know who Russ had in mind, but he needed a favor and that was that.”
Sheeran admitted that his fair complexion and unknown reputation made the hit somewhat easier. “None of these Little Italy people or Crazy Joe and his people had ever seen me before. I walked in the Mulberry street door where Gallo was. …A split second after I turned to face the table, Gallo’s driver got shot from behind. Crazy Joey swung around out of his chair headed toward the corner door. He made it through to the outside. He got shot three times.”
Although the Irishman distances himself from the crime, he takes full responsibility for it. “I’m not putting anybody else in the thing but me,” he said. “If you do it yourself, you can only rat on yourself.”
This confession was also corroborated with an eye witness. A woman who eventually became an editor with The New York Times identified the Irishman as the shooter she had seen that night. When she was shown an image of Frank Sheeran after the murder, she said, “This picture gives me chills.”
The Relationship Between The Irishman And Jimmy Hoffa
While this murder confession is significant, it is not even Sheeran’s most astounding. That hit is reserved for Jimmy Hoffa, a union boss who had become both an associate and close friend of Sheeran’s in Philadelphia.
Hoffa and the Philadelphia mafia went way back. In addition to Bufalino, Hoffa could also count Angelo Bruno as a friend. As president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, these connections often came in handy.
In 1957, when Hoffa was looking for a hitman to take out a few union rivals for him, Bufalino introduced him to the Irishman. As the story goes, Hoffa’s first words to Sheeran were: “I heard you paint houses.” This was an allusion to Sheeran’s murderous reputation and the blood splatter that the Irishman would leave on his victim’s walls.
Sheeran is alleged to have responded, “Yeah, and I do my own carpentry, too,” alluding to the fact that he would also dispose of the bodies.
The two became fast friends, and together they got Hoffa the leadership position at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. For Frank Sheeran, this meant making more than a few hits. According to his confessions detailed in the book, the Irishman killed 25 to 30 people for Hoffa — though he also said that he couldn’t remember the exact number.
Hoffa thanked his friend by gifting him with the coveted position of union boss of the local Teamster chapter in Delaware.
The two even stayed close when Hoffa was sent to prison on racketeering charges.
In his confessions, Frank Sheeran recalled an order to take a suitcase filled with half a million dollars in cash to a hotel lobby in Washington D.C., where he met U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell. The two men had a short chat and then Mitchell walked off with the suitcase. This was a bribe for President Nixon to commute Hoffa’s prison sentence.
But the closeness of Hoffa and the Irishman was not to last. When Hoffa was released from prison in 1972, he intended to resume his leadership responsibilities at the Teamsters, but the mafia wanted him out.
Then, in 1975, the union boss disappeared into thin air. He was last seen in late July in the parking lot of a suburban Detroit restaurant called the Machus Red Fox, where he had planned to meet mafia leaders Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano.
Hoffa’s body was never found and no one was convicted for his crime. Seven years after his disappearance, he was declared legally dead.
Did Frank Sheeran Kill Jimmy Hoffa?
This would not be the end of the story for Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, however.
Many years later, a small publishing house in New Hampshire released a non-fiction book that detailed a haunting story of his murder, told by none other than Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran himself.
The book was released by Sheeran’s lawyer and confidante, Charles Brandt, who had helped him to procure early parole from prison due to poor health. During the last five years of the hitman’s life, he allowed Brandt to record a series of confessions of his crimes during his time with the Philadelphia mafia.
One of these confessions was the murder of Jimmy Hoffa.
“He was tortured by his conscience as far as the Hoffa murder was concerned,” Brandt said.
As Sheeran’s confession goes, it was Bufalino who ordered the hit on Hoffa. The crime boss had set up a fake peace meeting with the union boss, and he arranged for Hoffa to be picked up from the Red Fox restaurant by Charles O’Brien, Sal Bruguglio, and Sheeran.
Although Sheeran still considered Hoffa a close friend, his loyalty to Bufalino outweighed everything else.
After they picked up Hoffa, the mobsters parked in front of an empty house and Sheeran took him inside. There, Sheeran pulled out his gun.
“If he saw the piece in my hand, he had to think I had it out to protect him,” Sheeran told Brandt. “He took a quick step to go around me and get to the door. He reached for the knob and Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range — not too close or the paint splatters back at you — in the back of the head behind his right ear. My friend didn’t suffer.”
After Frank Sheeran left the scene, he said that Hoffa’s body was taken to a crematorium.
Before the Irishman died from cancer in 2003, just a year before the book was set to be released, he stated, “I stand by what’s written.”
The Many Theories And Doubts About This Confession
While Sheeran may stand by this confession, many others don’t.
“I’m telling you, he’s full of shit!” said fellow Irishman and mobster from Philadelphia, John Carlyle Berkery. “Frank Sheeran never killed a fly. The only things he ever killed were jugs of red wine.”
Former FBI agent John Tamm agrees, saying, “It’s baloney, beyond belief…Frank Sheeran was a full-time criminal, but I don’t know of anybody he personally every killed, no.”
As it stands today, no evidence was ever found linking Sheeran to Hoffa’s murder, despite a years-long investigation by local and federal authorities.
The Detroit house in which Frank Sheeran claimed to have murdered Hoffa was searched, and blood splatter was found. However, it could not be directly linked to the union boss’s DNA.
But the Irishman was also not the only person to confess to this infamous crime. As Selwyn Raab, a journalist and reporter for The New York Times, said, “I know Sheeran didn’t kill Hoffa. I’m as confident about that as you can be. There are 14 people who claim to have killed Hoffa. There’s an inexhaustible supply of them.”
One of these confessors was another crime figure, Tony Zerilli, who said that Hoffa had been hit on the head with a shovel and buried though no evidence for this was ever found, either.
What’s more, there were several other credible suspects such as hitman Sal Brugiglio and body disposer Thomas Andretta, named by the FBI.
But why would Sheeran confess to this betrayal if it wasn’t true? Theories suggest that he may have had financial gain in mind though not for himself, as he was close to death when he made his confessions but for his three daughters, who were set to split the profits of the book and any film rights with Brandt.
Other theories suggest that perhaps Frank Sheeran was simply looking for lasting infamy or that he was a witness to the murder and decided to take the blame himself.
Since everyone involved in the crime is dead and gone, the mystery may never be truly solved. Either way, it is no doubt that Robert De Niro will only help Sheeran’s story go down in history — whether it’s all true or not.
Now that you know the true story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, check out the astounding true story of the Lufthansa Heist that was hinted at in Goodfellas. Then learn about Sam Giancana, the Chicago godfather who may have put JFK in the White House.