Mafia Bosses, Like Politicians, Often Spoke in Code

Joe Pecsi, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino in Martin Scorcese’s “The Irishman.”

There was an old saying in Chicago politics: “Never write what you can say, and never say it if you can just nod your head,” the point being that the feds may be listening.

That fear of being listened to is one of the main themes of I Heard You Paint Houses, a book about the rise and fall of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa.

What does “I heard you paint houses” mean? It’s mob talk for do you do contract killing? They were the first words Jimmy Hoffa allegedly spoke to Frank Sheeran, a Teamsters truck driver turned hit man, when they were introduced. If the answer to the painting houses question was “I also do carpentry,” that meant I’ll also dispose of the body.

The book became the basis for the Martin Scorcese film, “The Irishman,” starring Robert DeNiro as Sheeran, Al Pacino as Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino. It’s full of other mob slang such as “going to school” (going to prison) and “candy” (explosives).

Toward the end of the book, Russell Bufalino tells Sheeran to kill Hoffa and Sheeran does it with a bullet to the back of Hoffa’s head. Sheeran later said, using more Mafia code talk, “If I had said no to Russell, Jimmy would have been just as dead and I’d have gone to Australia with him.”



  1. Barnard Collier says

    My father, a lawyer, used to say:

    “Do right, fear no man. Don’t write, fear no woman.”

    Those were the days when epistolary promises legally meant something.

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