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When Ronnie and Reggie Kray, feared criminals of the East End of London, were conscripted, they deserted from the Army within minutes

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Getty Images

During the 1950s, two English gangsters reigned over the East End of London. Ronald “Ronnie” and Reginald “Reggie” Kray were identical twins who grew up to be infamous criminals, involved in many armed robberies, assaults, protection rackets, and arson. The twins were also involved in the murders of George Cornell and Jack “the Hat” McVitie.

They owned a nightclub in the West End of the city, where they befriended famous entertainers as well as politicians. The Krays shared tables with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Diana Dors. They became celebrities themselves in the 1960s as the much-feared perpetrators of organized crime. They were even photographed by David Bailey and had an interview on television.

The twins were born in 1933 in Hoxton, East London. They were always rather aggressive and as they were growing up, they became known for their violent behavior and the gang they formed. In 1952, they were conscripted into the British Army. Even though they reported for duty, they left the Army just moments after their arrival.  When the corporal in charge tried to prevent their escape, Ronnie hit him in the face, leaving the corporal with serious injuries. The brothers returned to their neighborhood in London, where the police found them and took them to the Army officials.

During their desertion, Ronnie and Reggie assaulted a policeman and consequently got arrested. They were sentenced to serve time in the Canterbury prison. The twins fit perfectly into prison life, enjoying violence and assaults on guards and police officers. They even escaped once.

Instead of trying to hide, Reggie and Ronnie enjoyed drinking cider, smoking cigarillos, and eating crisps in Canterbury before being recaptured. Before their Army and prison careers, the twins were keen on boxing, a passion that had some relevance to their career choice. They realized that crime suited them best and built their careers on the objective of organized crime.

The Krays worked for Jay Murray, doing armed robbery, hijacking, and arson in the late 1950s. Ronnie was imprisoned in 1960 for year and a half, and during this time Reggie acquired a nightclub called Esmeralda’s Barn. Today the Berkeley Hotel is at that location. The influence of the brothers was expanded with the new club, and they became celebrities besides being notorious criminals.

There was a new drama when Ronnie was accused of having a romantic relationship with a Conservative politician, Robert Lord Boothby, in the Sunday Mirror, at a time when homosexuality was still prohibited by law in the UK. After numerous threats by both of the accused, the newspaper printed an apology and paid £40,000 to Boothby in a court settlement. Hence, no other newspaper would dare to openly write about the criminal activities of the Krays.

The police were always interested in investigating the Krays, but there weren’t witnesses to any of their crimes coming forward because nobody was brave enough to testify against the brothers. Also, both leading political parties, the Conservative and the Labour party, were unwilling to act in order to put an end the twins’ power in the city. The former had a fear of the Boothby affair being publicized again, while the latter reportedly had some connections that they didn’t want printed in the newspapers. 

In March 1966, Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell, a member of the Richardson gang (the Kray’s rivals), shooting him at the Blind Beggar pub. At the time of the killing, Ronnie was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. He was having his drink in another club when he was told that Cornell was in the area. Ronnie went straight to him and shot in front of everyone present in the pub.

At the end of that year, the brothers organized the escape of “the Mad Axeman,” their friend Frank Mitchell, from Dartmoor Prison. Mitchell was physically big and had mental problems that made him impossible to control. The Krays broke him out, but he suddenly disappeared. Sometime later the Krays’ friend Freddie Foreman claimed that he killed “the Mad Axeman” as a favor to the brothers and threw the body in the sea.

In summer 1967 Reggie’s wife, Frances, committed suicide. Although Reggie was always the more “reasonable” of the twins, a few months after Frances’ death he allegedly killed Jack “the Hat” McVitie. Jack the Hat was a drug trafficker who wasn’t one of the members of the Kray’s gang but was often paid to do some jobs for them. In October 1967, Reggie paid him 500 pounds in advance to murder his ex-business partner and a friend, Leslie Payne. He promised an additional 500 when McVitie had finished the job.

Payne was about to inform the police about his previous criminal activities with the brothers, so the Krays needed him to be eliminated. But McVitie messed up. While high on drugs, McVitie knocked heavily on the door and, after Payne’s wife told him that her husband wasn’t there, instead of checking for himself, McVitie just left. He didn’t finish the job he was paid to do and neither did he return the money to Reggie. And one didn’t just walk around with Kray’s cash in their pocket without facing the consequences.

He soon encountered the brothers at a party. Instead of at least finding an excuse for not returning the money, he started offending Ronnie and then attacked him with a piece of glass. Reggie joined the argument and suddenly pointed his handgun at Jack, pulling the trigger. The gun didn’t discharge in two shots so Reggie stabbed McVitie with a sharp knife. He did it in public, in front of people who believed that killing McVitie wasn’t necessary. This event, in particular, persuaded many people to talk to the police about the twins’ criminal.

A detective, Leonard “Nipper” Read, who had investigated the Krays’ criminal activities back in 1964 was tasked to bring the twins down. Even though he gathered plenty of evidence against them in only two months, none of it could make a convincing case. However, at the beginning of 1968, the brothers tried to purchase a car bomb through Alan Bruce Cooper. He sent a radio engineer, Paul Elvey, to buy explosives in Glasgow, where he got arrested. Elvey confessed to his involvement in previous crimes and, of course, he named the man who sent him to Scotland.

The police reached Cooper, who assisted the cops. In the end, on May 8, 1968, Scotland Yard arrested the Krays along with 15 other members of their gang, with enough evidence to encourage other people to stand as witness against them. In March of the following year, the longest sentences ever passed were given to the twins when they were convicted for the murders of McVitie and Cornel. They got life imprisonment with 30 years of non-parole.

Read another story from us: Why ordering a hit on “Big Paul” Castellano at Sparks Steak House was John Gotti’s big mistake

Reggie Kray was a Category B prisoner incarcerated in Maidstone Prison and then transferred to Wayland Prison as Category C. His brother was kept as a Category A prisoner who, in 1979, was certified insane and transferred to Broadmoor Hospital, where he remained until his death in 1995. In 2000, eight weeks before his death, Reggie was released on compassionate grounds because he had cancer.

The Karys’ lives are still legendary in London, and their crimes inspired many books and movies.

Tijana Radeska

Tijana Radeska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News