East End in the 30's
London's East End has changed remarkably over the past century. The glamorous and trendy area one sees nowadays is very different from the past, and yet it is from the past that the area has acquired its charm and its quiet reputation of underworld connections. The area has changed with the times, and has acquired, even for London, a large number of historical footnotes. Jack the Ripper had his hunting grounds here, the Salvation Army was founded here, and the local hospital was even home to John Merrick, "The Elephant Man". And it was here, on the 24th of October, 1933, that one of a pair of the most notorious mobsters London had ever known was born. His name was Ronnie Kray.
East End in the 30's was squalid, poverty stricken and overcrowded. Jack London called it "Outcast London", and not without reason - despite the flamboyant mix of cultures within the area, the entire area was very tightly knit, and outsiders were not appreciated. It was not an easy place or time to live in. Jobs were scarce, and murder, extortion, thieving and prostitution were common, and gangs roamed the streets without fear.
It was in this environment that the Kray brothers grew up. The Kray twins earned a reputation for scrapping, and became very able boxers. The brothers were inseparable, and this bond was to hold them through the years to come.
By the age of 12, the twins were attending school, where Ronnie excelled at general knowledge. They continued their boxing training over this time. When they left school, at the age of 15, they worked at Billingsgate Fish Market, where Ronnie was an "empty boy", collecting empty fish boxes for his salary. Their first run-in with the law was at the age of 17, where a boy they had beaten testified against them. In a disturbing sight of things to come, the case was dropped when the witness refused to elaborate in court - someone had gotten to him first.
Military Service and an Entrepreneurial Enterprise
In 1952, the twins were called for national service. The encounter with the military did not go well - they beat up a sergeant and ran off a few days into their service, and this set the tone for the remainder of their service. They were finally dishonorably discharged two years later.
With their stint in the military completed, the twins, with some financial assistance from their elder brother Charlie, opened up a 14 table billiard hall, converting it from an old movie theater. The business was a success, and Ronnie's dreams of becoming a gangster were starting to come true. He dressed the part, and started to become more involved with the criminal element in the area. By using an information network of street kids, Ronnie was able to keep abreast of local events. It was around this time that he developed a more sexual taste for the boys as well.
Obsessed with guns, Ronnie soon had quite a collection. Although his poor aim and short sight meant that he was never a great marksman, Ronnie's fascination with guns was to last throughout his life. The brothers' love of a brawl continued unabated, and the pair would often go out on the town to drink and fight. Ronnie's ability to seize the initiative earned him the nickname of The Colonel, and this same initiative soon made the billiard hall a haven for criminals, who used it as a place to swap ideas and information, and to hide and fence stolen goods. The twin's rising fame and success soon drew the attention of the current mob controlling the area, and the twin's were invited to a Sunday drink at one of the local pubs.
What started as an ambush for the twins went horribly wrong. Two of the men who attacked the twins were laid out unconscious, and Ronnie had to be pulled off of the third before he killed him. Now the local lords of the area, the twins had a hand in all dirty dealing, extorting profits from crimes committed on their turf, and demanding protection money from the local businesses. They were 22 years old.
A Move into the Big Time, and Prison for Ronnie
In 1955, Jack "Spot" Comer and Billy Hill were the two reigning crime lords in London. Despite their previously strong alliance, they fell out, and a quiet war began in the London criminal underground. Jack was attacked in May, 1956, outside his Soho apartment, by Frankie Fraser. Jack called it quits, and bought a furniture store. Billy Hill retired to a villa in Spain. While the twin's were almost ready for the new position, without Jack's advice, they were lost in the administration of their new empire. Eventually the political vacuum was filled by a number of gangs, most prominent of whom were the Italians.
By this time, the twin's had started to realise the true potential of their role as gangsters, and both of them began to dress appropriately. It was during this time that "The Firm" was born, and by the end of 1956, the twins controlled 14 square miles worth of businesses, pubs and gambling dens, all paying the twins for protection.
With the work came a serious amount of money, and the twins were happy to use it. Reggie bought an American car, and Ronnie was able to be open about his homosexuality.
On the 5th of November, 1956, Ronnie was sent to prison for assault. The Kray reputation for helping those in prison or freshly out of it stood true, and Reggie smuggled tobacco to his brother, cutting off other sources of tobacco to the prison in the process. This enabled Ronnie to privileges and respect among the prisoners, and helped his life on the inside considerably. This was not to last, however. Six months into his term, Ronnie was transferred to Camp Hill Prison, on the Isle of Wight. Without the political clout that the tobacco supply had given him, Ronnie withdrew into himself, becoming paranoid and delusional. After being transferred to the mental ward of another prison, he was diagnosed with prison psychosis, and prescribed work as treatment.
A Descent into Madness, and the Great Escape
A few days after Christmas, 1957, Ronnie heard of his Aunt Rose's death due to leukemia. He had been very close to his aunt, and the news drove him berserk. He was placed in a straightjacket for his own protection, and transferred to Long Grove hospital in Surrey, a home for the mentally ill. Falsely diagnosed as a schizophrenic, the doctors recommended that he stay at the hospital. Ronnie had other plans. With the help of his brother and their identical features, Ronnie was able to escape, and hid out on a farm owned by one of his brother's friends. The plan was for Ronnie to hide for six weeks, and then hand himself in. This way, he would need to be rediagnosed, and could then serve out the rest of his term in prison, before rejoining his brother within a year.
However, Ronnie was not one to lay low, and often visited his brother's pub - a new business venture - in disguise. The farmer also started to become concerned by the Ronnie's mood swings, and arranged for Ronnie to visit a local psychiatrist. The psychiatrist correctly diagnosed Ronnie as a paranoid schizophrenic, and urgently advised a trip to the hospital for Ronnie. Reggie finally fetched his brother from the farm, and the two moved into Reggie's flat off Bayswater road.
By now Ronnie was drinking two bottles of gin a day, and this coupled with his tranquilisers was quickly reducing him to a mental shambles. Finally, he tried to commit suicide, prompting a Kray family conference that ended with a call to Scotland Yard, and the police fetching Ronnie at 2 in the morning.
Ronnie was rediagnosed, and deemed fit to complete his sentence. He was released in the spring of 1959, and although he appeared more mentally capable, he was more paranoid and withdrawn. Prison had changed him, and his appearance no longer closely resembled his brother.
Reggie's turn in Prison, and a Foray into the Gambling World
Reggie and Ronnie clashed often after Ronnie's return, mostly over business policy. Reggie was eager to capitalise on the legitimate side of the business, while Ronnie's lust for violence became more apparent. The money earned by the businesses was being spent as quickly as it was earned, and things were starting to look bad for the twins.
Then, in the summer of 1959, Reggie was convicted of running a protection racket, and sent to prison for 18 months. With Reggie gone, Ronnie's schemes and plans became ever more grandiose, and his grip on reality began to fade. He did manage to befriend Leslie Payne, who assisted in buying a share in a newly legal gambling club, called "Esmerelda's Barn". The club made a lot of money, but Ronnie spent it as quickly as it was made. The manager of the club finally quit in desperation, and started his own club, which was also very successful.
Reggie left prison in love with a girl called Frances Shea. This was not taken well by Ronnie, whose dislike of women was well known. However, his brother's return did help Ronnie to recover somewhat, and together the two of them worked hard at The Firm, doubling their income within a year.
Troubles and a Quick Trip to Morocco
As their income grew, so did the twin's reputation. After throwing off some ludicrous police charges, the aura of invulnerability extended even to police protection. However, Ronnie once again began to swing back into madness. A boxer who insulted him needed 70 stitches to repair his face, and an old friend who insulted an ally had his face branded.
By now the twins had established ties with the American mob, and were running "junkets", package trips for American gamblers eager to try their luck on English soil.
However, trouble came from a local group, the Richardson Brothers. Although the two groups could have cohabited, there were a few problems. First was Frankie Fraser, who had attacked Jack Comer so many years ago. Frankie strongarmed his way into a business owned by the twins, and also turned down all efforts to extort money from their crimes.
The final straw came when George Cornell, also a member of the Richardson Brothers gang, called Ronnie "a fat poof". Although the truth of this is not known, Ronnie did not take this well. Ronnie cornered Cornell in a bar a few days later, and shot him three times in the head.
Although everybody knew who had killed Cornell, witnesses were, unsurprisingly, not forthcoming. The police were forced to withdraw their case.
The next problem was Jack "The Hat" McVitie, a man often used by the twins for dirty work. Jack was given money to kill Leslie Payne, but did not do so, electing instead to keep the money for himself. McVitie was later discovered threatening bartenders that already paid protection money to the twins. Reggie and Ronnie, infuriated by this, invited McVitie to a party, where Reggie tried to shoot him. The gun jammed, and in the end Ronnie beat McVitie until Reggie pulled out a knife and stabbed McVitie to death.
The unwanted police attention sent the twins on a holiday to Morocco, where they stayed for a few weeks before being thrown out as undesirable aliens.
Police Attention and a Holiday in Suffolk
By this time, Scotland Yard was making a concerted effort to catch the Kray twins. Detective Leonard "Nipper" Read, one of an elite group of investigators in the country, finally found a man who was willing to talk - Leslie Payne. Leslie, who knew that the twins were already after him, told the police everything he knew.
The twins, who knew that the police were after them, took a holiday in Suffolk. Ronnie was chauffeured amongst the old homes, imagining himself a squire, while Reggie, still shaken by the suicide of his ex wife Frances, drank heavily.
On the morning of 9th May, 1968, the police smashed down the door of the Kray family home. Ronnie and Reggie Kray were taken into custody, along with most of the members of The Firm. With most of the gang behind bars, witnesses were more forthcoming, and although the twins were eventually only convicted of one murder each, the sentence imposed was the maximum - 30 years each. The legend of the Kray twins was over.
Although the twins served in separate prisons, they were reunited in 1972 after much lobbying by their mother. Ronnie's mental state continued to pendulum, until he was transferred to Broadmoor Mental Hospital after attacking another inmate. During his years at Broadmoor, Ronnie married twice. His first marriage, to Elaine Mildener, in 1985, lasted for four years before the two divorced. Two months later, in 1989, Ronnie married Kate Howard.
On March 17th, 1995, Ronnie Kray died of a massive heart attack, bought about mainly by his 100 cigarettes a day habit. He was 61. Thousands of people went to the funeral - while in jail, the twins had achieved a cult status, and the funeral shed new light on the plight of Reggie Kray, who was still in prison.
CloudStrife has brought it to my attention that Monty Python did a sketch with more than a few connections to the Kray twins. The sketch told of two brothers, Doug and Dinsdale Piranha, who lived a life of crime much like the Krays. Dinsdale became more and more paranoid, and believed that a giant hedgehog called Spiny Norman was after him.