Ronald Kray (1933 - 1995) and Reginald Kray (1933 - 2000) were twin brothers, and the foremost organised crime leaders in London in the 1960s. Ron was the dominant twin, and suffered from antisocial personality disorder.
The twins were born in Hoxton, in the East End, to Charlie and Violet Kray, and had one older brother, also called Charlie.
In 1939, they moved to Vallance Road, Bethnal Green. Their father was called up early in World War II, but deserted and remained on the run for twelve years, during which time the twins saw little of their father and grew very close to their mother. The frequent presence of Military Police hardened an already pronounced anti-authoritarian attitude in Ron and Reg, who were both to desert from the army later in life.
The twins first attended Wood Close School and then Daneford Street School. Although not bright pupils, they showed none of their future criminal tendencies. Their principal teacher there reported of them, "Salt of the earth, the twins; never the slightest trouble to anyone who know how to handle them." "If there was anything to be done in school, they'd be utterly co-operative... they'd always be the first to help. Nothing was too much trouble."
The influence of their grandfather, Jimmy 'Cannonball' Lee, led both boys into amateur boxing, at that time a popular pursuit for working class children in the East End. An element of competition between them spurred them on, and they achieved some success. They are said never to have lost a bout before turning professional at age 16.
The fighting didn't stop at the edge of the ring, and the Kray twins quickly became famous for their gang of roughs and the mayhem they caused. They narrowly escaped probation and / or prison several times and in 1951, they were called up for National Service. They deserted several times, each time being recaptured. The army seemed to hold to the hope of turning them around and making good soldiers of them, but it was not to be.
While absent without leave from the army, the twins assaulted a police officer who had spotted them and was trying to arrest them. They were sentenced to a month's prison, and afterward were sent to a military prison in Somerset awaiting court-martial. Their behaviour in prison was so bad that in the end they were given a dishonourable discharge from the service; for the last few weeks of their imprisonment, when their fate was a certainty anyway, they ruled the holding room they were in. No guard could hope to outdo them physically. They threw tantrums, upended their latrine bucket over a sergeant, handcuffed a guard to the prison bars with a pair of stolen cuffs, and burnt their bedding. Eventually they were discharged, but not before escaping from the guardhouse and being recaptured by the army one last time.
It was during this period that Ron started to show the first signs of mental illness. He would refuse to eat, shave only one side of his face and suffer wild mood swings, sitting still for hours before errupting into a violent frenzy. It is not clear whether at this stage it was another prank to annoy their guards, or if even now Ron was unbalanced. Three years later he would be certified insane while in prison, but the law at the time contained a loophole that allowed the certification to lapse when he escaped and spent more than six weeks out of prison. He was allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence in an ordinary gaol, and was released.
Their criminal record and dishonourable discharge having ended their boxing careers, the boys turned to crime, buying a seedy club in Bethnal Green, and commencing several protection rackets. By the end of the 1950s, the Krays were involved in hijacking, armed robbery and arson, through which means they acquired a small empire of clubs and other properties.
In the 1960s, they were well placed, as prosperous night-club owners, to be a part of the 'swinging' London scene. A large part of their fame is due to their non-criminal activities as figures on the celebrity circuit, being photographed by David Bailey on more than one occasion. They came into the public eye, however, when Ron's homosexual friendship with Lord Boothby, a Conservative peer, was alluded to in a tabloid expose.
The criminal activities of the twins several times came to the attention of the police, but the Kray name had grown to such a reputation for violence that witnesses would not come forward.
Their criminal activities continued behind their apparent social success. In 1967, Reg was persuaded by his brother to kill Jack 'the Hat' McVitie, an unimportant member of the Kray gang who had stepped out of line. This wasn't the first murder the twins had committed. They were also implicated in the deaths of Frank Mitchell and George Cornell, the latter being shot at the notorious Blind Beggar pub by Ronnie in 1966. Despite an enormous reputation for violence, the twins actually killed only these three people.
Arrest and trial
When Inspector Leonard "Nipper" Read of Scotland Yard was promoted to the Murder Squad, his first assignment was to bring down the Kray twins. It was not his first involvement with Reg and Ron; during the first half of 1964 Read had been investigating their activities, but the publicity and official denials surrounding allegations of Ron's relationship with Lord Boothby had made all the evidence he had collected useless. Read attacked the problem of convicting the twins with renewed activity in 1967, but frequently came up against the famed East End Wall of Silence, the cockney code of silence that prevented anyone from 'grassing'.
Nevertheless, by the end of 1967 Read had built up a substantial body of evidence against the Krays. There were a number of witness' statements incriminating them, as well as other evidence, but none of it added up to a convincing case on any one charge. In addition to this, most of the statements were given on the condition that they were not used until the Krays were in detention, making a warrant almost impossible to obtain. Read had to hope for a mistake from the Krays to give him the chance he needed.
Early in 1968 it seemed that Read had found his mistake. The twins had sent a man named Elvey to Glasgow to purchase explosives for rigging a car bomb. Police met him in Scotland and arrested him, and he confessed the whole story (he had been involved in three botched murder attempts). However, this evidence was seriously weakened by the heavy involvement of a man named Cooper, who claimed to be an agent for the United States Treasury Department investigating links between the American mafia and the Kray gang. The botched murder attempts were his work, in an attempt to pin something on the Krays. Read tried using Cooper as a trap for Ron and Reg, but they stayed away from him.
Eventually a high-level Scotland Yard conference decided to arrest the Krays on what evidence was already collected, and hope that once they were in custody other witnesses would be forthcoming. In the early hours the 9th of May, 1968, the Krays and a number of the senior members of their 'Firm' were arrested. Their reign of intimidation over, many witnesses came forward and it was relatively easy to gain a conviction. The twins did not even really have a defense, other than discrediting witnesses by pointing out their criminal pasts, and flat denials of all charges when they themselves were in the witness box. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment, with a non-parole period of thirty years.
There was a long-running campaign, with much celebrity support, to have the twins released from prison, but successive Home Secretaries vetoed the idea. Ron was eventually once more certified insane and lived out the remainder of his life detained in a mental institution, dying in 1995. Reg was a different story, however. For many years he was Category A prisoner, one who is denied almost all liberties, and can not mix with other prisoners. Such treatment frequently sends men mad, but Reg seemed to maintain some sense of humour about his situation, writing a fitness manual (never published) titled The Reg Kray Book of Exercises for People in Confined Spaces. He was eventually freed on August 26, 2000 on compassionate grounds as a result of inoperable cancer. On October 1st 2000 Reg Kray died a free man.
The Kray twins were tried as separate, responsible adults. However, work since that time has shown that criminal twins do not act independently. In the case of the Krays, Ronnie, although the younger of the two, was the dominant twin. He was also a paranoid schizophrenic psychopath. Many times in his career, Reg Kray expressed a desire to leave crime and 'go straight,' but each time was prevented either by persuasion from Ron, or by the knowledge that Ron would not cope on his own. Reg's several attempted murders, and the murder of Jack McVitie, were all done at Ron's prompting, to show that he was equal to Ron's earlier murders. Ron, a homosexual, also had an extreme hatred of most women, and hurled insults at Reg whenever he found out that he was seeing one. Reg's marriage to Frances Shea in 1965 lasted only eight weeks before she left him, although the marriage was never formally ended. She took her own life, and many blamed Ron for their unhappiness.
Ron spent three years in prison in 1956, and during this time Reg turned the 'Firm' around, putting it on a sound financial footing, and removing many of the more violent and less appealing aspects, if not actually turing it legal. Some speculate that without Ron, Reg would have turned the 'Firm' into one of the largest and most successful criminal organisations in Europe; however, the Kray business was always built on their reputation for savage violence, and it was Ron who was responsible for it. The twins were never able to survive well apart.
They were the subject of feature film, The Krays (1990), where they were played by Gary and Martin Kemp of the band Spandau Ballet. There are many books about their reign of terror, amongst the best of which is The Profession of Violence by John Pearson. They were also the inspiration behind the Monty Python "Piranha Brothers" sketch. This sketch contained frighteningly little exaggeration; even the tale of nailing someone to the floor has its roots in the murder of Jack "the Hat" McVitie, who was impaled onto the floor with a long knife.
Singer Morrissey mentions the Kray twins in his song "Last of the International Playboys", and Blur mentions Ronald Kray in their song "Charmless Man".