On March 4, 1969, London’s Central Criminal Court, “The Old Bailey,” dropped the hammer on Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and Reginald “Reggie” Kray, both age 35. Multiple guilty verdicts for murder brought a swift end to the decade-long reign of the highly stylish and world famous, identical twin gangsters.
After a 39-day trial — the longest and most expensive in Old Bailey history — a 10-member jury unanimously convicted the Krays for the 1966 death of rival gangster George Cornell and the 1967 killing of their associate Jack “The Hat” McVitie, an assassin who had bungled a job.
Specifically, Ronnie went down for fatally pumping a bullet just above Cornell’s eye at the Blind Beggar pub, while Reggie was put away for repeatedly stabbing “The Hat” in the face and torso until he died. Both got life sentences.
The mighty had indeed, and probably inevitably, fallen.
Throughout the height of the “Swinging London” era, the Krays committed all manner of murder, theft, terror, and mayhem as overlords of “The Firm,” their very own — and very deadly — organized-crime outfit.
At the same time, as nattily attired and alluringly dangerous nightclub owners, the brothers rubbed exquisitely tailored elbows with the biggest stars of their day and reigned as kingpins of the city’s social scene.
As Ronnie Kray wrote in My Story, his 1993 memoir:
“They were the best years of our lives. They called them the ‘swinging sixties.’ The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were the rulers of pop music, Carnaby Street ruled the fashion world, and me and my brother ruled London. We were f—–g untouchable.”
After stints as professional boxers and joining the army led to the Krays being banned from both organizations, the brothers purchased a beat-up snooker club in 1958, which they used to launch protection rackets and other schemes.
From there, the Krays expanded their criminal empire at the same rapid pace as their legit(-ish) nightspot operations.
Their charisma and connections soon had them partying and being photographed with British royalty, government officials, socialites, and the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, George Raft, and Diana Dors — Britain’s equivalent of Marilyn Monroe.
Stunning sex allegations surrounding the Krays arose around this time, too — and ended up only intensifying their power.
In 1964, the Sunday Mirror insinuated that Ronnie Kray was in a sexual relationship with Conservative Party Lord Robert Boothby. Gay sex was still completely illegal at the time. Lord Boothby threatened to sue, and the Krays just threatened, period. Quite promptly, the newspaper fired its manager, printed front-page apologies, and sent Boothby the modern equivalent of $380,000 in “sorry” money.
The fact was, though, that both Krays regularly had sex with men, and Ronnie may well have been getting it on with the Lord. The Conservative Party, then, dreading what the Krays knew, backed off the brothers for years. Other rumors about the Krays’ romantic lives further added to their menacing allure.
In 1964, Reggie married glamorous young Frances Shea. Eight months later, she turned up dead in what was officially ruled a suicide. Doubts have always existed.
Subsequent reports, such as a 2009 BBC documentary, describe Ronnie as a man who routinely raped other men. London thugs referred to such types as “nonce cases.” Writing in his autobiography, though, Ronnie makes clear: “I’m bisexual, not gay. Bisexual.”
In 2015, John Pearson, true-crime author of Notorious: The Legend of the Kray Twins, said that the brothers lived in such fear of their sexuality being found out that they turned to committing incest with one another.
Still, it was violence, not sex, that did in the Krays. Constant worry and resentment finally pried open the “wall of silence” among East London’s criminal set, who provided Scotland Yard with enough leads and evidence to bring the brothers to justice.
Ronnie, who had been certified insane in 1979 and held in a prison hospital since then, died of a heart attack on March 17, 1995. He was 61.
Reggie did his time in a regular jail and said he became a born-again Christian. While suffering from terminal bladder cancer, the court released him in August 2000, and he died on October 1. He was 66.
“Mythic” only begins to describe the Krays’ pop-culture impact, particularly in the U.K. An onslaught of books, films, songs, documentaries, TV episodes, parodies, and plays about the brothers kicked off from the moment they went to jail, and it’s never stopped.
Aside from The Krays (1990), a glossy arthouse hit starring twins Gary Kemp and Martin Kemp of pop group Spandau Ballet as the brothers, Tom Hardy portrayed both Ronnie and Reggie in the high-profile 2015 production, Legend.
Main photo: Ronald Kray and Reginald Kray mug shots [North Eastern Criminal Record Office UK]