In a recent ramble about notorious gangsters and murderers who have caught our interest – or in some cases admiration – I listed a few more names that could easily have been added. I will expand on some of these characters in this ramble.
Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper was an unidentified serial killer who targeted prostitutes in the East End of London between 1888 and 1891, killing at least five. The name ‘Jack the Ripper’ came from the ‘Dear Boss’ letters sent to the investigating officer by someone claiming to be the killer. They were seen at the time as a cruel taunt but were likely to have been written by a journalist to boost newspaper sales.
This greatly hindered the investigation, very much like the tape and letters sent during the Yorkshire Ripper investigation 1975–1980 by ‘Wearside Jack’, another imposter who turned out to be John Humble from Sunderland. While the police were blindly bumbling about in the North East, the real killer, Peter Sutcliffe, went on to carry out three more murders.
The use of DNA on one of the envelopes sent by John Humble was instrumental in bringing him to justice, a technique which of course was not available in 1888. And nearly all of the evidence that could now be used to identify Jack the Ripper was lost in the London Blitz, not that it would make any difference. Whoever the perpetrator turned out to be would be long dead, but I can guarantee that because of the notoriety of these murderers, people will continue to spend much of their time and money to come up with a name.
Author Russell Edwards’s 2014 book Naming Jack the Ripper is an example of this enduring fascination. He recounts how he had bought a shawl said to have been found near the mutilated body of Catherine Eddowes, Jack’s fourth victim. When he sent it for DNA testing, the result apparently proved it contained evidence pointing to Aaron Kosminski a 23-year-old barber from Poland. This has, however, been disputed, so the mystery continues.
The Great Train Robbers
The Great Train Robbery of 8 August 1963 was carried out on a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London.The perpetrators, 15 in total, got away with (at least temporarily) £2.61m (£61m in today’s money). They were led by Bruce Edwards, with main sidekicks Buster Edwards and Charlie Wilson.
At the time I was under the impression that they carried out the robbery without harming any innocent members of the public, but it transpired that the train driver was hurt worse than initially thought.
Several things made this robbery notorious. It was a record amount stolen at the time. And they had been caught because they failed to clean up where they were lying low after the robbery at Leatherslade Farm. Not only did they fail to burn down the farm building as initially planned, but they left fingerprints on a Monopoly board they were using to pass the time while the heat died down (using real money of course).
The severity of the sentencing was another thing that made this robbery infamous. Most of the gang were given 25 to 30 years in prison. Even William Boal, who was not involved with the robbery but gave Roger Cordrey a hideout, was given 24 years and died in prison in 1970. However, none of the robbers or accomplices served more than 13 years.
This robbery was constantly in the news because several of the gang had escaped prison and were living abroad. But they were probably constantly looking over their shoulder and quickly running out of money. They were eventually caught or returned to England voluntarily. Curiously, several died a violent death– at the hands of others, by suicide, or in a road traffic accident. None are alive today, which may suggest that crime does not pay.
The Kray Twins
Ronald (Ronnie) and Reginald (Reggie) Kray were identical twins, born in October 1933. They were archetypal London gangsters, involved in murder, armed robbery, arson, extortion and racketeering. They were notorious in the East End of London from the 1950s to 1967.
The Krays were looked upon with admiration by many, often basking in their notoriety – just like we have come to expect gang leaders to act in film and television. Ronnie Kray was found guilty of the murder of George Cornell, whom he shot at the Blind Beggar pub. He was also found guilty of the murder of Jack (The Hat) McVitie in 1967. It is generally thought that the reason McVitie was murdered was because it was he who gave evidence to the police about the Krays’ activities.
The twins were called up for national service and served as Royal Fusiliers stationed at the Tower of London. But almost immediately they were in trouble and were imprisoned on several occasions, first for failing to turn up for the start of their national service, then for insubordination and for striking a corporal. I’m sure they would have been very proud of the fact that they were among the last to be imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Ronnie died in jail in 1995 aged 61. Reggie died eight weeks after being released on compassionate grounds suffering from cancer in 2000 aged 66.
Billy the Kid (1859–1881) and Wild Bill Hickok (1837–1876)
Henry McCarty, alias William H Bonney, was better known as Billy the Kid. James Butler Hickok was known as Wild Bill Hickok. They were folk heroes of ours when playing the cowboys and Indians rough and tumble role-play stories when we were kids.
In real life, neither deserves to be a hero or idol of any kind but their stories and adventures have been written about and dramatised for more than 100 years. The 1973 film Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, unusually for Hollywood tells the story and recounts the demise of Billy the Kid fairly accurately. It is well worth watching. The music is by Bob Dylan, who also plays a minor role.
(Spoiler alert) Billy the Kid was killed by Pat Garret, but not before he had already supposedly killed 21 men, several being deputy sheriffs. He was 21 years old and really was a nasty piece of work. I suspect not even loved by his mother.
Wild Bill Hickok wasn’t anything like as bad as Billy the Kid but had drifted on both sides of the law. He was notorious in his own time as a lawman, cattle rustler, gunfighter and gambler. He was killed in Deadwood by Jack McCall while playing poker. It was this killing that gave rise to the unlucky poker hand named ‘dead man’s hand’ –two pairs, black aces and eights. As with Billy the Kid, Hickok’s story has been dramatised on film and television many times.
I am reminded of Hickok’s shooting every time I sit at a table in a café or restaurant. Unlike Wild Bill on the occasion of his death, I always have to sit facing the door. I have no idea why, as I have done none of the things Wild Bill did. My daughter Rachel has the same strange need.
Edward (Ned) Kelly (1854–1880)
Ned Kelly never made it onto our list of boyhood heroes, but if we had known his story at the time, I’m sure he would have been a contender. He was born in the British colony of Victoria, Australia. His father was a transported convict who died soon after serving his sentence, leaving Ned the eldest male, then aged 12, to support his mother and seven siblings.
It is possible that his father was among the group of deported convicts who eventually gave rise to the Irish folk song The Fields of Athenry, which tells the story of a young man who was deported for stealing corn to feed his family. Possibly due to their background, the family saw themselves as persecuted victims, and even though he was a convicted police killer, a gang leader, an outlaw and stock thief, Ned had many followers and sympathisers.
A confrontation with the police occurred at the family home in 1878 during investigations into stock theft. Ned managed to escape but his innocent mother was arrested. Ned eluded the police for two more years due to his extensive network of sympathisers, but he vowed to avenge his mother’s arrest. Public opinion began to swing in his favour owing to the authority’s tactics of holding innocent sympathisers prisoner for as long as three months hoping to force them to divulge Kelly’s whereabouts.
The Kelly gang ventured into bank and train robbery and planned to rob the train at Glenrowan. Before the robbery they took 60 hostages and waited at the Glenrowan Inn, owned by a woman called Ann Jones. Many of the hostages were soon released, but things quickly developed as the police with army reinforcement were not far away and the hotel was soon surrounded. A shootout began, killing several of the remaining hostages that had not escaped. The gang donned their suits of armour that they had moulded from plough shears over the previous few months, hoping it would protect them during any forthcoming gun fights. It didn’t work; there were vulnerable areas that the armour could not protect, and the gang members were either killed or captured.
Kelly was seriously wounded but survived to stand trial at Melbourne. On 11 November 1880, at the age of 25, he became the first person born in Victoria to be hanged. Ned Kelly gave much of his ill-gotten gains to family and supporters. I’m sure had Robin Hood not been an English aristocrat, Kelly would also have been described as a modern-day version.