Last night, I was in the area where Jack The Ripper killed at least five women 127 years ago.
Now he is a legend. He is more famous worldwide than any 19th century British Prime Minister. Last night, I may have counted some twice – though I do not think I did – but there were at least sixteen Jack The Ripper guided tours going round the area.
The gap between despised villain and fascinating legend becomes ever shorter. With 1950s and 1960s London gangsters the Kray Twins, we are still close enough to see the legend being built.
The teaser trailer for the latest film about the Krays – Legend – was released last week. It got 2,067,569 hits in its first two days online.
Yesterday afternoon, I met Micky Fawcett, an associate of The Krays, who wrote the book Krayzy Days about his time with them (and much else)
Micky did not think much of the Legend teaser trailer. I too thought the selling line about the Twins “ruling” London was a wild exaggeration. Mickey saw more detailed quirks: apparently, in reality, Ronnie Kray never wore spectacles outside his home.
Then the subject came up of Frank’ The Mad Axeman’ Mitchell.
Some of what follows is taken from Wikipedia, so the facts are (a) in the public domain and (b) as they are from Wikipedia, not necessarily true.
That is one of the things about legends.
They are not necessarily true.
From the age of 17 Mitchell was regularly incarcerated in borstals and prisons, mostly for shop-breaking and larceny. In prison, Mitchell was “a thorn in the flesh of authority”. His sentences were characterised by violence against guards and fellow inmates and he was punished with the birch and the cat o’ nine tails.
He slashed a guard across the face and was charged with attempted murder after attacking an inmate he believed had informed on him; he was later acquitted.
In 1955, he was diagnosed as ‘mentally defective’ and sent to the Rampton psychiatric hospital. Two years later Mitchell escaped with another inmate and they attacked a man with an iron bar before stealing his clothes and money.
When he was recaptured, Mitchell attacked police with two meat cleavers and was sent to Broadmoor. He escaped again, broke into a private home and held a married couple hostage with an axe, for which he was nicknamed ‘The Mad Axeman’ in the press.
Micky told me: “He was in Broadmoor first off and he escaped – I don’t know how. What happened was he broke into a cottage and there were a couple of old people in there and he picked up an axe and said: Now, behave yourself.”
“He never used the axe?” I asked.
‘No. I’m not saying he was a saint. He was an idiot. But he didn’t want to go back to Broadmoor. He wanted to go in a prison.
“There was a feller called Tom Bryant who used to come in the Double-R Club (which the Kray Twins owned). He wrote for The People newspaper. He was always in the Double-R.”
“To pick up stories?” I asked.
“Probably. After that incident with the axe, Tom Bryant nicknamed Frank ‘The Mad Axeman’.
“And, after that, it was Keep away from Tom Bryant. The day before, he was a friend. But after he called Frank ‘The Mad Axeman’ it was a case of: Frank Mitchell is a friend of ours. Keep away from Tom Bryant.
In October 1958 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for robbery with violence.
Micky told me: “I went down to Dartmoor Prison to meet somebody else and they said: Frank Mitchell never gets any visitors.
“This is a long time – many years – before anything happened to him.
“So I met him. He was quite nice, an ordinary sort of feller… He was not very bright, but quite a pleasant sort of type. He said to the screw (prison warder): Look after Micky. It was like he was threatening the screw. He said: Micky’s a friend of ours now, right? Do you understand?
“And the screw, sounding slightly scared went: Yeah, alright Frank. OK Frank. Keep calm.”
We now enter ‘six degrees of separation’ territory here.
In a 2013 blog, Harry Rogers told me that his chum Johnny Edgecombe (who precipitated the Profumo sex scandal) had shared a cell with Frank Mitchell in Dartmoor and that “everybody was really frightened of Frank in there. Not just the prisoners, but all the screws. He was like an animal.”
Micky told me: “They used to have work parties at Dartmoor: like a chain gang thing. Quarrying. But Frank used to tell the screws I’ll be in the pub and he used to go off to the local pub and have a drink.”
I said to Micky: “I thought Dartmoor Prison was isolated, in the middle of nowhere.”
“It is.” said Micky.
Mitchell was sent to Dartmoor prison in 1962 and, whilst there, his behaviour improved. He kept budgerigars and was transferred to the honour party, a small group of trustee inmates who were allowed to work outside the prison walls with minimal supervision. Mitchell was permitted to roam the moors and feed the wild ponies and even visited nearby pubs. On one occasion he caught a taxi to Okehampton to buy a budgerigar. The governor of the prison promised Mitchell that if he stayed out of trouble he would recommend to the Home Office that he be given a release date. Four years later, Mitchell was aggrieved that he had still not received one.
Mitchell had befriended Ronnie Kray when they served a sentence together at Wandsworth Prison in the 1950s. During Mitchell’s trial for attempted murder, Ron hired a lawyer for him and paid for him to have a new suit fitted. Ron was keen on breaking Mitchell out of prison, thinking it would help him to publicise his grievance and earn a release date, as well as enhance the Krays’ standing in the underworld. Reg Kray recalled that he was reluctant, but finally reasoned that “if nothing else, it would stick two fingers up to the law”.
Micky told me: “The big story is that The Twins ‘sprung’ Frank Mitchell from Dartmoor. But all they did was say to someone: Can you just go down and pick Frank up – and he just walked out, got in the car and came to London.”
On 12 December 1966, while with a small work party on the moors, Mitchell asked the sole guard for permission to feed some nearby Dartmoor ponies. His request was granted, he walked over to a quiet road where a getaway car containing associates of the Krays – Albert Donoghue, ‘Mad’ Teddy Smith and Billy Exley – was waiting for him, and they drove to London, where the Krays put him up in a flat in Barking, East Ham. It was over five hours before Mitchell was reported missing.
Mitchell’s escape made national news, led to a political storm over the lax security around a man described in the press as ‘Britain’s most violent convict’, and was debated in the house of Commons. A large manhunt ensued, with 200 policemen, 100 Royal Marines and a Royal Air Force helicopter searching the moors.
Micky told me: “It was mad the way the whole thing went and he got shot in the end in the way that he did. Poor old Frank Mitchell.”
“This,” I said, “is Brown Bread Fred in the back of a van?”
“Yes,” said Micky. “The most horrible part about it was that I think it was Albert Donoghue who said that, as they came over Bow bridge, Frank said: Oh, I’d like to go down there. Me dad and all me family are in Bow. And they told him: No, you can’t go there; we’re taking you to Barking. Or it might have been East Ham. That was his last journey. That’s horrible.
“Because really he was just a big bicycle thief. (At the age of 9 he stole a bicycle from another child, for which he was taken before a juvenile court and put on probation.)
Mitchell soon became a problem for the Krays. Owing to his physical strength and short temper, he was difficult to control. He was unwilling to give himself up and return to prison, and was not allowed to leave the flat in case he was recognised. Effectively, he had traded one prison cell for another. The Krays feared releasing him or turning him in as he could implicate them in his escape. Mitchell felt insulted that Reg had only visited him in person once and was particularly upset that he could not visit his parents, despite them living nearby. He grew increasingly agitated and began making threats against the Krays. The Krays decided the only solution was to kill him.
On 24 December 1966, Mitchell was led into the back of a van by Albert Donoghue, thinking he was to be taken to a safe house in the countryside where he would meet up with Ron Kray. Waiting in the van were several men, among them Freddie Foreman and Alfie Gerrard, who were armed with revolvers. Once the van doors were closed and the engine started, they opened fire on Mitchell, killing him. Donoghue thought that 12 shots were fired before Mitchell died. His body was never recovered.
I said to Micky: “There was a story the Krays knew someone with a boat in a seaside town and bodies would be dumped over the side, weighed down and wrapped in chicken wire so, when they rotted and/or fish ate them, large bits of body would not float to the surface.”
“That’s not true,” said Micky.
“No?” I asked.
“You don’ t want to know,” he told me.
“I do want to know, provided it doesn’t involve names.”
“Exactly,” said Micky.
In 1968, the Krays and various accomplices were arrested and put on trial for an array of offences, including the murder of Frank Mitchell. Their attempt to cajole gang member Albert Donoghue into confessing to killing Mitchell led to him becoming a crown witness and testifying against them. Ron, Reg and Charlie Kray and Freddie Foreman were all acquitted of Mitchell’s murder, due to lack of evidence and the perceived unreliability of Donoghue’s testimony.
Reg Kray was found guilty of conspiring to effect Mitchell’s escape from Dartmoor, for which he received a five-year sentence to run concurrently with his other sentences. Donoghue and another Firm member, John Dickson, pleaded guilty to harbouring Mitchell and respectively received 18-month and 9-month sentences.
In his 1996 autobiography Respect, Foreman admitted to shooting Mitchell as a favour to the Krays.
Donoghue said Foreman was paid £1,000 for it.
Foreman was arrested and questioned by police after repeating his confession in a 2000 television documentary, but the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would not be re-opening the case due to the then extant Double Jeopardy law.