Johnny Ramensky: Scottish Hero and Villain
“Gentleman Johnny” was a Scottish crook who earned respect as a war hero. A child of poor Lithuanian immigrants, he was raised in one of the most miserable and toughest neighbourhoods in Europe.
Early Life in the Gorbals
Johnny Ramensky was born in 1905 in the Lanarkshire town of Glenboig. He lost his father at an early age and moved with his mother into the notoriously tough Gorbals neighbourhood of Glasgow.
Grim-looking housing blocks had been thrown up in the 1840s to accommodate Glasgow’s growing army of industrial workers. The refinements of modern living were entirely absent.
The Mail Online comments that “Conditions were appalling, overcrowding was standard and sewage and water facilities inadequate. Residents would often live four, six or even eight to a room, 30 to a toilet or 40 to a tap.”
Forty thousand people shared their living space with rats, mice, and other vermin. But, the accommodation was deemed acceptable for the labouring classes by the shipyard and factory owners who lived in large houses well away from the squalor.
Of course, along with the filth and poverty went social dysfunction and crime.
Entering a Life of Crime
The Gorbals was a place where the toughest and meanest survived.
Writing in the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser Maurice Coyne notes that Ramensky “soon fell into a life of crime and it wasn’t long before he found himself imprisoned – something he would get rather used to – when he was sent to Borstal (a prison for young offenders) at the age of 18.”
Being incarcerated gives the aspiring criminal a university-quality education in the dark arts of law-breaking. Ramensky was a quick learner.
A small man with great strength and a gymnastic ability the young Ramensky began to hone his skills as a break-and-enter expert and a safe-cracker.
Criminal Code of Morality
In a BBC profile of Ramensky, Eilidh McLaughlin writes that “He had a strong code of ethics and when caught, would freely confess to his wrong-doings, and even alerted authorities to possible unexploded gelignite in order that it be disposed of safely.”
Because he never offered violent resistance when caught, he earned a certain respect from police who called him “Gentleman (or Gentle) Johnny.”
He made it a point of honour to only steal from businesses and banks, never from people’s homes.
“Like most policemen who have come in contact with Ramensky, I find him an engaging character, the kind of man who, applying his brain to another, more acceptable, type of occupation, could probably have made good.”
Detective Superintendent Robert Colquhoun
Johnny Ramensky Goes to War
According to The Daily Record, Ramensky “was once regarded as the best safe-cracker in the world.” It was this skill that, in 1941, brought him to the attention of Britain’s War Office, where it was thought he might be of greater use to the war effort than sitting in a cell at Peterhead Prison.
The BBC reports that, “He joined the commandos and promised to stay on the straight and narrow whilst in uniform. He had a successful and diverse career in the army which even involved parachuting behind enemy lines.”
In one escapade in Rome he is said to have opened 12 safes (some accounts say 14) in foreign embassies in a single afternoon. According to The Times he “saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers by stealing secrets from top Nazi officials …”
For his war service, Johnny Ramensky was awarded the high honour of the Military Medal.
Return to Crime
With peacetime, Ramensky went back to his old craft. By 1947, he was serving a five-year sentence for safe-blowing. Over the next 25 years he was in and out of prison – more in than out – and always for blowing open safes and taking the money he found inside.
Many newspapers wanted him to tell them his story and he turned them all down. In rejecting one offer he wrote that, “I am a crook, always have been, and there is no turning back.
“My heart is in the game and I would not have it otherwise …
“I know from experience that money, even big money, makes no difference to my mode of life.
“The game is what matters.”
And, he went on with the game until 1970 when he was badly injured in falling from the roof of a business he was trying to break into. While in prison, for that crime he died of a stroke in 1972.
Johnny Ramensky followed his father into the mining trade. It was while he was underground that he learned how to use explosives, a skill that served him well in his later profession as a safe-cracker.
Ramensky was an expert at escaping from prison, doing so five times, but he was always caught. In one escapade, he scaled up a wall in a prison exercise yard and onto a roof. He sat there demanding to see the Head of Prisons. He stayed on his perch for five hours and only came down after it started to get cold.
Despite his promise to behave himself while in uniform, Ramensky took every opportunity that came his way to loot. He claimed to have stolen and stashed away some Nazi portraits along with gold and jewellery.
It cannot be said that Johnny Ramensky was a successful crook because he spent more of his life behind bars that in front of them.
- “Life in the Gorbals.” Sophie Inge, Mail Online, January 11, 2018.
- “The Life and Crimes of ‘Gentleman’ Johnny Ramensky.” Maurice Coyne, Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser, February 16, 2011.
- “Scotland’s Safecracker: Johnny Ramensky.” Eilidh McLaughlin, BBC Scotland, March 29, 2011.
- “The Amazing Life of Notorious Scots Criminal ‘Gentle’ Johnny Ramensky.” Tom Hamilton, The Daily Record, November 13, 2010.
- “Famous Scots: Johnny Ramensky. (1905-1972).” Ramparts Scotland, undated.
- “Johnny Ramensky: Cracking Criminal.” The Scotsman, November 14, 2010.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor