- Johnny Ramensky (1905-1972)
"Gentle Johnny" Ramensky was a man of many parts who was both a criminal and a war hero, a master of escape who spent the greater part of his life in prison and a master burglar who was admired and looked upon with affection by the police who arrested him. He became something of a legendary folk hero as a result of his many escapes from prison (and his Military Medal won as a result of his exploits behind enemy lines in WW2). He may not have been a pillar of society but his personal qualities earned him respect.
Johnny Ramensky was born in 1905, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant. His father was a miner who died when Johnny was young and the young Ramensky also became a miner. It was while he was down the pit that he learned his skills with dynamite which were to prove so useful to him in later years.
Johnny drifted in and out of trouble from the age of eleven and moved to the Gorbals area of Glasgow during the Depression with his mother and two sisters. He developed an amazing physical strength and acrobatic ability but in order to obtain some money, he became a burglar, specializing in robberies involving climbing up external rone-pipes to gain entry to premises. He also developed skills in picking locks and safe-cracking with explosives.
While his activities were criminal, he had his own code of conduct and raided business premises rather than people's homes. And when he was caught, he never resisted arrest. His philosophy seemed to be "if you are caught, you are caught - it's all part of the job".
His life of detention began at age 18 when he was given a term in Borstal (a prison for young offenders) but later he served various terms in both Barlinnie and Peterhead Prisons. He eventually spent more time behind bars than outside.
Johnny was married during one of his spells out of prison and the couple had a baby daughter. But in 1934, while he was serving a sentence in Peterhead, he was told that his young wife was dead. He was refused permission to attend the funeral and Johnny's sense of justice was outraged. So he made the first of many escapes from the prison.
In 1942, he was serving yet another jail sentence in Peterhead Prison. The army offered to give him special commando training and Johnny accepted. After all, it meant he was out of prison, earning a wage - and fighting for his country. Part of a crack commando unit, he was dropped behind enemy lines and used his skills with both explosives and burglary to good effect, stealing important German documents.
During the war in Italy, he entered Rome with the first troops to reach the city and blew open the safes in 14 foreign embassies - all in one day!
For his commando service and dangerous exploits, he was awarded the Military Medal and given a free pardon at the end of the war. But not longer after his return to Glasgow he was back to his life of burglary and was caught and jailed again.
Back to Crime, Imprisonment - and Escapes
In November 1955 he was sentenced to 10 years’ "preventive detention" at Peterhead Prison, which should have given him a few privileges. But he found there were none. He served over two years with exemplary conduct and still there was no move to the better conditions of "preventive detention". So Johnny responded in the only way he knew how - he escaped. Of course, he was later recaptured but he was at least given an opportunity to put his case to the prison authorities - which achieved nothing. Johnny escaped (and was recaptured) from Peterhead (Scotland's strongest jail) no less than five times including three times in 1958. Sometimes the prison warders didn't know whether he was inside or outside the prison. His fifth escape evoked wide-spread sympathy amongst the public which was illustrated by a song "The Ballad of Johnny Ramensky" by Norman Buchan (a Member of Parliament), which was printed in the Scotsman newspaper.
Not long after starting a prison sentence in Barlinnie in Glasgow, Johnny was in the exercise yard and suddenly threw off his boots and shot up the wall, using cracks in the mortar as toe-holds. He reached a roof - but could get no further. Equally, the warders couldn't get him down - and Johnny was demanding to see the Chief of the Prisons Department! Attempts to reach the roof were met by a barrage of roof slates - watched by a growing audience outside the prison walls. He stayed out on the roof for five hours, eventually coming down when it started to get cold.
In 1962 Detective Superintendent Robert Colquhoun (retired), said "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." Before he had retired, DS Colquhoun received a message from Johnny (who was once more in prison). He had heard that the policeman was seriously ill. The message contained his good wishes for his speedy recovery, plus the advice that he’d been taking too much out of himself chasing Johnny around!
Johnny remarried and started a second family during his all too short periods out of prison but persisted in his life of crime into his old age - by which time his abilities as a cat burglar were beginning to fail him. In 1972 he collapsed in Perth Prison and died shortly after in hospital. In addition to his family, the many people who attended his funeral came from both the law enforcement and the law breaking sides of society. Whatever his faults, Johnny Ramensky was respected by them all. His obituary appeared in every Scottish national newspaper.
I am grateful to a member of the Ramensky family for providing information and photos for this biography.
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