Bruce Reynolds, the chief architect of one of 20th-century Britain's most notorious crimes, the caper known as the Great Train Robbery, died on Thursday in England. He was 81.
His son, Nick, confirmed the death to The Associated Press. Sky News in Britain reported that Mr. Reynolds had died at his home in South London, a few months short of the robbery’s 50th anniversary.
In the early morning of Aug. 8, 1963, a gang of 15 men stopped a Glasgow-to-London mail train about 45 miles short of its destination by tampering with a signal. The train, which usually carried large quantities of money in the second car behind the locomotive, was loaded even more heavily than normal because of a just-completed bank holiday in Scotland, and the thieves escaped with about 120 bags of cash, mostly in small bills, totaling about £2.6 million, or about $7 million at the time — the equivalent of about $60.5 million today.
Mr. Reynolds, who was 31 at the time and known to the police as a burglar well-connected in the London underworld, had used insider information from the postal service to plan the heist, which he thought of as a painter would a masterpiece. Indeed, he referred to it in a 1996 interview as “my Sistine Chapel....”
“...We all have our benchmarks,” he wrote in The Guardian in 2008, speaking about professional aspirations in general and those of thieves in particular, “and for us the benchmark was the Brink’s robbery in Boston in 1950, which was the largest robbery in the United States at that time. We wanted to do something as spectacular as that. We wanted to draw our line in the sand. I was quite young at the time and I liked the challenge. I wanted to move in those circles. It’s insanity, of course, and we knew that we would be in the frame as soon as the robbery happened but it’s the same madness, I suppose, that drives people to bivouac on the north face of the Eiger.”
Maybe I've seen too many movies, but there is something about a crime like this that captures the imagination, even makes one root for the robber. Maybe it's the vision, and the intelligence that must go into the planning of such a caper. Maybe it's his daring, or his sense of adventure. Maybe it's that I'm an idiot.
Whatever it is, as I was reading Reynolds' obituary this morning, I found myself hoping that he had gotten to enjoy the fruits of his crime for at least a little while. He did: he escaped via Belgium and Toronto to Mexico, where he lived the high life for five years, until 1968, when his money ran out. He then returned to England, planning another big score, but was promptly arrested and sentenced to ten years in jail, which he served.
Reynolds did have a romantic streak. As a young man he had tried out for the Royal Navy, but had failed the eyesight exam. He had wanted to be a foreign correspondent, but was put in the accounts department of the Daily Mail, and quickly grew bored with that. And at one point he had wanted to be a professional bicycle racer and was part of a semi-pro team.
I'm not sure the extent to which Reynolds dined out on his crime later in life. He did write a well-received autobiography in the 1990's, and occasionally wrote for newspapers. But he was also arrested for dealing amphetamines in the 1980's, and never had much money after his release from jail.
At least he made his mark before he died.