Kings Cross has always had a reputation as a lively place, full of bars, nightlife and adult entertainment.
It’s also been well known for its underside. Something in the eclectic architecture and late-night institutions has always drawn in figures from all walks of life.
In fact, there has been so much real-life drama in the Cross that it’s inspired several series of hit TV show Underbelly.
Here are some gangs and gangsters who ruled Kings Cross well before bikies and lockout laws.
The Razor Gangs
In 1927, the Pistol Licensing Act came into place. Those carrying an unlicensed firearm could be automatically imprisoned. As a result, the weapon of choice for underworld figures became a straight shaving blade.
The razor gangs were headed by two women: Tilly Devine (a former prostitute who became a madam due to the wording of a law that specified that it was forbidden for men to make a profit from the earnings of prostitutes) and Kate Leigh (who made a living selling alcohol after 6pm – when it was illegal to do so).
The violence in Kings Cross escalated during this era, with the bodyguards and other associates of the Leigh and Devine getting into gun and knife fights. The women themselves were in and out of prison in the late 1920s. In 1929, while Leigh was in jail, Devine attacked her rival’s grog stores.
When the Vagrancy (Amendment) Act 1929 came into effect in 1930, gang violence started to decrease as anyone consorting with criminals could be arrested immediately. Both women were spending more time in prison and became unable to lead the lifestyle they were accustomed to. Leigh went bankrupt in 1954 and died a decade later. By 1959 Devine was forced to reduce her extensive property portfolio to pay off her Tax Office debt.
In the 1940s, Abraham “Abe” Saffron, a bar and nightclub owner, made his fortune much like Kate Leigh, by allegedly transferring alcohol from his hotels to his nightclubs after six pm. Liquor laws were relaxed in the 1950s so Saffron moved on and sold pornography to cinemas and invested in “massage parlours” and nightclubs around the country.
In 1960 he opened the Staccato – Australia’s first strip club – in Kings Cross, followed by the famous Pink Pussy Cat and others. For the next two decades he acquired numerous premises along the “Golden Mile” and despite being linked to things like arson, drug dealing and fraud, Saffron only spent 17 months in prison for tax evasion.
Saffron was smart with his money and was thought to be worth $20 million when he died in 2006.
Stan the Man
Not long after Saffron opened Staccato, heroin and amphetamines had invaded the ‘Cross.
A trio emerged, comprising of ‘Stan the Man’ Smith, alongside Leonard McPherson and George Freeman. Their working arrangement apparently saw Freeman running the books, McPherson leading the protection rackets and Smith becoming involved when brute force was necessary.
In 1963, McPherson famously “slipped out” of his own wedding with Smith to retaliate for an attack, and returned to the wedding reception shortly after.
In 1966, Freeman and McPherson were barred from entering Hong Kong and were caught on the record discussing their intent to smuggle drugs into Sydney. Two years later, Smith traveled with Freeman to the US, using forged passports.
Despite being linked to 25 shootings and 15 murders, Smith had only been arrested for drug charges. He attempted to sell amphetamines to an undercover narcotics agent in 1970 and was convicted for possessing cannabis in 1973.
By the start of the 21st Century, Smith had reformed. In the decade prior to his death in 2010, he attended Bible Study, sang in a church choir and distributed religious pamphlets.