Sweeney Todd with his catch phrase “I polish ’em off,” is a man who needs no introduction, but was he real? He is a one of the most established figures of crime fiction and has been portrayed in films, books and musicals.
Recently the Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp as the notorious villain himself, slashing the throats of victims before dispatching them via a trapdoor into the basement of his accomplice Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. She was then said to have turned the poor victims bodies into meat pies.
The popularity of the character remains undiminished, but was Sweeney Todd a true story or not. The big question everyone wants to know the answer to is, “Was the demon barber real or merely based on legend and myth?”
DID SWEENEY TODD EXIST THE FACTS
The Sweeney Todd story become widely known in 1785 when Todd’s premises were searched supposedly enough property and clothing was found to indicate there had been at least 160 victims making him to this day one of the world’s most prolific serial killers, however oddly the facts about his case are remarkably poorly documented, both in terms of newspaper reports and court documents.
At the time there should have been extensive transcripts recorded by clerks of any case brought before a court, it is after all the founding of our present legal system. The fact that there is no such transcripts concerning Sweeney Todd makes the part of his saga where after being caught he was brought before a magistrate who sentenced him to hang, is almost certainly untrue, if he did exist he didn’t meet his end at the gallows.
There is also no record of him being sent to Newgate prison as a teenager. Further more the only newspaper of the day which mentions anything resembling him by name was the ‘Newgate calendar’ the Newgate Calendar wasn’t a newspaper to be trusted. Many of its stories were exaggerated or simply fictitious, the other newspapers at the time never run any stories concerning our demon barber.
This is unusual as the newspapers at the time would have been expected to pick up such a sensational story and run with it as they did with other villains. For example turning the likes of Dick Turpin, Captain Kidd, Jack Sheppard the great escaper, James Mclean the highwayman and Jonathan Wild Prince of Thieves into the celebrities of their day.
All of the aforementioned criminals have been proven to have been real people and presently all are less famous than Todd is today, in fact the most comparable criminal to Sweeney Todd is Jack the ripper a man who was never caught leaving a mystery which like Todd leaves room for the imagination to fill in the gaps.
However not all the evidence points to him being a fictional character. In an account published about the middle of the 18th century and unearthed and reprinted in 1956 in ‘The Story Pages Collector’ states that several bodies were found buried under the floor of a cellar in an empty shop by a team of builders, that shop happened to be 186 Fleet Street the very address accredited to Sweeney Todd.
The account goes on to state that the previous owner has been a barber named Sweeney Todd who was deceased. I’m aware that this evidence on its own doesn’t conclusively prove his existence on its own, but it may shed light on why there is no documented transcripts of Sweeney Todd’s trial, the bodies were found after Todd’s death and you cant try a dead man.
In addition, research unearthed by the historian O.G. Lofts says that in the 1880s some of the old buildings in Fleet Street were demolished and under 186 Fleet Street a pit of bones was unearthed, at the time the bones were attributed to the nearby St Dunstable Church, but why were they found so far away from the church.
What is evident and we do know to be true is that there was and in some places still are a network of tunnels passage ways and cellars that with modification could have been used to connect the church’s catacombs with 186 Fleet Street and Bells Yard, these underground passageways were so crucial to the story and which Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett made so much use of.
Also of interest, at the time London like the rest of the country had no police force, in fact we were one of the last countries in Europe to have one, any previous attempt to form one had seemed an infringement on civil liberties and something un-English.
What Londoners of this area did have however were Bow Street Runners, named after the house in Bow Street where their chief resided, they had no uniform or salary, their wage simply was a share of any rewards, fine or fees they imposed and presumably any bribes they could get.
The Bow Street Runners did keep records of there investigations and cases they dealt with, these would be invaluable if they still existed, unfortunately when they were replaced and made way for a more modern police force regrettably their records were destroyed including if they existed those concerning Sweeney Todd.
Did Sweeney Todd exist, my suspicion is that he didn’t, but it is impossible to say for sure, I would like to say like almost everything that has been written about the man ‘based on actual authentic events’ but the truth is I simply don’t know. Whether the stories are based on a composite figure which was made by combining the motives and modes of murder of many villains and killers is however certainly tenable.
Read on to find the more information and answers answers to questions such as:-
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Details of the sweeney todd murders
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mrs lovett’s pie shop
SWEENEY TODD THE MYTH AND THE LEGEND
Sweeney Todd is the cannibalistic forerunner for many a killer, Hannibal Lector being the latest incarnation, they all draw on one of mankind’s most persistent subconscious fears ‘that of being killed and eaten’ it is something that is buried in the recesses of our minds particularly that of children, it is not hard to see why he has had such an lasting morbid fascination, and its is unsurprising that he can be traced back so far.
How far the verbal stories and London gossip concerning Sweeney Todd date back is impossible to tell or indeed if the legend is untrue where it came from. Dating all the way back to the fifteenth century is a French ballad that used to be sung to children, the song tells about a demon barber who cuts his clients throats dumps them into his cellar before turning them into pies, like Sweeney Todd he works with an accomplice a ‘ferocious female,’ similarly to Sweeney Todd he is tied to a specific locality, in this case ’24 Rue des Marmouzets,’ one of the lines of the song is “and he says of his customers when defunct, they are gone pork creatures.”
If this is the true origin of the myth of Sweeney Todd and due to the striking similarity it is quite probable, how and when the demon barber was transformed to London is unknown, but even before the character we now know as Sweeney Todd was formed there was plenty of gossip and rumors about him as he slowly became part of folklore, Charles Dickens alluded to him but drew short of mentioning his name in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit first published in 1844 ‘Upon my word thought Tom, quickening his pace “I don’t know what John will think has become of me. He’ll begin to be afraid I have strayed into one of those streets where the countrymen are murdered; and that I have been made meat pies of, or some such horrible thing.”‘
Published in 1847 ‘The String of Pearls’ assured Sweeney Todd his fame and immortality, it was the start of the legend that we know and recognize as Sweeney Todd, published in a series in a semi legal magazine nearly a hundred years since Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett were said to be at large on the streets of London.
The actual author or authors of these highly influential penny dreadfuls, as they were called at the time, is not known adding to the sagas mystery, what we do know is that the publisher was a man called Edward Lloyd (1814-90), he started in publishing with a pirate version of ‘Pitman’s Shorthand,’ he renamed it ‘Lloyd’s Stenographer’ and sold it for a fraction of the price of the genuine version.
With the profits he then went on to publish sensational accounts of highwaymen, pirates and murderers often stolen and plagiarized from other authors. Along the way he picked up Thomas Peckett Prest (1810-49) and James Malcolm Rymer (1815-89) whom he employed as hacks, both could write several series simultaneously and at amazing speed, and both are likely to have done some of the writing on ‘The String of Pearls.’
The stories they produced were sold in penny serials to an audience hungry for stories full of blood, gore and horror, hence their name penny dreadfuls. It was one of these serials called ‘The People’s Periodical and Family Library’ that the ‘The String of Pearls’ ran.
From its text and style of writing the ‘The String of Pearls’ suggest it has more than one author perhaps even three, sub plots and characters appear and disappear for no obvious reason, chapter titles which serve as a plan for the book often don’t match the chapter themselves.
Later Lloyd started more legitimate journals and seeking respectability collected as many of his former publications as possible, unfortunately he was quite successful and now any of Lloyds publications are extremely rare which has further added to Sweeney Todd’s mystery.
After the publication of ‘The String of Pearls’ Sweeney Todd has become one of the best known names in Crime stories, he’s appeared in plays, books and serializations along side Jack the Ripper and Dracula he is the villain everybody loves to hate, through countless novels, films, melodramas, cameo’s and even musicals all of which have drawn heavily on the ‘The String of Pearls’ and all boosting and further fueling the myth that is Sweeney Todd the demon barber of Fleet Street, so much so hat his name has become immortal.
‘The String of Pearls’ influenced everything that has been written about Sweeney Todd since, it also had a great influence on many of the fictional villains that came thereafter, Mr Hyde and Dracula are made in his mold yet somehow not equal to him, the misguided good of Dr Jekyll balances the evil of Mr Hyde, Dracula manages against the odds to evoke pity from Mina Harker, Todd in contrast goes about his deeds with a ghoulish humor, a boldness and panache, he does simply for the love of money and because he wants to, the writer asks no excuse for his behavior and seeks no justification.
At one point Sweeney Todd became so popular that by the 1940’s the word barber was actually beginning to be considered vulgar, teacher even urging their pupils to only use the word hairdresser, in a study of juvenile literature E.S. Turner wrote in 1948 that the astonishing popularity of Sweeney Todd has caused a good old English word to lapse into disrepute and should now be replaced by the word hairdresser.
With depressingly predictability Sweeney Todd has produced copy cat crimes and imitated murders, the most prolific was between 1918 and 1924 a German called Fritz Hartman killed and murdered some fifty men and boys he then sold their meet for human consumption.
THE SWEENEY TODD STORY
When was Sweeney Todd born and What street did Sweeney Todd live on?
London’s East End is credited to many of Britain’s most famous criminals, Sweeney Todd among them. Born on 26th October 1756 in Brick Lane then a slum within a dangerous and overcrowded district, within the buildings generally there was a family to each room, the few rags on their backs comprising the principal part of their property.
Todd’s mother was not yet in her twenties and inhabited the attic of a decaying building, both his parent worked if work was available weaving silk, work however was infrequent, both his parents were alcoholics spending their time and what little money they had drinking gin.
Sweeney Todd’s father gave little help in raising his son his only input being the occasional drunken beating, his mother was unable to have anymore children so Sweeney was an only child, Sweeney Todd was later to say of his mother “My mother used to make quite a pet of me, I was fondled, kissed and called pretty boy. But later I used to wish I was strong enough to throttle her.”
A young Sweeney Todd however did manage to find a way of escaping the drudgery of daily life, the Tower of London was little more than a mile walk away from his home, at the time it was primary a prison for political prisoners but was also open to the public and people were invited to come and view its instruments of torture, this was done with the intent of discouraging crime and disobedience. The Tower also housed the royal zoo which had lions, tigers, hyenas and wolves, but it was those instruments of torture which so intrigued the ghoulish fascination of Sweeney Todd and he returned time and again to see them.
In the 17th to 18th century northern Europe was a great deal colder than it is today, during winter the Thames would freeze over and the ice was so thick and stable Londoners would stage frost fairs on the ice with rows of stalls and booths, they would sell food and offer entertainment, the ice was so thick they would even light fires on the ice.
During these harsh winters many people would freeze to death particularly vulnerable were those amongst the poor, coal was scarce and expensive as the ships and barges were no longer able to bring fresh supplies. The winter in Sweeny Todd’s twelfth year was particularly severe and as the coal dried up people found it impossible to maintain consistent heat for themselves, as bitterly cold week followed bitterly cold week people were freezing to death in their homes. For Sweeney Todd’s family there was no work and the last of their money had been spent on gin.
One morning the 12 year old Sweeney Todd awoke to find his parents gone, whether they had gone out to search for more gin and froze to death in the streets or whether they had simply left him to his fate is unknown, but the event left Sweeney Todd emotionally scared, in time he came to believe that hey had perished in that terrible winter, upon his capture he said “The church I was christened at burnt down the day after, and all the books burned, my father and mother are dead, and the nurse was hanged and the doctor cut his throat.”
Its is not known how Sweeney Todd survived that winter alone, but survive he did and his next known whereabouts was when he became an apprentice to a cutler in Holborn London, at the time child labor was quite common, however children who had been orphaned or abandoned were vulnerable to the worst of it, children who didn’t have a parent or guardian were at the mercy of the parish and the parish to off load them out of there care would apprentice them to whom ever would take them, the child basically becoming their new masters property to do with as he pleased.
The system was clearly open to terrible abuses, and to anybody who knows Charles Dicken’s novel Oliver Twist, the story maybe fiction but the conditions he describes are far from fanciful, children were taken on and forced to commit crimes so if caught the children would face the hangman’s noose sparing their masters necks.
The man Sweeney Todd was an apprentice to was a cutler, cutlers were artisans who worked in metal, John Crook, Sweeney Todd’s new master was a specialist in razors, Todd it seems learnt a lot from his master for it was here he learnt the skills to design and build his revolving chair he would later use in his crimes. His apprenticeship however came to an abrupt end when in 1770 he was accused of petty theft, brought before a magistrate and sent to Newgate Prison for 5 years.
Newgate prison no longer exists, but in its day was notorious and greatly feared by Britain’s criminal classes, it was where all the most infamous and distinguished villains were sent. Many who entered Newgate never survived their sentences, conditions were so bad that without money to bribe the gaolers’ survival was difficult and that’s without even taking into account coping with your fellow violent inmates.
Sweeney Todd however survived by being taken on as an assistant ‘soap boy’ to the prison barber, he secured his new role due to his experience as a cutler sharpening razors. The barber was a fellow inmate called Plummer who was serving 10 years for embezzlement.
In those days a barber’s role was considerably greater than simply cutting hair and shaving, they actually served as a doctor as well, performing minor operations and treating many minor ailments, in fact being able to wield their blades on human flesh was the measure of a barber in the day. In the filthy disease ridden Newgate Prison the barbers skills were no doubt in great demand and it was from Plummer Sweeney Todd learnt his trade.
Being Plummers assistant however didn’t save him from cruel beatings inflicted by fellow prisoners as well as gaolers, one such beating occurred whilst Plummer watched on without intervening until Sweeney Todd was all but beaten to death.
In 1775 at 19 years of age and with a new profession Sweeney Todd was released from Prison. It seems he didn’t immediately return to crime, but instead became a mobile barber setting himself up on street corners, at markets or fairs and offering his services to passers-by’s. Five years after his release with the help of a lady friend he had earned enough money to set himself up with premises near Hyde Park corner, the lady who was helping him he referred to as his wife although there is no record of him actually being married.
However Sweeney Todd’s temper was to reveal its self when a young gentleman, slightly the worst for drink came into be shaved, while being shaved he described the favours a lady had given him, in describing the lady Todd concluded he was talking about his wife and slit his throat from ear to ear before absconding.
Sweeney Todd’s next known whereabouts was in Fleet Street where he set up another barber shop and hung his now famous sign ‘Easy shaving for a penny, as good as you’ll find anywhere.’ Fleet Street back then was known for its lawlessness and not a place a stranger would want to venture after dark and it was these reasons which attracted Sweeney Todd to the area.
Todd’s next known murder was recorded although not at the time attributed to him in the Daily Courant on 14/04/1785:
‘A horrid murder has been committed in Fleet Street on the person of a young gentleman from the country while on a visit to relatives in London. During the course of a walk through the city, he chanced to stop to admire the striking clock of St Dunstan’s church and there fell into conversation with a man in the clothing of a barber. The two men came to an argument, and of a sudden the barber took from his clothing a razor and slit the throat of the young man, thereafter disappearing into the alleyway of Hen and Chicken Court and was seen no more’
Where his life went from thereon, is a matter of contention. There are many reports both numerous but conflicting.