Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber

“The church I was christened at burnt down the day after, and all the books burned. My mother and father are dead, and the nurse was hanged and the doctor cut his throat. “–Sweeney Todd

The story of Sweeney Todd, a maniacal barber of the late Eighteenth century that robbed and murdered his customers, then dropped them down a trap door into a cellar, where they were quickly disemboweled by an accomplice and used for meat pies, is familiar to anyone that is well acquainted with English horror folklore; it has been celebrated in the pages of “penny dreadful” magazines (most notably by Thomas Peckett Prest, author of Varney the Vampire) , and also on stage and screen. It has been transformed into a successful musical by none other than Stephen Sondheim. However, it is also largely believed to be a story with no real basis in fact. And who could believe such a tale? Sweeney Todd depicts a grotesque barber with a trick chair that cuts his client’s throats and throws the bodies down a trap door–hardly the sort of thing one expects to have ever actually happened. Well, happen it did.

The story of Sweeney Todd is as real as the straight razor he employed to cut the throats of numerous victims before they were turned into pies for market. In the words of the immortal Robert Ripley, “believe it or not!”

Sweeney was born into the relative filth and misery of London in 1748. His impoverished parents worked in the garment industry; both were alcoholics. Sweeney, from an early age, knew cruelty as a way of life: London was a veritable cesspit of abandoned children, drunken deviants, mentally-ill beggars, prostitutes, and babies abandoned atop dung heaps and mounds of garbage. One reliable source reports that torturing animals was considered a popular pastime. It was, in every respect, no time to be a young child.

Gin, the preferred drink among the dwellers of the London slums, was consumed at an awesome and frightening rate. It was the universal opiate, assuring that the masses of the poor and dissatisfied remained listless in their sorry state. In short: as long as they were drunk, they weren’t planning any revolutions. (The Soviet Union used quite the same logic in their free and generous distribution of vodka to their own teeming, impoverished populace.)

Sweeney grew up just a short distance from the Tower of London, where he spent considerable time as a visitor. His fascination, both with the tower’s animal menagerie, as well as its display of medieval torture implements, can only have reinforced his already growing understanding of the relationship between strength and cruelty, power and punishment.

Sweeney was doted upon by his mother, although he found himself incapable of returning her affection. Already he was brimming full of rage at the circumstances of his being, and one can only guess at what age he first began to formulate troubling dreams of power, theft, and murder. His parents eventually disappeared during the long, cold winter of his thirteenth year; they went out to buy gin, and never returned. It is supposed that they managed to drink themselves into a stupor on the streets, and froze to death. This was a typical death for many, as thousands were dying on the streets or in their homes from the cold.

As an orphan, Sweeney was turned over to the local parish, that they might secure for him an apprenticeship. Unluckily, he was placed with a dishonest tradesman aptly named John Crook, who manufactured a wide array of cutlery. By the age of fifteen, the unfortunate lad was next on trial for petty larceny. A conviction of theft could have well cost him his life, but the judge, in a moment of magnanimity, let the unfortunate youth off with a short spell at the abominable Newgate Prison, a West London jail that housed a bleak menagerie of despairing, misfortunate souls. Although torture was slowly being phased away (more from expediency than anything else) the Eighteenth century English penal system was still a model of corruption, abuse, and inhumanity. Executions were frequently preceded by torture, and the carcasses of some criminals would be hung in iron gibbets to publicly rot, as a warning for passersby.

Newgate itself was simply a bleak fortress of cages; no amenities, not even clothing or food, were provided for inmates, thus it became necessary to struggle to simply keep from freezing and starving behind bars. Sweeney, long adept at struggling uphill in the world, was able to convince a prison barber named Plummer to take him on as an apprentice. Pleased with his work, Plummer eventually began to share some of his money obtained from well-off prisoners. Sweeney was also employed, appropriately enough, to shave the heads of condemned men.

At the age of nineteen, Sweeney Todd found himself, once again, a free man. He very quickly established himself as a “journeyman barber,” plying his trade wherever he could, and eventually pairing with a known prostitute about whom nothing else is known. This relationship led him to his first murder, that of a young gentleman who came calling for a shaving, and, lewdly described an encounter with a young woman the previous evening. Sweeney, realizing at once that the young man was describing his faithless lover, grew immediately enraged, and sliced the man’s throat from ear to ear. The London papers of the time, reported it thusly:

“A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been jealous of his wife. . .A young gentleman, by chance coming into the barber’s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned having seen a fine girl in Hamilton Street, from whom he had had certain favours the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber, concluding this to be his wife, and in the height of frenzy, cut the young gentleman’ s throat from the ear to ear and absconded.”

Miraculously, Sweeney was never apprehended for this initial murder. After casting about for awhile under various aliases, he finally secured a small shop front at Fleet Street, near Temple Bar, an ideal location in that it was in close proximity to an ancient church, set atop an even older series of winding catacombs. These tunnels were accessible by 186 Fleet Street, the location of Sweeney’s shop, and the center of his industrious pursuit of murder and barbarity. The area itself was well known for its taverns, prostitutes, cutthroats, and the like. Mr. Todd must have felt right at home. It was not long before Sweeney took up the razor, being aided chiefly by the ingenious invention of a rotating barber chair that swung around on an axis. Below, a trapdoor led to a fatal plummet for the victim on a cold basement floor. The fall itself was, usually, enough to kill the victim, but sometimes Mr. Todd was required to race into the basement, and quickly cut the luckless individual’s throat. He would then descend into the ancient catacombs that ran beneath Fleet Street and adjoined the moldering crypts beneath St. Dunstan’s Church. This last facet of the case proved instrumental in the undoing of the diabolical Sweeney Todd.

In a short while, Todd had dispatched a number of individuals, including several errand boys whose master’s inevitably came calling, wondering what had happened to their young charges. Remarkably, no one ever laid a finger of suspicion on the homicidal barber. Todd killed a Jewish pawnbroker, and was arrested for that; he was quickly acquitted due to “temporary insanity.” He likewise slew a man in the streets in broad daylight, but fled the scene rapidly to the safety of the alleys of Hen and Chicken Court. Again, miraculously, Sweeney Todd escaped detection.

Sweeney took the occasional apprentice, but showed little consideration for them. One lad, unfortunate enough to be apprenticed to the maniacal Todd, was later confined to an insane asylum. (Well, not all of us are made of stern stuff.)

Sweeney eventually found his heartstrings pulled in the direction of a spinster named Margery Lovett, who enjoyed petty luxuries and who, like Todd himself, was essentially amoral. The two became lovers, and Todd (now swimming in a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of money due to the murder and robbery of his clients) was quick to set her up in a private bakery near his own two-story shop. The bakery, located in Bell Yard, specialized in sumptuous meat pies, ostensibly stuffed with venison.

As Thomas Peckett Prest observed:

“On the left side of Bell Yard, going down from Carey Street, was, at the time we write of, one of the most celebrated shops for the sale of veal and pork pies that London had ever produced. High and low, rich and poor, resorted to it; its fame had spread far and wide; and at twelve o’clock every day when the first batch of pies was sold there was a tremendous rush to obtain them. “Oh, those delicious pies! There was about them a flavour never surpassed and rarely equaled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of delicious gravy that defied description. ”

Makes the mouth water, doesn’t it? At any rate, it was only a short amount of time before Sweeney employed the services of his paramour to help with, shall we say, the disposal of certain “highly- compromising material.” He had, for several months, been simply piling corpses upon the floor of an ancient crypt below St. Dunstan’s. However, meat prices being what they were, both he and Mrs. Lovett soon hit upon a novel idea of how to dispose of unwanted remains. Sweeney would begin by removing all valuables from the corpse, working by the flame of a guttering candle in the darkness below his store. Then he would remove the internal organs and flesh, carefully package them, and scatter the resultant bones amid the debris of the crypts in the ancient catacombs, hoping against hope that they would remain unrecognizable amidst the gloom and decay in that sordid place— forever. He would then walk the catacombs to Mrs. Lovett’s shop, and be let in by a secret passageway in a false wall.

The meat was then cut into recognizable portions and baked into the pies; the pies were a popular item, by the way, amidst the teeming, hungry crowds of Old London. Of course, no story like this can, ever, have a happy ending.

Sweeney had, whether through greed or ignorance, disposed of quite a few people beneath the catacombs of the ancient church, and the smell was becoming so overpowering that the congregation began to find themselves quite incapable of tolerating it. Just sitting through Sunday services was beginning to require the employment of a scarf soaked in perfume. Upon examination, it was determined that the plumbing was perfectly operational, and that sewage was, in fact, not seeping into the catacombs from any leaks or stoppages. Therefore, the odor, temporarily, remained an enigma.

Unfortunately for Todd, the beadle of St. Dunstan’s was also a constable of the Bow Street Runners, the early version of the London Police. Upon informing his superior, Sir Richard Blunt, of the strange smell, it was a happenstance occurrence that at the same time Sir. Richard became dimly aware of strange rumors circulating around a barbershop very near the same Fleet Street locale, rumors concerning the disappearance ofm individuals into the premises. These individuals, seemingly, had never been seen or heard from again.

Putting several factors together, Sir. Richard did a bit of digging and produced a report of an occurrence, describing the complaint filed by an elderly woman against the proprietor of the establishment in question, a Mr. Sweeney Todd. The woman had come to the police, hysterically claiming that a certain brand of shoe buckle that had been favored by her missing husband had just mysteriously found their way to the feet of Mr. Todd. The woman, however adamant in her assertion, had been dismissed by the police as an unstable individual, and nothing had ever come of her claim. Sir Richard thought that, indeed, there might be something there after all. It was a short amount of time later when he enjoined the company of his best officers to follow him on an expedition beneath St. Dunstan’s.

Armed with flickering candles, the men penetrated the bowels of the ancient crypt. It was only a short amount of time later that their worst fears found confirmation. In the ancient, sealed crypts below the church, where no one had been buried for decades, the policemen found a grim, and horrific tableaux: a pile of recently-murdered bodies, bits of flesh still adhering to bones, decomposed darkly in the dusky dank. It was a charnel house scene that might have driven some individuals of a weaker constitution straight out of their wits. But the Bow Street Runners were made of sterner stuff. They slowly ambled away from the horrific sight, following a set of bloody footprints (Sweeney Todd had, apparently, become lax in his precautions, as is typical with killers who manage to elude the police for very long) , and it led them to a back wall entrance, presumably to the bloody kitchen of Margery Lovett. What happened next was predictable.

Upon learning of the “secret ingredient” of the popular meat pies, an angry mob descended upon the shop of Margery Lovett, and threatened to tear her away and lynch her. The police secreted her to relative safety, but it was to no avail: She eventually ended her life by poison in Newgate Prison. Her cannibalistic pies had been a favorite of local residents; they were not soon to forget Margery Lovett, and her lingering memory added a special fillip of horror to the sordid saga of Sweeney Todd. Todd, after a notorious show-trial was hanged, unceremoniously. His legend, though, was preserved in “penny dreadful” magazines, dime novels, on stage, and finally screen, and came to be passed down to future generations in so many different forms that, finally, the original source of the tale— the authentic, true story— was forgotten in the mists of history. Even today, those writers and composers who dabble in the story of Sweeney Todd find themselves at a loss to answer for certain if the story is based on a true criminal case. Most simply shrug their shoulders, and claim “Never happened!”

Well, now they know, I suppose

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