Sweeney Todd

Everyone has heard of Sweeney Todd - the murderous barber who cut the throats of unsuspecting customers and gave their bodies to his neighbour to serve up as pie fillings. But is there any truth behind the myth? Was there really a man called Sweeney Todd with a Barber Shop on London's Fleet Street and did anyone actually commit such horrific crimes?

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THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH

According to Peter Haining, who outlined his theories in his book 'Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street', the cut-throat barber was a very real person who has simply been ignored by historians.

The story runs as follows.

Born in the slums of East London in the mid-eighteenth century, Todd became an orphan at twelve and a felon at fourteen when he was sentenced to five years in Newgate prison for theft. His time in Newgate was spent in the tutelage of the prison barber where he picked up the trade. This allowed him to set up his own barber shop next to St Dunstan's church on Fleet Street following his release.

Haining states that the murder of Todd's first victim was reported in the Daily Courant of 14th April 1785, when Todd killed a man after an argument before disappearing down the alley by the side of his shop.

SEVENTEEN-YEAR CAMPAIGN

It is following this initial demonstration of violence that Todd's murderous campaign is supposed to have really taken off. Installing a customised chair which allowed him to tip his customers headfirst through a trapdoor into the cellar below, Todd would then cut his victims throats before passing their flesh, heart, liver and kidneys onto his neighbour, the pie-maker, Mrs Lovett.

According to Haining, Todd despatched with 160 people in this manner during a seventeen year campaign of murderous shaving, disposing of those body parts unsuitable for use as pie fillings in a vault beneath the church next door.

The pair were eventually arrested following rumours surrounding the disappearance of a number of sailors in 1801. Mrs Lovett committed suicide in prison after confessing her part but Todd was tried and convicted for the murder of one seaman, Francis Thornhill. He was hanged on 25th January 1802.

THE FACTS

However, Haining's story is dismissed by historians as simply untrue and lacking in evidence.

Indeed, a recent article in London's Time Out described Peter Haining's account as "a carefully planned hoax". It seems more likely that the Sweeney Todd we are familiar with today came from a story published in a series of instalments in a weekly magazine during 1846/47. Called 'The String of Pearls', the story was written by an anonymous author and proved to be a popular hit, published as a single story in Britain and America before being taken to the stage in 1865.

MORE PORK-PIE THAN HUMAN-PIE

It was during this period that the myth of Todd's existence as a real historical figure began to take shape - helped no doubt by the enterprising marketing exploits of the original publisher of the story, Edward Lloyd. Lloyd opened one edition of 'The String of Pearls' with the words, "there certainly was such a man; and the record of his crimes is still to be found in the chronicles of criminality of this country."

The trouble is, these criminal records can't be found in any of the official documents from the time. For the playwright who wrote the piece which inspired Stephen Sondheim's musical and Tim Burton's subsequent screen adaptation, Sweeney Todd was "pure fiction.... No one has ever succeeded in finding a shred of evidence as to the existence of a Demon Barber thereabouts".

To use the cockney rhyming slang, the tale of Sweeney Todd is more likely to be a pork-pie than a human one.