The story behind the legend of Sweeney Todd

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Pies and murder – two perennials of London life. It‘s no wonder, then, that we have a long-standing fascination with the legend of Sweeney Todd, the serial-killing hairdresser with a sideline in baked goods. As Tim Burton‘s take on the bloody tale hits the cinema, Lee Jackson looks at the truth behind the legend

The story behind the legend of Sweeney Todd
Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber

‘All that blood!’ exclaims the pie-maker Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Sweeney Todd’, as she spies the murderous barber’s first victim. Tim Burton’s film adaptation, featuring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, certainly delivers that: bloody raindrops dripping over the opening credits; a carmine tide in the city’s sewers; blood gushing (and how!) from the throats of Depp’s victims, choreographed to Sondheim’s soaring score.

In the unlikely event you’re unfamiliar with the Sweeney Todd story, the plot can be summarised succinctly. Todd, a Fleet Street barber, surreptitiously murders his clients and their corpses are profitably made into delicious meat pies by his obliging neighbour, Mrs Lovett. ‘We’ll serve anyone… to anyone’ as the lyric artfully puts it.

Todd is, of course, a Victorian serial killer, though his exploits predate that very modern label. He is, moreover, probably one of London’s most enduring villains. In recent years, Sondheim’s portrayal of Todd has done much to keep his name alive. An unlikely Broadway hit in 1979, blending elements of comedy and horror, it introduced the character to the United States, garnered legions of fans and ultimately made a relatively obscure piece of London folklore world famous. Yet, in the UK, we have always enjoyed the antics of this particular monster in film, television and theatre – Ray Winstone took the title role in a BBC version as recently as 2006 – and discerning visitors to our metropolis can even enjoy a Sweeney Todd ‘attraction’ at the London Dungeon. But where does the tale of the butchering barber originate? It has long been assumed that Todd’s fictional exploits were based on a true story. Many people are still convinced that Todd’s crimes were as real as those of Jack the Ripper. The facts, however, are somewhat different.

ST-10169 (6).jpgHelena Bonham Carter as Mrs Lovett, the pie maker" width="210" height="140" />
Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs Lovett the pie-maker

The story begins in the 1830s with one Edward Lloyd, an enterprising publisher of ‘penny dreadfuls’ who aimed his cheap weekly serials squarely at the working poor. Titles like ‘The Calendar of Horrors’ and ‘Varney the Vampire’ (a famous blood-sucking fiend, 50 years before Dracula) give some idea of his subject matter. He also specialised in pirated versions of Dickens' works at a time when copyright law counted for little. Thus poorer readers could buy a budget copy of his ‘Oliver Twiss’ or ‘Nikelas Nickelbery’. Lloyd would later found a radical/liberal newspaper and become quite respectable.

Nonetheless, his main legacy to modern culture was a story called ‘The String of Pearls’ published in a weekly magazine during the winter of 1846/47, written by an anonymous penny-a-word hack. Set in 1785, it features as principal villain a certain Sweeney Todd (‘a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow’), and includes all the plot elements that have been used by Sondheim and others ever since. There is the barber’s shop, from which a remarkable number of customers never return (courtesy of a chair that flips them upside down, plunging them to their deaths in the stone-floored cellar), an ill-used apprentice boy (who is consigned to a lunatic asylum, a pair of deeply uninteresting star-crossed lovers (obligatory in any Victorian popular fiction) and the enterprising Mrs Lovett, whose pies are finally discovered to contain something rather more exotic than mince.

‘The String of Pearls’ isn’t great literature, but Lloyd was on to something. The psychopathic barber’s story proved instantly popular: it was turned into a play before the ending had even been revealed in print. An expanded edition appeared in 1850, an American version in 1852, a new play in 1865. By the 1870s, Sweeney Todd was a familiar character to most Victorians. Nothing so strange in that, perhaps; except that, according to contemporary accounts, most of them seem to have believed that Todd was real.

ST-10169 (22).jpgAlan Rickman as Judge Turpin" width="210" height="139" />
A very close shave for Alan Rickman's Judge Turpin

Lloyd himself is largely to blame for a confusion that’s lasted for more than 150 years. He was a genius at marketing and knew the value of a so-called true story, not least one conveniently just beyond living memory. In a preface to an expanded edition, he stated that ‘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’. And it was this assertion, now easily disproved by records from the period, that stuck. So much so, in fact, that the recently deceased connoisseur of pulp fiction, Peter Haining, once published a book claiming to have found ‘proof’ of Todd’s existence. Unfortunately, all of Haining’s proof is – let’s be generous – rather difficult to verify; indeed, the book is a carefully planned hoax.

It seems much more likely that the story originated in urban myth. Dickens himself in ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ (1843/44) mentions facetiously ‘preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis’. Even today, most of us have heard scare stories of various bits of anatomy appearing in fast food. Imagine, then, how it must have been in mid-Victorian London, when food was frequently coloured and doctored to make it more saleable and few legal restrictions were in place. Indeed, in the 1840s and 1850s, many Londoners feared – with good reason – that their sausages and pies were being filled with cheap horsemeat (normally hawked round the streets as cat food); it didn’t require much imagination to take that scam one stage further.

ST-10169 (18).jpgTim Burton on set" width="210" height="140" />
Tim Burton on set in a recreated Victorian London

In fairness, Lloyd’s artful co-opting of history has probably served Sweeney Todd quite well, leaving it usefully open to different interpretations. A 1926 silent movie (now lost) reportedly played it for laughs. The 1936 film (‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’) features the great Tod Slaughter, wringing his hands and cackling ‘I’ll polish him off’, although bizarrely, the victims’ final destination is never explicitly mentioned: perhaps the filmmakers feared that Mrs Lovett’s pies would give the censors indigestion. A musical version first appeared in London in 1959, a ballet in 1960. And the London Dungeon wasn’t the first to provide a ‘Sweeney Todd Experience’; in the 1920s a wine merchant in Johnson’s Court, off Fleet Street, purported to be the site of Todd’s shop. Not content with infamy by association, the shop proudly displayed the ‘original’ barber’s chair, complete with mechanism for dropping customers into the basement.

Sondheim’s musical is, in fact, based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play, which introduced a psychological background to Todd’s crimes (he was the victim of a ruthless judge who raped his young wife and transported him to Australia). With Burton’s movie likely to garner worldwide attention, this may now become the accepted story; it is certainly already better known than the Victorian original. But, whatever the details, it seems likely that Sweeney Todd and his gruesome dinners will be with us for many years to come.

LM Jackson is a novelist and the creator of ‘The Dictionary of Victorian London’ (www.victorianlondon.org). His latest book, ‘A Most Dangerous Woman’ (Arrow) is available in paperback from February 7.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ opens on January 25.

Visit our Sweeney Todd site for heals of fear-filled content including an exclusive audio tour of the Demon Barber's London


Users say

57 comments
asdery
asdery

Banana, you mispelled the word "psycho".

tygalilie13
tygalilie13

Banana....no offense, but that is the plot of the movie. Not historical documentation. Sweeny Todd is a fictional character that was created out of the fear a lot of people had during those time about having some form of weird meat baked into their food. The gruesome, yet awesome, twist of him slicing their throats with a razor out of a need for revenge or some psychological disorder is just something that the author spun into the tale. It's no more messed up than any of the other stories and movies that are circulating out there today. Its a fantastic story...but fictional.

nomnomnom
nomnomnom

Banana you probaly just copy and pasted it

sam
sam

it wicked and so cool.

Banana
Banana

Oh and i want to say that im 13. :D read my comment below! :P

Banana
Banana

I think that Sweeny Todd just wanted revenge from the judge that took his wife and daughter from him.He was sent away then came home with a new name.I don't know why he wanted to kill everyone.Maybe he was just syco.I do think that he was real at somepoint in time a long time ago.If he wasn't,then whos mest up mind did he come from?The little boy didn't know that Mrs.Lovett was makeing her meat pies out of the meat from the people Todd killed.But he didn't have anywhere to go because he thought his boss left him,but Todd had acctually killed him.The little boy worked with Mrs.Lovett in her meat pie shop.Todd eventually killed the judge,almost killed his daughter,and pushed Mrs.Lovett into the burning oven.This old begger woman had came into his barber shop and he killed her.He soon found out that the begger woman was his wife,that supossedly poisened her self and died.He was sitting on the floor with her body when the little boy came up behind him and killed Todd.Todd killed all these people with his rasors.But this is just my opinion.You might think something different.

doctorwhogirl
doctorwhogirl

I totes disagree. Sweeny Todd is definitly real. I think Sweny Todd is very interesting subject therefore try and make this article more accurate so people will gain the full facts.

blackarrowpro
blackarrowpro

I disagree with this article. In my historical studies, I've read a lot of serial killer and cannabilistic case studies. The man from "Sweeny Todd" was definitely true, however his name was not Sweeny Todd. His business was on Fleet Street, which was later burnt down and considered a 'block of unspeakable evil that should never be built on again'. His accomplise, the butcher, was actually a man, and the two worked very well together. I can point you towards some very notable cannibal case studies if you would like to write a more factual article...

Eric
Eric

Sweeney todd is a great movie and all in all Johnny Depp acted very well I like it

Selena Gomez
Selena Gomez

Sweeny Todd is real he was a barber in victorian times and he killed people and put them in meat pies. He then sold them to people.

arembe
arembe

just looked at familysearch.org and there he was. occupation was barber.

Darien Rachelle
Darien Rachelle

Just to clear this up, Sweeney Todd was a real person. This character is just loosely based on the real person. The real Sweeney was simply noted as "a cold blooded murderer with barely any motivation for his wrongdoings." He then appeared in Penny Dreadful stories, and was only altered a little bit. The musical changed a lot, giving him an entire motivational back story. However, he was a real person, and so was Mrs. Lovett. Don't believe me? Well, look up the silent video clips from 1820's London. A couple of them actually show Sweeney's Barber Shop and Mrs. Lovett's Pie Shop. However, they were not even next to each other. They were simply both on Fleet Street & it is said they may have had some sort of affair. My point: Sweeney Todd the malicious murderer was real.... Sweeney Todd the demon barber of Fleet Street was based off of the malicious barber, but not fully the same as the real man. :) Get over it, people. He was real.

Rocking_Mama
Rocking_Mama

Sondheim really immortalized Sweeney Todd with his brilliant musical & Tim Burton did an excellent job bringing it to life. Shame, though, that my favorite musical villain isn't real.

a jobie staine
a jobie staine

i think all this stuff is real but then again iam only 13 and came on to study for this. it was my drama class that i had to study for we are doing the horros bit of of the madame tussaud wax works museum

mendy
mendy

Sweeney todd did too exist they have legal records and I have pics of his shop

Jessica
Jessica

Sweeney Todd is a great movie not the blood or being pushed in the oven but the MUSIC Johnny Depp and everybody is very good at this movie Keep up the good work Tim=)

Peppe
Peppe

Yeah. It's definitely not real and any site or person trying to convince you that ST was a real person, is bullsh*tting you. But that movie is fantastic. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp triumph again!

Zeib Khqn
Zeib Khqn

can you lot grow up it is a true fukin story

person
person

i was looking at it on a website, and they have, his parents names, his birthday, his birthplace, what happened to him, how he learned to shave and stuff, its all there with pictures, so i've been convinced he's real =)

simon cow
simon cow

hi i like pies but not with humans in

Alli
Alli

No1 will ever really know if it happened or not!! You can think what you want!! Either there was a VERY creative man or a crazy man!! Either way... it is a legend and is a FANTASTIC movie and play!!! Until some1 has a time machine... the world will never know if its a myth or if Sweeney Todd was real.

TB
TB

It's a legend. Nobody is for certain he existed or not. Plus, most modern versions are way off. Search more on it, you'll find plenty of different versions of the story. He might be just an urban legend. I'm not saying he isn't, because I think he is, but I just think his story was a lot different and modern society has altered it quite a bit, but they didn't alter the main purpose of his story: murdering people while they expected a shave or trim. Plus, some more older versions said he just killed his victims to take his money, not in rage of him thinking his wife was dead.

Todd fan
Todd fan

love Sweeney Todd wont like 2 be alive then n especaly wouldn't like 2 be 1 of his victims

beyonce
beyonce

this comment is to lucii underneath courtney ! so what if youve been researching it !!!!! doesnt mean its true !!!! and also everyone knows jack the ripper was real because it was proved !!!!!!!

courtney
courtney

oh my god ! none of you can prove anything because you werent there and just because you may have googled it or read books on it doesnt mean to say you know for definate !!!!! its just your opinions but the people on hear that say it was a fact you dont know for sure !!!!! so shut up ! why even bother arguing about it !!! its stupid and a waste of time !!!

Lucii
Lucii

For goodness sake! Sweeney Todd existed! I have been researching it for ages and it is definate. And anyway, there are more people that think that he existed than people who dont. I am certain he was real. My next research is on Jack the Ripper. He or possibly she existed too I beleive. will find out soon...

Mystery
Mystery

and also, sweeney todd was a fake name, and no one's 100% sure of what his real name was. benjamin barker was the most likely name that was found, but never tottaly true.

Mystery
Mystery

Todd was indeed around in the 1700's, but perhaps not in 1785. maybe earlier.

lee
lee

Court records? No, UK court records of murders do go back a very long time indeed. Besides, there was a whole world of stuff, including newspapers and ballad sheets, that reported famous murders. It's not a case of simply 'court records'! Late 18th and early 19th century murders etc were widely publicised in the 'Newgate Calendar' ( see http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/crime/media1/calendar1/calendar.html) which contains no mention of Todd, if you actually read it. Also, you can now search the complete Times newspaper online from 1785 onwards. If Todd butchered dozens of people in 1785, then some mention of him would surely appear in the newspaper, either that year or later years, referring back, in the same way we now talk about eg. Jack the Ripper. The crimes would have been instantly notorious - these sort of things didn't happen often, even in Georgian London. But there's no mention of Sweeney Todd anywhere, in any print publication, until Edward Lloyd's penny dreadful in 1846. You can believe what you like ... you can believe Bilbo Baggins and Harry Potter exist if you like ... but the actual facts are plain ... Todd is a story!

Dragon fighter
Dragon fighter

Believe in what you believe in. Don;t let anyone tell you other wise. I my slef believe Sweeney Todd was real. And I think it was sad what had happen in that life time .

Mystery
Mystery

and of course none of his court files would still exsist, he's been dead for yeaaaars and they would have been destroyed about 5 years after he was hung. courts dont keep records forever y'know

Mystery
Mystery

Sweeney Todd was a real person. He was trialed and sent down for murder and hung in London. There are news papers which date back to then. so if the oxford university press or whatever couldn't figure that out, why the hell could i? a 14 year old? I'll tell you why, and how. Proper research. Besides, it was only ever debated if Mrs Lovett's existance was true or just made up, which i am studying now. There ya go if you wanted to know.

emily
emily

duh it obviously real

Kjartan Andersen
Kjartan Andersen

If he was a real person then the court-files would show the details of his crimes. The trial-transcripts show no such trial. You could search for yourself at oldbaileyonline.org.

lee jackson
lee jackson

He isn't real. Ever heard of an 'urban myth'? Sweeney Todd is just that ... the Victorian publisher of the original story pretended it was 'based on a true story' but it's all made up ... it's the oldest trick in the book to persuade people to buy something grisly and exciting. There's no actual evidence anywhere, if you try and go back to original sources - which is what serious historians have done. The Oxford University Press edition of 'The String of Pearls' by Robert Mack addresses this, if you're really keen to read about it.

pea brain
pea brain

Is sweeney todd real or not???

Lee Jackson
Lee Jackson

I'm fascinated so many people still want to claim Todd existed. I'm guessing the "facts" people have quoted below are from Peter Haining's book on Todd, which have been widely copied onto the internet, without people checking the sources. All the claims in that book are easily falsified by looking at accounts of trials of the day, newspapers etc. which are now themselves online ... http://www.oldbaileyonline.org for one ... Todd just isn't there, folks. If you actually do the hard research, you come back to Reynold's penny dreadful as the source of the myth. If someone claims otherwise, you should ask what are their sources; if their source is Haining's book, you should check his sources ... all of which don't exist ... Haining's book was an elaborate hoax ... of course, if you know otherwise and have proof, email me at lee@victorianlondon.org ... I'd love to hear from you.

Caroline.
Caroline.

I love the new version of Sweeney Todd and am fully satisfied with knowing he actually did exist, however disturbing that may be. =]

Becky
Becky

First of all, let me say that the new Sweeney Todd musical with Johnny Depp is absolutely brilliant and is one of if not the best movie I have ever seen. It really sets the right mood for the overall plot of the film and I must say Tim Burton is a directorial genious. Also, Johnny Depp was the absolute perfect choice to play Sweeney. He just has that crazed barber look. Anyways, onto my point. I've done some serious digging over the last few weeks and in fact Sweeney Todd DID exist. He was born on October 26, 1748 in Stepney, London. He became a cutlers apprentice when he was about 12 or 13 years old but his employer was convicted of larsony and young Mr. Todd was throw in jail. (which was quite odd for the time considering children were hung for even pickpocketing a handkerchief) Afterwards, he became a travelling 'gypsy' barber if you will and this is where he made his first kill. When he was 37, he paid 125 euros for a shop on Fleet Street (which still exists in London) and started his own barber shop. He even had a chair similar to the one depicted in the movie except he never did any of his killings upstairs. What would happen was his clients would lean back in the chair and fall 2 stories into the basement and be killed on impact and if they were not, Sweeney would rush down stairs and slit their throats. Also, to allieviate suspicion, on the underside of his trap door, there was another barber chair, so two chairs would just rotate around so there would always be one in the shop. He would loot the dead bodies and throw them inside the old tombs in the secret passages below his shop. But, his underground graveyards soon began to become overpopulated and within this time he met the REAL mrs. lovett. (there is a widespread debate whether her first name was Margery or Sarah but its been concluded that it was most likely Margery) Sweeney began to butcher his clients after death. He would skin them, strip the flesh from their bones and take their organs, grind them up and then give them to Mrs Lovett through a revolving wall in the back of her shop so she could bake them into meat pies and sell them to her customers. After over 160 murders, the pair was caught. Mrs. Lovett was thrown in prison but before she was hanged, she poisoned herself. Sweeney was tried, convicted and hanged for his crimes infront of a audience consisting of thousands upon thousands of people. So Sweeney Todd DID actually exist along with Mrs. Lovett and the infamous meat pies.

moany sod
moany sod

Looking on the internet there is no type of fact saying if Sweeney Todd was real or not however there is no indication of him being fiction so who knows I hope it turns out to be prooven as fact because it will be a facinating part of history

ann
ann

i love this film totaly amazing

Me!
Me!

I think the film was really good, i like the music and i thought Johnny Depp was quite a good singer, but i didn't really want to read about who wrote the play, i was told that the story was true and that the barber was found out when someone found a finger in one of the pies.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

I think that the movie was great! I have it and watch it over and over two thoms up!

Befff+Hannah
Befff+Hannah

We fink sweeney todd is well mint !! hes a propa beast

caleb
caleb

Sweeney is based on true event.(to the person who first posted) In fact, if you were to go to Fleet St.,if the still be the name, then you will see the resteraunt it has become. They have Todd's chair outside, you can even look up the legal report on his crimes, he said to kill almost 160 people. Search engines hit key words so try Sweeney Todd History and you shall get what you want.

Hannah
Hannah

Extremely interesting to hear about the origins of the story of Todd. I was told by somebody that it was based on a true story so it's interesting to know that is not the case.

angelica
angelica

i hated the fact that im doing reserch on the legend of sweeny todd and all you could give me is some random ass crap about the dude who wrote the dumb ass play the srting of perals i wanted some hard facts about him and that is all no shit about the gay ass play



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