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


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