THE REAL SWEENEY TODD
Sweeney Todd, "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" first came to prominence in the mid 19th century since when he has appeared in books, plays, a musical and in films. His gruesome story caught the public imagination yet again in 2008 when Johnny Depp played him in Tim Burton's film Sweeney Todd. But who was this murderous barber, and when, if ever, did he live?
Before looking at the history of the story of Sweeney Todd one thing has to be made absolutely and unequivocally clear - there never was a barber on Fleet Street by the name of Sweeney Todd.
Yet his story has thrilled, chilled and turned the stomachs of many generations of horror seekers ever since he slashed his way into the public consciousness by way of the Victorian Penny Dreadful periodicals in the middle decade of the 19th century.
In essence his story is a simple one. He belongs to a bygone age when men's home grooming was little more than primitive. Electric and safety razors were luxuries of the future and so any gentleman that required a close, clean shave was forced to entrust himself to a local barber.
Sitting in the barber's chair, his head tilted back, his throat exposed as the sharp blade of the barber's razor glided back and forth across his skin, a man would be, and indeed might well feel, decidedly exposed and vulnerable!
Those behind the Sweeney Todd story, like many horror writers and film makers since, used the vulnerability of a familiar, everyday situation and turned it into something that would be guaranteed to illicit gasps of terror from their readers and, no doubt, instil feelings of trepidation in to generations of men! In short they created fear out of the familiar!
The Sweeney Todd stories have at their root a simple, blood-drenched scenario. Todd is a successful and prosperous Barber with premises at 185 Fleet Street. Sitting his unsuspecting clients into his specially constructed barber's chair he lathers up their faces and suddenly tips the chair back, pitching his unfortunate customers heel over head through a trap door into the cellar below. If the fall hasn't killed them, Todd is compelled to 'polish them off' with his razor. Having robbed them, he drags their bodies through an underground tunnel to the premises of his lover Mrs. Margery Lovett in nearby Bell Yard.
Here the story takes another twist creating fear from the familiar in an age when people were far more dependent on outside caterers than we are today by the stomach churning device of having Todd's victims turned into succulent meat pies for Mrs Lovett's much vaunted Meat Pie Shop.
His victim's worldly possessions are hidden away in Sweeny Todd's shop, whilst any remains that haven't gone into a batch of meat pies are secreted in the dank, disused vaults beneath St Dunstan's church on Fleet Street.
As time progresses Sweeney Todd grows ever more confident and audacious, but in so doing his insatiable lust for blood proves his undoing. Thanks to the efforts of a determined magistrate, a group of Bow Street Runners and a pair of lovers, Todd and Lovett are brought to justice and put on trial at the Central Criminal Courts or Old Bailey.
Despite the fact that several books and articles have confidently assured their readers that Sweeney Todd did exist, there is absolutely no historical figure by that name and indeed no barber by the name of Sweeney Todd ever found himself on trial at the Old Bailey charged with murdering his clients and, with the aid of his mistress and accomplice, using them to create killer recipes.
Indeed, the proceedings of the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913 are now available to peruse online via a fully searchable database. There is no transcript for a trial of a Sweeney Todd, nor for that matter any similar crimes. A case so notorious would doubtless have attracted the attention of pamphleteers and journalists and would, no doubt, receive millions of hits on the Old Bailey website. Yet history is silent on actual cold facts about the case and the Old Bailey transcripts don't show up anywhere at all on Google for the search term Sweeney Todd Trial at the Old Bailey.
Yet the story of Sweeny Todd has never lost its popularity and this hideous creation and his foul deeds continue to shock and thrill in equal measure in television dramas and most recently in the film Sweeney Todd starring Johnny Depp. So what was the inspiration for this bloodthirsty tome and was there a real life counterpart upon whom the creators and developers of one of the most famous and long lasting Victorian melodramas based the character?
Although the Sweeney Todd story as we know it today first appeared between November 1846 and March 1847 in Edward Lloyd's (1815-1890) The People's Periodical and Family Library as an eighteen part serial entitled The String of Pearls: A Romance, the story drew upon and was heavily influenced by several previous well known fictions.
In the 1830's Lloyd had made something of a name for himself by plagiarising the works of Charles Dickens. Oliver Twiss and Nikelas Nickelberry were just two of Lloyds attempts to capitalise on the success and storylines of the 19th century's greatest author. Inevitably Dickens also part influenced Lloyd's most enduring storyline, that of Sweeny Todd.
COMING SOON DICKENS AND SWEENEY TODD.