Sweeney Todd: London's Demon Barber
It’s been said there’s a grain of truth to most myths and legends. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 18th century London, is one of those. The story for the most part has been regarded as just that…a story, urban legend or myth. But, there really was a mad barber who used his straight razor to kill and rob customers and then made meat pies out of the corpses. Interest in the tale has been rekindled in recent years due to the 1979 Broadway musical written by Stephen Sondheim and the BBC’s horror film about the serial killer.
Todd's life was extensively researched by British author Peter Haining and although lacking the romanticism shown in Sondheim’s production, nevertheless the horrors of a true psychopath were revealed. Sweeney Todd was an evil, bitter man who lusted after money and would even murder to get it, without as much as a second thought. The story has passed down from one generation to the next, most believing it to be nothing more than pure fiction. But it wasn’t.
His story began in the poverty permeated streets of 18th century London. Life wasn’t worth much in a city which was still reeling in the aftermath of recent plague years. The industrial revolution was still in its infancy and hordes of poor flocked to London in search of work. At this time in the city’s history there were three distinct classes of people…the wealthy, working class and poor. The poor were by far the largest segment of society consisting of beggars, thieves, common criminals and prostitutes. London was a criminal's heaven.
Poor Streets of London
Although, the epidemic of plagues had passed, sanitary conditions were less than ideal and disease was still a major concern. This was the world in which Sweeney Todd, born in 1748, lived. Sweeney was an only child. His parents were both alcoholics who made their home in a squalid slum called Stepney. It was the sort of place an unwanted baby was discarded or left in the streets to die.
Sweeney’s childhood was obviously not a happy one. He was forced to work with his parents in the clothing mills. His mother loved him, by all accounts, but he was beaten and ignored by his father. When he was about 12 years old, it was one of the coldest winters on record. Hundreds of poor froze to death in their homes or on the streets. Despite the cold, the call of the gin mills lured his parents out one evening leaving him alone at home. They never returned.
Sweeney summed up his childhood with the following statement "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."
Being an orphan he became a ward of the court. He was made an apprentice to a local cutler named John Crook who manufactured and sharpened knives and razors. Apprentices in the 18th century were little more than slaves and harsh treatment was the norm. Children working as an apprentice often were not paid and any earnings they happened to make were usually confiscated by their masters.
So it should not be surprising, two years after he joined Crook's shop he was arrested and convicted of petty larceny.Theft was punishable by hanging, regardless of age. But fortunately young Sweeney was spared the noose by a compassionate judge. Instead, he was sentenced to five years in Newgate Prison, a bleak, dismal place on London's west side.
A barber named Plummer, who had been imprisoned for embezzlement, took Sweeney under his wing as an apprentice. Part of Plummer's job was shaving the more well-to-do prisoners scheduled for execution and Sweeney often assisted him. The pair made a good team as both were dishonest and had few scruples. Sweeney learned not only the barber's trade from Plummer, but the art of pick pocketing change from reclining customers. He also learned to hate “his betters” who made up his clientele.
Sweeney was released from prison when he was 19. He now had a trade and a vengeful score to settle with society. He first began work as a "flying barber," barbers who set up shop wherever they could find space. Newspapers frequently reported on bloody territorial battles.
It was during this time Sweeney committed his first murder. Although there is no record of Todd being married, there were reports of him living with a woman of loose morals. One afternoon, a drunken customer bragged about having a an extremely intimate interlude with a woman matching the description of his lady. It was the last brag the drunk ever made. Todd would later confess. "Slit him from ear to ear, I did."
Sweeney somehow managed to escape and was never brought to justice for his crime. However, his relationship with the young woman was finished and he was forced to find another location to practice his trade.
Sweeney at the Gallows
Several years later in 1785, Sweeney managed to save enough money to buy a shop on Fleet Street. It wasn’t the best location, but since there were few barbers in the area there was less competition. It was also a haven for drunks, prostitutes and cut-throats. Three hundred years before Todd set up shop there, the area had been a respectable part of town and home to many nobles and churches.
Sweeney’s description, from the few accounts available, described him as having bright red hair and heavy eyebrows. Gentleman's Magazine in 1853 wrote in part he was, "…so repulsive in appearance that it is a wonder that...customers...did not immediately flee when the demon in human frame commenced operations."
Sweeney hung out his shingle on his two story building which read, "Easy shaving for a penny. As good as you will find any." The shop had one barber chair, a bench for waiting clients and a rack filled with an assortment of combs, scissors and razors. Todd used the upstairs as his apartment. There was also a basement, which he soon put to good use.
It was apparent he intended to murder his patrons and then rob from the start, as he had rigged his shop in an ingenious manner. He had installed a trap door under his barber chair with a duplicate chair on the underside. When a customer reclined in the chair, the trapdoor automatically rotated downwards, tumbling the victim to his death. The empty duplicate chair would then be in place dispelling any notions from passersby there was foul play afoot. If by chance the fall didn’t kill his victim, Sweeney hastened downstairs and slit their throat.
By this time, Sweeney had become an accomplished murderer. While taking a walk one day he happened to stop and have a conversation with another man also dressed in barber attire. For some reason the two began having words and one barber then produced a knife and slit the other’s throat. There was only one other barbershop in the vicinity…Sweeney Todd’s. How the authorities couldn’t put two and two together is beyond imagination and Sweeney was never questioned.
In fact, it seems Sweeney literally got away with murder on many occasions even though his name was frequently mentioned concerning numerous murders. As an example, an apprentice on an errand stopped in Todd's shop to get a haircut. Sometime during the process the lad let slip he was carrying a large sum of money for his employer. His fate was sealed. Although the master came looking for the boy, no trace of him was ever found. Sweeney once again was not held accountable.
Not long afterwards another man who had his throat slit and back broken turned up. He and Sweeney had been seen arguing earlier. Again Todd was questioned and let go. Following close on the heels of that tragedy Todd killed a Jewish pawnbroker not far from his shop, but charges were not filed when Todd was said to have had a “temporary bout of insanity." Again, Sweeney walked.
However, as more people who had been seen entering the barbershop mysteriously disappeared, rumors started circulating about the “mad barber.” But there was no solid proof on which to arrest him. Where were the bodies?
Sweeney Todd had an accomplice, a woman whose name was Sarah or Margery Lovett. Most researchers lean toward Margery. According to articles written at the time of her arrest, she was not one who would be classified as beautiful. Before Sweeney teamed up with Margery, he had been caching the corpses in the abandoned crypts beneath the nearby St. Dunstan's Church.
Margery and Sweeney were like two peas in a pod…both evil. Mrs. Lovett’s first husband had died under mysterious circumstances. But, it was common knowledge the two were carrying on an affair, despite the fact they were never seen together in public. Margery ran a two story pie shop where she sold veal and meat pies. It’s not difficult to deduce where the victims were now ending up. In the basement of the bakery was a false wall which opened into the catacombs behind. That’s how Todd made his deliveries. It’s a stretch of the imagination to understand the popularity and success of the shop.
Suspicions about Sweeney were growing and authorities decided to put a watch on his business. After a time several customers had been seen going in but they didn’t come out. Something odd was going on and whatever it was St. Dunstan's Church was involved.
The Church was old and musty and had a putrid smell. Some foul odor was expected since families had been putting their deceased relatives there for some time, but none recently. The stench emanating from underground finally became so bad parishioners had to hold scented handkerchiefs to their noses. Finally it was decided the catacombs should be searched to discover what the source of the smell was.
Newspapers reported in gruesome detail what was found. "Piled one upon each other and reaching halfway upto the ceiling, lay a decomposing mass of human remains…the whole enough to strike such horror into the heart of any man." Even so, more evidence was needed to make a case. The bodies found in the catacombs were long beyond being identifiable so they couldn’t be tied to Sweeney or his evil vixen.
The Bow Street Runners, the name for the existing law enforcement at the time, got their proof when they searched Sweeney’s living quarters two days later. They discovered the booty from several of the missing people, some monogrammed with their owner’s initials. And at Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop a lynch mob was quickly formed when her customers discovered what they had been eating. But the runners were able to whisk her away in time.
Margery Lovett had wasted no time confessing her sins to the governor of Newgate Prison and those of Sweeney Todd as well, believing she was one step away from the grave. But Margery Lovett never climbed the gallows. She somehow came by some poison and died in her cell.
Sweeney on the other hand was convicted after less than five minutes of deliberation by his jury. A crowd of thousands were on hand to watch him swing.