Revealed: The truth about the REAL Sweeney Todd

  1. Last updated at 00:00am on 19th January 2008

    A new film tells the gruesome story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who turned his clients into meat pies. Ghoulish fiction? Recently found evidence suggests otherwise ...



    On a late March afternoon, the London drizzle and fog made it seem as if night had already fallen. A lone figure paused outside a church in Fleet Street, pulling a gold-braided hat over his eyes and wrapping his expensive cloak around him.

    Something caught his attention - the flash of metal in the candlelight of a filthy shop. Its window was dirt-encrusted, but through the grime a notice could be made out: "Easy Shaving For A Penny".

    The stranger ran his hand over his stubbly chin. It was 1785 and he had arrived in London early to do business and was to stay overnight. Perhaps he should smarten himself up. The proceeds of the business deal were folded in his wallet; who knew what the evening would bring?


    Minutes later, the man settled in the barber's chair, but not for long. At the throw of an unseen lever, the seat tipped backwards and the floorboards in front of his feet rose up, the ceiling spinning. He was flipped out of the chair and into the cellar below. If his neck was not broken by the fall onto the basement's stone floor, Sweeney Todd, the barber, would soon slit his throat with a razor.


    Then the man was stripped of his money, and his flesh. Along with 160 others, his body was sliced up and used in pies.


    It is a bloodthirsty tale which touches one of mankind's most primal fears: that of being killed and eaten. But this forerunner of Hannibal Lecter, and a serial killer far surpassing the Yorkshire Ripper, also has a morbid attraction.


    Sweeney Todd's name is seen in Victorian 'penny dreadful' newspapers and then 19thcentury melodrama, complete with his own catchphrase, "See how I polish 'em off!" In modern times, the Demon Barber's tale has been adapted first as a Stephen Sondheim musical and now a Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

    Todd's story, however, has always been dismissed as exactly that - a story. For years, his existence was denied. Academics pronounced him a fictional composite, his grisly character an amalgam of several serial killers.

    From my early days as a journalist on Fleet Street, I, too, have been fascinated by Todd. But over 25 years' research, I discovered new information that proves inescapably that Sweeney Todd existed.


    I pored over archives in London and Washington, looked at 18th-century maps and scrutinised contemporary publications. They revealed that Todd's life and crimes were more intriguing, more curious and more gruesome than previously suspected. Moreover, his background conforms to the psychological profiles of serial killers built up by modern police criminologists.


    The Demon Barber's crimes, it turns out, are no urban myth.

    Sweeney Todd was born on October 26, 1756, in Brick Lane. The house in which the child first breathed the fetid air of the East London slums is not known, but it was probably near Spitalfields.


    His troubled, violent early life mirrors that of more recent killers. Todd's mother, not 20, scratched a living winding silk. Her husband, a struggling silk weaver, was a drunk who beat his son and his wife.


    Todd said later: "My mother used to make quite a pet of me. I was fondled and kissed and called a pretty boy. I used to wish I was strong enough to throttle her. What the devil did she bring me into this world for, unless she had plenty of money to give me so that I might enjoy myself in it?"


    This undercurrent of malevolence was compounded by the young Todd's bizarre interest in the instruments of torture displayed at the nearby Tower of London. To escape his parents' brawling, he lingered in the Tower's museum, where thumbscrews, racks and other macabre tools were displayed to discourage citizens from dissent.


    Todd hated his home life and his ginsodden parents. He is unlikely to have shed a tear when, in the freezing winter of 1768, they disappeared, possibly dying on the streets while seeking booze. Equally mysterious is how the boy survived that winter, turning up the next year as an apprentice cutler. His master, John Crook of Holborn, specialised in razors.

    The boy's life abruptly changed again in 1770, when Todd was jailed for five years for petty theft. His crime is not recorded, but he entered Newgate prison aged 14 feeling ever more bitter.



    In prison, fate overtook the semiliterate boy. The prison's barber, a grizzled old man called Plummer, employed him as an assistant, where he soaped condemned men's chins for shaving before they walked to the gallows.



    Despite his association with Plummer, Todd did not escape the vindictiveness of fellow prisoners. On one occasion he was left for dead after a beating - for pilfering from a murderer.


    The Sweeney Todd who walked out of Newgate in autumn 1775 was a strapping 19-year-old with a grudge. The years had made him morose and resentful and he would soon repay London for the violence it had visited upon him, many times over.

    With his new skills, Todd made a good living as a street corner barber. Within five years of leaving prison, he had earned enough to open a shop near Hyde Park Corner. There the barber was helped by a young woman, whom he referred to as his wife despite his never marrying, and who bore the brunt of Todd's growing rages.


    Already, the signs were there in the barber's behaviour. Criminal psychologists now believe violence in the home


    is an early indicator of a propensity towards murder. They rehearse brutality behind closed doors before embarking on murderous careers. By now, violence was the norm for Todd, as victim and perpetrator.

    The event that pushed him over the edge occurred in December 1784. A yearly news chronicle of the time tells the story.

    "A young gentleman, by chance coming into the barber's shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned having seen a fine girl in Hamilton Street, from whom he had had certain favours the night before. The barber, concluding this to be his wife, and in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman's throat from ear to ear and absconded."
     
  2. The REAL Sweeney Todd (cont'd)


    Was the murderer Todd? We cannot be certain. But he said after his arrest many years later: "My first 'un was a young gent at Hyde Park Corner. Slit him from ear to ear, I did."



    There is, however, no disputing where he next came to light - Fleet Street. There, he would combine the ingenuity of a cutler with the skill of a barber to embark on an era of bloodshed unique in British criminal history.


    London at the time was a perfect setting for Todd's misdeeds. Policing was in its infancy and human life was cheap, with the stench of poverty, illness and debauchery enveloping the crowded city. Fleet Street itself was little more than a huddle of taverns, mean dwellings, exhibitions and freak shows.

    The exact location of Todd's shop is disputed. I believe it was at number 186 Fleet Street, beside St Dunstan's Church. Its position is in direct line to Bell Yard on the other side of the church where the pie shop was placed, the two points linked by many passageways.


    As I was completing a new edition of my book on Todd, the London filmmaker Tom Whitter added an intriguing piece to the jigsaw. He had located old plans of the tunnels, which satisfied him that this labyrinth made communication between Fleet Street and Bell Yard feasible.


    He invited me to visit the underground chambers and it was not difficult to see how they might have served Todd's purposes.


    Todd paid £125 for the lease on the dilapidated shop and advertised his dual role of barber and surgeon with a white pole striped in red. The words "Sweeney Todd, Barber" were painted in fat yellow letters over the door.

    The 18th-century barber was both hairdresser and doctor. People went to him for minor bodily complaints and some barbers were even surgeons and performed small operations.


    The white on the pole represents a bandage with which the patient was bound after an operation. Sweeney Todd's window displayed jars filled with coagulated blood and rotten teeth. These were to advertise his skill at pulling teeth and bleeding clients.


    The barber himself was, if anything, even less attractive than his run-down shop. Accounts describe him as sullen, with heavy eyebrows, a hard mouth and pugnacious features.


    The Gentleman's Magazine said in 1853: "There was also something very sinister about him with his pale face and reddish hair. At times he was like some hobgoblin, his strange, dark eyes agleam with greed and cunning." The second killing ascribed to Sweeney Todd was committed in Fleet Street. An article in the Daily Courant of April 14, 1785, reported the murder of a young gentleman who had fallen into conversation with a man dressed as a barber.


    It said: "The two men came to an argument, and of a sudden the barber took from his clothing a razor and slit the throat of the young man, thereafter disappearing and was seen no more."


    Todd also killed an apprentice around this time, after he called at the barber shop carrying money for his master.


    Three more deaths in this period have been attributed to Todd, those of a pawnbroker, a share dealer and a petty crook. They were the last to die beyond the confines of Todd's shop. By now he had the means to kill and rob with greater certainty on his own premises - his revolving chair.

    The device, with a seat on either side of a movable square of floorboards, was possibly inspired by a waxworks exhibition in Fleet Street, where revolving machinery made wax figures kick out and frighten visitors.
    There is only one authentic account of a victim being murdered in the chair, recorded in an incomplete handwritten document.


    The report was made by a man whose father had been killed by Sweeney Todd around 1798. Thomas Shadwell, a watchman at St Bartholomew's hospital, was also robbed of a gold pocket-watch, later recovered from 186 Fleet Street.


    By now, Todd was dissatisfied with the money and valuables he had amassed from his victims. The barber-sought a better way to dispose of their bodies. He found the solution in a young widow called Mrs Lovett.


    Her first name has been given as Margery or Sarah and she appeared to have a penchant for strong, violent men. It is surprising to some that Todd should have had lovers. The clichÈ of the serial killer is that of the lonely Norman Bates figure.


    But multiple murderers often have wives or girlfriends, such as Ian Huntley with Maxine Carr; Ian Brady with Myra Hindley; and Peter Sutcliffe was married.


    Whatever the dynamics of their relationship, Todd sensed a kindred spirit in Lovett. The attraction between the big, ugly man and the buxom widow was also, without doubt, strongly sexual.


    After their moments of intimacy, which legend tells us followed a successful murder and the preparation of the flesh for the pies, Lovett may well have found her lover's coarseness irritating, but the gruesome relationship prospered.


    Serial killers usually repeat their methods. Todd did exactly that after his initial murders. He would cut off the arms and legs and then slice the soft flesh from the torso.


    This was added to the 'meat' stripped from the limbs plus the heart, liver and kidneys, and put in a box for carrying along tunnels to Lovett's bakery beneath her shop.


    There it was made into the pies that were so popular with her customers. The bones were left to rot in a disused family vault under the church.

    It was the smell of rotting flesh from St Dunstan's that was the undoing of Todd. The Daily Courant reported: "The dreadful charnelhouse sort of smell would make itself most painfully and disagreeably apparent." This, and rumours about sea-faring men disappearing from Todd's shop, attracted the attention of Sir Richard Blunt, police-magistrate of the Bow Street Runners' Craven Street office.


    In 1801, Blunt ordered the Runners to watch Todd's shop. Several times, Blunt visited the barber's himself and was shaved, but always with a companion. Later, he searched the church tunnels, where his party soon stumbled upon the family vault and the recent remains of human bodies.
     
  3. The REAL Sweeney Todd (cont'd)


    Going further, following footsteps in the dirt, the Runners found themselves at the back of Lovett's underground cookhouse. The evidence confirmed a nightmare Blunt had been reluctant to admit: Todd was not only a mass murderer, but he was turning his victims into filling for pies.

    Later, while the barber was out, police searched his shop. They found cupboards stuffed with clothes and drawers of valuables such as gold watches. When Lovett was arrested, she confessed. She said she was a willing accomplice, but did not elaborate on whether that was out of love or fear.

    Blunt and his men then strode into 186 Fleet Street to write the last chapter in the bloody saga of the Demon Barber. Todd was handcuffed and taken to Newgate.


    London was gripped by stories of the pair's crimes. Crowds gathered in Fleet Street and Bow Street anxious to hear the latest gossip.

    But as Blunt busied himself preparing the evidence for the trial, he received crashing news. Lovett had killed herself with poison, probably bought from a guard. The coming prosecution overshadowed the Christmas of 1801. The Daily Courant predicted it would be "one of the trials of the age". And so it was, as comprehensive reports in the Newgate Calendar show.

    Subtitled the Malefactor's Bloody Register, the Newgate Calendar's weekly accounts of sensational trials presaged modern crime reporting, treating highwaymen and other criminals as celebrities. Its reports prove beyond doubt that Todd existed.


    Todd was charged at the Old Bailey with a single murder, that of Francis Thornhill. The Attorney General, for the prosecution, described how Thornhill had been commissioned to take a string of pearls worth £16,000 to a young woman in London.


    On his way to deliver them, he went into Todd's shop to be shaved and was never seen again. Todd later pawned a string of pearls for £1,000.

    Thornhill's case inspired The String Of Pearls, a serial published in a weekly magazine in 1846, which weaved in other characters and events. It is the basis for numerous book and plays, in turn leading to the 1979 Sondheim musical and the new Burton movie.


    Continuing his submission, the Attorney General told the court that clothing for 160 people was found in Todd's shop. There was stunned silence. Men and women looked at each other in disbelief. Had they heard right?

    There was more. The prosecution was able to prove a leg bone found in the church vaults belonged to Thornhill. A surgeon, Sylvester Steers, who treated Thornhill for a fracture, recognised the bone as his patient's.

    The jury conferred for less than five minutes before delivering a guilty verdict. Pandemonium broke out and the judge struggled to restore order. Then, says the Newgate Calendar: "All eyes were turned upon the most dastardly criminal of the age, Sweeney Todd, who stood in the dock glaring at the foreman of the jury."


    The sentencing of criminals in 1802 did not require the judge to withdraw first. He simply took up a black cap and placed it over his wig, before delivering the death sentence: "You cannot expect that society can do otherwise than put out of life someone who, like yourself, has been a terror and a scourge."

    After his execution, the facts about Sweeney Todd were rapidly distorted. Most accounts say he was hanged at Tyburn, the infamous spot for dispatching highwaymen now occupied by Marble Arch. In fact, executions ceased at Tyburn in 1783.


    Instead, Sweeney Todd was taken from his cell in Newgate on the morning of January 25, 1802, and hanged on a portable scaffold in front of a crowd of thousands. He was 46 years old.


    Even in death, there was a final, sickening irony. Todd's body was taken down after hanging for an hour and carried to the Royal College of Surgeons in the Old Bailey for dissection.


    The Demon Barber was himself polished off, butchered for the benefit of the nascent medical profession. It seemed doubly appropriate that he should end his days as a pile of flesh, bones and offal.

    • ADAPTED from Sweeney Todd: The Real Story Of The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street by Peter Haining, published by Robson Books at £8.99. ° Peter Haining 2007. To order a copy (p&p free), call 0845 606 4206.



    (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=509190&in_page_id=1770)</STRONG>
     
  4. great article- I saw an old movie about the barber who killed his clients and turned them into pies which were eaten throughout London, and I assumed the eating of the pies part of the story was somewhat exaggerated- Yuck, I guess not.
     
  5. Interesting. And disgusting!
     
  6. Yeah, I know I said I would only post happy/uplifting/funny news stories, but this was too fascinating not to pass up!


    I knew Jack the Ripper was real, but not Sweeney Todd!
     
  7. fascinating!!!!
     
  8. Great post... I was in the musical when my community theatre group did it, so I had heard some of the background, but this had so much info that I didn't know!
     
  9. Wow. I'd heard of the legend of Sweeny Todd, but didn't know the details.

    Speaking of eating people... I'm a VERY distant relative of one of the travelers who ended up in the Donnor Party. While he didn't make it, his wife and children did. I believe, (without looking up my files) that his son married one of my great-great-grandmother's sisters. I'll find it and post it again when I do.
     

  10. Fascinating article, thanks for posting!
    I never realised that this is where the red and white poles originated from, kind of creepy really to see them now :wtf:
     
  11. interesting.... thanks for the article :smile:
     
  12. Fascinating was exactly the word I was going to use too! IDK why, but I like these awful old stories, yet I hate the more recent ones:shrugs: Oh well, I'm totally ordering that book.

    ps- I think "ginsodden" is my new favorite word :lol:
     
  13. Thank you so much for the intriguing read!! I didn't know it was factual...
     
  14. Great article. Such a gruesome story, I had no idea it was based on truth. Thanks for posting!
     
  15. OOOO.....so totally gruesome yet fascinating at the same time.


    Anne