Separating Fact From Fiction: Sweeney Todd

Suspicions fall on the barber who last saw Thornhill alive, whose assistant Tobias Ragg was thrown into a madhouse for accusing Sweeney Todd of murder. Colonel Jeffrey disguises himself and becomes Todd’s new assistant. He discovers the dismembered remains of hundreds of Todd’s victims in the crypt understand St Dunstan’s church next door. Men who sit in the barber’s chair were tipped backwards through a revolving trap door, dropping down in the basement where they broke their necks. If this didn’t kill them, Todd went downstairs and slit their throats with his straight razor. The bodies were butchered and put into pies to be transported through an underground passage to nearby Bell Yard where they were sold at Mrs Lovett’s pie shop.

Johanna’s missing lover was found enslaved and forced to work as a cook in the basement. As the mystery unravelled, Mark was finally able to escape through the lift between the basement and the shop, where he announced to the gathered customers, “Ladies and gentlemen – I fear that what I am going to say will spoil your appetites; but the truth is beautiful at all times, and I have to state that Mrs. Lovett’s pies are made of human flesh!”

It concluded with a happy ending for the good heroes. Sweeney Todd poisoned Mrs Lovett and was hanged for his crimes, while Johanna and Mark got married and live happily ever after.

The story was immensely popular in 1840s London. There was a stage play in the works by the time the six month serial was finished and was promoted with the promise that it was based on true events. Although people across the city, and even the country, had read the story as a fiction, the belief that it was true caught on like wildfire.

At the time, it was certainly easy enough to believe.

Newspapers that reported crimes sensationalised and exaggerated them enough anyway that even the more outlandish aspects of the story weren’t that far away from apparently factual reports. Barbers of the era typically doubled as surgeons who performed bloodletting, amputations and minor operations. This means they would likely have the tools and skills necessary for this kind of murder.

In an era when criminal investigation was clumsy at best and death was common, it would not have been difficult to believe that someone could get aware with such a vast crime.

The story itself, as many penny dreadfuls did, played on real fears commonly held in society. Rather than instigating an entirely new fear, Prest gave a physical form to one that already existed among London’s dark superstitions. Many of Prest’s primary characters, minor details and even broader specifics can be safely considered fiction. For instance, there is no record of there having been a barber shop on Fleet Street at the time the story was set. But there were stories in the newspapers that are eerily similar to that of the Demon Barber that may well have inspired Prest.

Some scholars believe that Prest was inspired by the story of Sawney Bean, the folkloric Scottish clan leader reportedly responsible for over 1,000 cannibalistic murders. Living somewhere between the 13th and 16th century, Bean is said to have lived in a cave in Bennane Head with his wife and their progeny, completely unknown to nearby villagers. They robbed and murdered passing travellers, keeping their possessions and eating their corpses. The clan of 48 (many the result of incest between Bean’s fourteen children) were eventually hunted down by a team of 400 and their bloodhounds. They were taken alive to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh and brutally executed without trial.

Though widely reported in rumour magazines, Sawney Bean is now considered to be a folk tale. But the fear of his cannibalistic clan was widespread and very real. While the story doesn’t share many similarities with Sweeney Todd, it would have been well worth Prest tapping into the impact it had on those who knew it.

Some believe that Prest was inspired by the true story of a barber who murdered his wife and her lover when he found out about her affair. It was reported in the newspapers after he was tried for his crime. It was said that the lover bragged about his affair while having a shave, not knowing that the barber was married to the woman in question. The shave was never finished. Instead, the lover’s throat was cut.

Though this may have offered an initial spark of inspiration, there is another story that bears more resemblance still to the one that made Prest’s reputation.

In 1816, a full thirty years before Prest wrote The String of Pearls, a retired French policeman called Joseph Fouché published a book of true crime called Archives de la Police. The book documented some of the most incredible cases he dealt with in his years as an officer.

One of them was the story of a barber and a baker whose shops were next door to each other on the Rue de la Harpe. Set less than ten years after the French Revolution, times were tough and the two men turned to crime to make ends meet. The barber would murder his patrons and leave their bodies in the basement, where the connecting wall had been knocked down so the baker could strip them of their meat to put in his pies.

Fouché’s book claims that the two men were sentenced to the rack at the Palais de Justice in 1801. This story was so sensational that it was reported in newspapers around the world, including in London where they would certainly have been seen by the creators of Sweeney Todd. This, however, is not definitive proof that a real life Demon Barber existed in Paris, as there is some controversy around Fouché’s book.

The official records kept by the Palais de Justice, for instance, make no mention of such a case. Many people believe that the book, much like many reportedly true stories of the time, was largely sensationalised. It may even have been complete fiction in an effort to sell more copies and make more money than any true stories could have generated.

There are some scholars who argue vehemently that Sweeney Todd was a real person, citing him as a historical figure whose story has simply been inflated. The documented evidence for this, however, is sparse to non-existent.

Whether you believe a Demon Barber truly existed or not, the story’s influence British culture is inescapable. From the original story, through countless films, to musicals and even a ballet, Sweeney Todd has woven his bloody tale into the fabric of London’s folklore.



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