Students will watch any film version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and in conjunction with the related article e-mailed to the class, prepare a two-page analysis that explores the dichotomy that exists between the protagonist as a fictional character versus a historical figure.
A LOOK BACK: THE REAL SWEENEY TODD, “DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET,” EXECUTED
Sweeney Todd is best known as the fictional murderous barber who was immortalized in Victorian penny dreadfuls, urban legend, and later a Broadway musical and Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp.
The character, who first appeared in The String of Pearls in 1846, killed his victims by slitting their throats and pulling a lever as they sat in his barber chair, dumping them backward through a secret trap door before robbing their corpses. His accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, got rid of the dead bodies by baking their flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting customers.
Experts continue to debate whether or not Sweeney Todd was an actual historical figure. Some researchers, including U.K. author Peter Haining, have claimed that the real Sweeney Todd was executed at Newgate prison on January 25, 1802.
In his book Sweeney Todd: The Real Story Of The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, Peter Haining says Todd’s barber shop was most likely located at 186 Fleet Street in London, right next door to a church that was connected to Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop through underground passages. According to Geograph, the barber shop was located in the yard behind the buildings shown below.
186 Fleet Street in the 1870s or ’80s [Henry Dixon, public domain]
The author claims that Sweeney Todd was born on October 26, 1756, in Brick Lane and had a violent early life with his mother, who was a silk weaver, and an abusive father.
As a boy, Todd developed a bizarre interest in the instruments of torture displayed at the nearby Tower of London. In 1770, he spent five years behind bars in Newgate prison for petty theft.
In 1769, Todd signed on as an apprentice cutler to John Crook of Holborn — whose specialty was razors. Todd displayed a natural talent, and soon opened his own shop near Hyde Park Corner. Haining says that Todd killed an apprentice around this time, and three more deaths have also been attributed to him during this period.
Haining wrote that Mrs. Lovett’s first name has been given as Margery or Sarah and, incredibly, she incorporated blood and other organs into her pies, which became popular with customers. She left the bones in a family vault under St. Dunstan’s church. Eventually, the smell of rotting flesh from the church aroused the suspicion of a police officer, who visited the shop and found the remains in the church tunnels.
Todd was arrested, and sent to Newgate jail. Todd was charged at the Old Bailey with the murder of Francis Thornhill, who disappeared after going into Todd’s shop carrying pearls worth £16,000. Thornhill was never seen again, and Todd later pawned a string of pearls for £1,000.
Lovett escaped justice by killing herself with poison. Haining found accounts of the coming prosecution in the Newgate Calendar around the Christmas holiday in 1801, and The Daily Courant predicted it would be “one of the trials of the age.”
“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,” Haining wrote. “Its reports prove beyond doubt that Todd existed.”