Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

The Demon Barber

"His hands were quick, his fingers strong
It stung a little but not for long
And those who thought him a simple clod
Were soon reconsidering beneath the sod"

"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" by Stephen Sondheim.

St Dunstan's Church
St Dunstan's Church

At 186 Fleet Street, between St. Dunstan's Church and the Hen & Chicken Court, Sweeney Todd hung out his shingle with the catchy rhyme "Easy shaving for a penny As good as you will find any." In the window of his shop, Haining reports, Todd made reference to the other, more surgical, duties of a barber. He placed jars with teeth he had pulled and blood he had let, along with wigs made of human hair he had braided. The shop, by all accounts, was a small, dark place, with a single barber chair in the middle of the floor, a bench for waiting customers and a rack filled with combs, scissors and, of course, razors. It was a two-story building, with Todd using the upstairs as his apartment. There was a basement, too, for which Sweeney Todd soon found a nefarious purpose.

One of the most difficult aspects of murder is disposing of the body. Even in 18th century London, where detection and prosecution was a haphazard affair, it wouldn't do to have evidence of homicide lying around. Using the skills he had learned as a cutler's apprentice, Sweeney Todd built the ingenious device that would help him get rid of the evidence of his crimes. Tying in his cutler's engineering skill, his barber training and the knowledge of the underground tunnels, Sweeney cut a square hole in the center of the floor of his shop. He then attached a pipe to the center of the bottom of the cut out, and fastened the pipe to the ceiling of the basement. Then Sweeney fashioned a series of levers that would allow him to withdraw a latch holding the square in place. When the customer reclined in the chair, his weight would cause the trap door to rotate, tumbling the unwitting victim into the basement below. Another barber chair, fastened to the bottom of the trap door would swing up into place, ready for the next victim.

Sweeney Todd & victim from a play
Sweeney Todd & victim from a play

Normally the fall would kill the victim, as it was apparently quite a drop, but sometimes Sweeney would be forced to hurry to the basement and dispatch the victim with a flick of the razor. Having the killing take place outside the one-room shop was convenient and clever, for Sweeney Todd never had to worry about someone walking in on him butchering a victim, and the empty chair which swung into place would alleviate concerns about a barbershop with no barber chair.


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