Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

An Unhappy Childhood

Sweeney Todd obviously did not enjoy a happy childhood, which ended all-too-quickly when he was forced to go to work helping his family load silk threads onto bobbins for the clothing mills. The Todds would never be able to afford the clothes they were making. Flax and wool, not silk, formed the basis for their wardrobes. And their wardrobes, meager as they were, were all the Todd family owned. "The poverty and distress of some of these people is inconceivable; very generally a family in every room with very little bedding, furniture or clothes. The few rags on their backs comprised the principal part of their property," a contemporary writer said about the silk industry workers.

Tower of London
Tower of London

Young Sweeney grew up in the shadow of the infamous Tower of London, which in his youth had been converted into a museum and the Royal Zoo. Haining reports that Sweeney spent as much time as possible in the tower, where he was fascinated by the displayed instruments of torture, the stories shared by Tower workers, as well as by the cruelty which the zookeepers inflicted on their imprisoned pets. His penchant for violence was further enhanced during the 1758 Silk Workers Riots, where impoverished workers infuriated over the importation of cheap calico, went on the warpath and attacked women wearing the inexpensive cotton cloth imported from India.

By all accounts, contemporary and historic, Sweeney was loved by his mother, beaten and ignored by his father. His mother's affections, however, weren't returned: "I was fondled and kissed and called a pretty boy," he testified in court. "But later 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?"

The defining moment in young Sweeney's life occurred when he was 12 or 13 years old. It was one of the coldest winters on record in London, and hundreds of poor people were freezing to death in their homes and on the streets. For his parents, the call of the gin mills was stronger than their dislike of cold, and one evening they went out and left Sweeney Todd alone at home. They never returned.

It was unlikely that they knowingly abandoned their only child; Haining supposes that they went out in search of alcohol and either found it and froze to death or died trying to find a drink. In his interrogation following his arrest, Sweeney Todd gave this account of his birth and family: "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."

How the young boy managed to survive is a mystery, and the next records pertaining to Sweeney Todd show that the youngster was turned over to the local parish, which was charged with finding apprenticeships for orphans.


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