Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

An Evil Glimmer

Not surprisingly, there are no pictures of Sweeney Todd, and descriptions of the man himself must be taken with a grain of salt. At the time he practiced his gruesome task, stereotypes abounded, and the physical portrayals in the penny dreadfuls may or may not be accurate. He is described as a scary-looking character with bright red hair and heavy eyebrows that seemed to meet over his nose. He rarely was in good humor, frequently complaining about the high levels of crime, poverty and drunkenness outside his doorway. His eyes had an evil glimmer, the papers reported upon his arrest. "There was also something very sinister about him with his pale face and reddish hair," wrote Gentleman's Magazine in an 1853 retrospective. "At times he was like some hobgoblin, his strange, dark eyes agleam with greed and cunning." Another later account called him "so repulsive in appearance that it is a wonder that...customers...did not immediately flee when the demon in human frame commenced operations."

As a master, Sweeney Todd showed little compassion for the parish boys he took in as apprentices, and in one case, the knowledge of what his master was up to drove one poor lad to insanity and incarceration in the local madhouse. Sweeney Todd drank alone in the taverns, and he was never seen to touch gin, opting instead for the more refined brandy.

By this time, Sweeney Todd was clearly an accomplished murderer.  The Daily Courant, a Fleet Street-published broadsheet, reported a killing in 1785 that almost certainly was committed by Sweeney Todd. "A Cut-Throat Barber," goes the headline in the April 14, 1785 Courant. "A horrid murder has been committed in Fleet Street on the person of a young gentleman from the country while on a visit to relatives in London.

"During the course of a walk through the city, he happened to stop to admire the striking clock of St. Dunstan's Church and there fell into a conversation with a man in the clothing of a barber.

"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 into the alleys of Hen and Chicken Court and was seen no more."

The Outside of Sweeney Todd's Barber Shop
The Outside of Sweeney Todd's Barber Shop

Records indicate only one barbershop between St. Dunstan's and Hen and Chicken Court that of Sweeney Todd. How he was ever able to escape justice is almost unimaginable; not even the Keystone Cops could have been this ignorant, but somehow, Sweeney Todd evaded the apparently short arm of London Law.


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