Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

The Runners Close In

"Swing your razor wide, Sweeney
Hold it to the skies
Freely flows the blood of those
Who moralize!"

"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" by Stephen Sondheim.

St. Dunstan's was old and musty, but the smell, which permeated the church and sacristy, was putrid beyond comprehension. They had been burying people in the catacombs there for hundreds of years, and never before had the smell of decay and death been so prevalent. It got so bad that ladies attending the services would require a handkerchief scented with vinegar or perfume in order to sit through the services, and the parson himself was reported to "sneeze in the midst of discourse and to hold to his pious mouth a handkerchief, in which was some strong and pungent essence, for the purpose of trying to overcome the effluvia."

The matter went on for some months before anyone thought to contact the authorities to investigate. At first the church leaders were afraid that some sort of disease was rampant in the facility, and they contacted the London health department (such as it was in the 18th century), but a study of the parishioners and others nearby found no more deaths or sicknesses than normal. At their wits' end, the church fathers sought the help of the Bow Street Runners to begin an investigation. The Beadle of St. Dunstan's, known to history only as "Mr. Otton", was also a constable for the Runners and he took the matter to his chief, Sir Richard Blunt, who had taken charge of the police force after the death of Henry Fielding.

The smell, Otton told Blunt, reminded him of the smell of rotting corpses, but no one had been buried in St. Dunstan's in many years, and the catacombs below the church had been adequately sealed. Blunt and Otton launched an investigation, descending into the bowels of the church and inspecting the vaults they found there. None had been disturbed, although the stench was much stronger in the crypt. The sewers, which ran near the church, were also scrutinized, and they were found to be in working order and not leaking offal into the church. Blunt left the church with a firmer understanding of the problem, but with no idea what the cause might be.

Another Runner was to provide the link between Sweeney Todd and the mysterious stench of St. Dunstan's Church. It seemed that the rumors of the mysterious disappearances of several sailors who vanished after seeking a polishing off at Sweeney's barbershop had started the gossips' tongues wagging, and the constable dutifully reported the chit-chat to Blunt. Sir Richard didn't immediately put Todd together with the smell, but employing the now-common police technique of records investigation, Blunt found that Sweeney Todd had once been accused of theft of a pair of silver shoe buckles. The case had not stood up because the buckles were of a fairly common sort, but the woman who charged the barber with the theft was adamant that her husband, who had mysteriously disappeared one day, had worn the exact same buckles on his shoes.

Sir Richard was savvy enough to assume that where there is smoke, there is fire, and he put Todd's shop under a close watch. In typical bureaucratic fashion, Sir Richard reported his suspicions to his superiors and was given the green light to "use whatever means might be necessary" to solve the mystery. Over the next several months, three Runners watching Sweeney's barbershop reported that men had entered the store for a shave or haircut and had not been seen to leave.  Sir Richard became more convinced that Todd was murdering clients, and that somehow, St. Dunstan's Church was involved. He decided to revisit the vaults, this time with a crew of Bow Street's finest, to get to the bottom of the issue.

Armed with just a compass, walking stick, and oil lanterns, the men descended once again into the fetid stench of the church's crypt. After a few moments of searching they stumbled across the crypt of the Weston family, which had been one of the Demon Barber's favorite dumping grounds. What they found there was reported in the newspapers in gruesome detail: "Piled one upon each other and reaching halfway up to the ceiling, lay a decomposing mass of human remains. Heaped one upon another heedlessly tossed into the disgusting heap any way, lay pieces of gaunt skeletons with pieces of flesh here and there only adhering to the bones. Heads in a similar state of decay were tumbled about, the whole enough to strike such horror into the heart of any man," wrote the Courier in its account of Sweeney Todd's trial.

Coming to the horrible realization that they had finally located the source of the stench, the Bow Street Runners pressed on, following bloodstained footprints until they disappeared at the back of a shop, apparently on Bell Yard. Sir Richard, who was known as an acute thinker, realized that Sweeney Todd was murdering his clients, and what was worse, he was disposing of the evidence by serving the meat in a pie.


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