Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

Newgate Prison

Punishment and repentance, not reform and rehabilitation were the watchwords of the British penal system at the time. Faced with mounting crime, authorities struck back with cruelty. It was thought that punishment should be a deterrent, so harsh penalties for minor offenses were common. Once executed, criminals were turned over to "barber-surgeons" for dissection, and they often faced cruel torture before being hanged. Burning them with hot irons and breaking them on the rack were soon abandoned, however, because there were far too many criminals to do this effectively. Later, gibbets were erected with iron cages in which the rotting bodies of executed criminals could serve as a warning to others, and it was not unusual to dump the criminal's body on the doorstep of the victim to show that justice had been done, Wilson reports!

Drawing of a Prisoner in cell at Newgate Prison
Drawing of a Prisoner in cell at Newgate Prison

Newgate Prison was a bleak, forbidding place on London's west side; its location is now the site of the Criminal Courts building, known as Old Bailey. It housed prisoners of all types, from child pickpockets to elderly procuresses. In keeping with the community's theory of corrections, Newgate was not designed to rehabilitate anyone. The prison was rife with corruption, and only those convicts who had access to money could count on any humanitarian gestures on the part of their jailers. To society, the prisoners were little more than zoo animals. It was a common practice in the 18th century for Londoners to pay a three shilling entrance fee for a chance to see the wretched inmates in their 9 by 7 foot cells. Dickens, who was one of the tourists to Newgate, was so taken with the young convicts he encountered that he was inspired to write Oliver Twist.

In the prison, Sweeney Todd managed to convince the prison barber, a convict himself, that his previous apprenticeship as a cutler would make him an ideal soap-boy for the barber. It was necessary for the orphan to find some means of support in the prison, for convicts were required to pay bribes to their guards for even the simplest necessities. Someone with no money was likely to soon find himself naked and starving in Newgate.

Plummer the barber, who was four years into a sentence for embezzlement when Sweeney Todd was imprisoned, had found a niche in the prison society, thanks to the large number of well-to-do prisoners who still enjoyed a smooth shave now and then. He accepted Sweeney Todd as his apprentice and shared some of his meager income. One of Plummer's duties was to shave the prisoners slated for execution, and Sweeney Todd would often help in this job. The pair hit it off well, both were unscrupulous and dishonest, and Sweeney Todd learned not only the barber's trade from Plummer, but how to filch the meager change from the pockets of his reclining customers.

How often the bitter and angry young Sweeney Todd must have longingly eyed the bared throats of his customers and imagined the sleek razor slicing through the skin. As he passed his formative years behind the dark stonewalls of Newgate Prison, his hatred toward "his betters" grew and he resolved to even the score once he was a free man.


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