Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

First Blood

"His needs were few, his room was bare
A lavabo and a fancy chair
A mug of suds and a leather strop
An apron, a towel, a pail and a mop
For neatness he deserves a nod
Does Sweeney Todd."

"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" by Stephen Sondheim

Released from prison when he was 19, Sweeney Todd now had a trade to practice and revenge against society to seek. He first set up shop as a "flying barber," one of the city's countless gypsy tradesmen who practiced their craft wherever they could find space. Flying barbers guarded their territory jealously, and contemporary newspapers frequently reported episodes of territorial battles ending in bloodshed.

Souvenir Booklet for Sweeney Todd play
Souvenir Booklet for Sweeney Todd play

It was during Sweeney's time as a flying barber that circumstantial evidence points to the so-called demon barber committing his first murder. Although there is no record of Sweeney Todd ever getting married, Haining was able to find reports that the barber had shacked up with a woman of reportedly loose morals. Todd was apparently a jealous suitor, for one afternoon, when a drunken cavalier came to him for a shave and reported having experienced the favors of a woman matching the description of Todd's lover, the demon barber used his razor as a weapon for the first time.

"My first 'un was a young gent at Hyde Park Corner," Todd would later confess. "Slit him from ear to ear, I did."

The London papers reported the murder: "A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been jealous of his wife...A young gentleman, by chance coming into the barber's shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned having seen a fine girl in Hamilton Street, from whom he had had certain favours the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber, concluding this to be his wife, and in the height of frenzy, cut the young gentleman's throat from the ear to ear and absconded."

Sweeney Todd managed to escape the Bow Street Runners and was never brought to justice for his crime. The event, however, ended his relationship with the young woman, and he clearly had to practice his trade elsewhere for a while.


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