Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

The Legend of Sweeney Todd

"He kept a shop in London Town
Of fancy clients and good renown
And what if none of their souls were saved?
They went to their maker impeccably shaved
By Sweeney
By Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" by Stephen Sondheim.

Sweeney Todd and the penny dreadfuls
Sweeney Todd and the penny dreadfuls

Not long after Sweeney Todd was filleted by the barber-surgeons, the nascent pulp fiction market took hold of his story and, as fiction writers do, began to embellish it somewhat. The first stories that appeared in the one-cent "penny dreadfuls" the popular true-crime reports of the day were filled with ghastly accounts of a sub-human monster who used a barber chair and trapdoor to lure unsuspecting clients to their doom.

So-called "Newgate novels," stories with a moralistic turn, which demonstrated the folly of a life of crime, had been popular with the British public since the first true crime report appeared in 1776. That work, The Annals of Newgate, or the Malefactors Register, was prepared at the request of His Majesty's government by the Newgate chaplain and was immensely popular with the masses. Later came The Newgate Calendar, or the Malefactors Bloody Register, which highlighted the crimes of such notables as "Moll Cutpurse, master thief," "Daniel Davis, dishonest postman," Mary Carlton, a.k.a., "The German Princess, adventuress" and "Charles Fox, an offending dustman." Almost everyone in the Newgate Calendar ended up on the gallows.

The stories were often serialized to ensure repeat customers, and were enhanced to provide melodramatic aspects missing in the true account of the case. One of the most popular stories of Sweeney Todd created a love interest for the hapless apprentice. The String of Pearls," by Thomas Peckett Prest, became immensely popular and was quickly adapted for the stage by George Dibdin-Pitt for performance at the Britannia Theatre.

Actors recreate Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett for the stage

For centuries after his demise, Sweeney Todd was reincarnated on British stages around the country, much to the delight of the masses. Most plays were based on Prest's String of Pearls in some form or another, but the villains remained either Sweeney Todd, or in some cases, Margery Lovett.

With the invention of motion pictures, it was only natural that the Demon Barber would move to the screen. His first appearance in film was in a 1920s silent film version of String of Pearls. Haining reports that although no prints of the film remain, the movie, entitled simply Sweeney Todd, was a romantic comedy. Two years later, a serious horror film of Sweeney Todd was produced and in 1936, the Demon Barber had his first speaking role.

One of the main characters of String of Pearls was Tobias, Todd's apprentice, who was apparently modeled after the poor child whom Todd had committed to the asylum. In Pit's play, Tobias escapes thanks to the gin-drunk guards and returns to Fleet Street to avenge himself, expose the villain, capture the string of pearls and win the girl.


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