October Flurry: Sweeney Todd

Wednesday, and the week just keeps getting better and better.  It’s conspiring against my October Flurry plans, sigh.  I’m going to keep plugging as hard as I can, but obviously the bloom is off the rose, missing three days already.  Oh, well.  I’ll do my best to catch up, but it’s going to require me doubling up, posting twice in a day, which I’m not at all sure I can do.  We’ll see how it plays out.

We have had the worst weather here in the the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  Thunderstorms in October, really?  And tornadoes?  No kidding:  we had real tornadoes in the area yesterday.  They weren’t big, and there were no injuries or significant property damage, but still, wild weather for October here.

Okay, so let’s talk Sweeney Todd, probably one of the most famous urban legends of 19th century London.  If you have read my post on penny dreadfuls, you know that much of the infamy of the legend came from a story published in those 19th century serialized trashy novels.  In the 20th century, the 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has brought the story to a new audience.  I personally first heard of it when Showtime aired a 1982 recording of the Broadway revival with George Hearn in the title role, and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett (it’s been bootlegged to YouTube; you can check it out here).  It was brilliant.  Most of you have probably heard of it through the Tim Burton version with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter; I personally didn’t like this version, but it’s not without its merits (this duet between Depp and villain Alan Rickman makes up for much of the flaws, IMHO).

Okay, so who the heck is Sweeney Todd?  Okay, the original story is pretty simple.  Barber in the poorest section of London takes a notion to start offing his clients.  So he builds a special barber’s chair.  When he triggers the trap, the chair tips the victim backwards down a slide that leads down into the basement of his shop.  The victim dies by smashing his head or breaking his neck when he hits the floor in the basement.  If he doesn’t die in the fall, Todd goes downstairs and finishes the job. Todd’s partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett (sometimes identified as his landlady, sometimes as his lover) then helps him hack up the bodies; she then cooks the flesh into meat pies, which she sells to the hungry public.

In later versions of the story, Todd didn’t bother with the trick chair.  Instead he just slit their throats when they settled back for a shave (once upon a time, men often went to barber shops to have a professional shave their whiskers.  I’m reliably informed that shaving yourself with a straight razor is tricky and dangerous; it’s easier to shave somebody else).  In the original legends, there are no clear motives identified for the murders, beyond just bloodlust and craziness.

Sweeney Todd’s weapon of choice. Both my husband and elder daughter own blades like these; I think Elder Son might have one, too (I have a delightfully weird family). I watched my husband shave with it once. It’s not as easy as it sounds; definitely requires steady hands and a very VERY keen edge.

In 1846, a penny dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls” was published and was a big success with the British public (it’s in public domain and online for free; you can read it here).  It was such a success that it was turned into a play even before the serial had finished being released.  More plays followed in short order.  It was plagiarized for American audiences, and eventually appeared in novel form in both countries, and in short, it was the “Saw” of its day:  gruesome, sensational, and extremely popular.

Since 1846, it has never really disappeared from the public.  It has been written as plays, novels, and movies over and over again, throughout the last half of the 19th century and the entirety of the 20th (Wikpedia has a more comprehensive list; check it here).  It’s also appeared in at least one ballet — no kidding — and has figured in various pieces of music.  Like I said above, the Stephen Sondheim musical is the most famous modern version, and deservedly so.  Probably the most recent appearance is in the 2012 novel Dodger by Terry Pratchett; in that book, he’s a tragic figure driven mad by PTSD from the Napoleanic Wars.

So the $64 is, was Sweeney Todd a real guy?  Ummm….. well, there are arguments on both sides.  Arguments against it point to the original urban legends.  In London at the height of the Victorian era, the poorest couldn’t afford to have a stove or other cooking necessities in their homes. Most of them depended on food bought from street vendors.  And the street food, well, “incredibly effing nasty” does not begin to cover it.  If you were lucky, the average “beef pie” would have real meat in it, though cat was more likely than cow; plaster of Paris and powdered chalk adulterated the flour used in making the crust.  If you were not lucky?  Well, according to some sources, over 50% of meat in street food was rancid and/or contaminated with everything from soot and dirt to lice, bedbugs, animal hair and other icky things.  Ewwww!  Urban legends acting as warnings or object lessons would practically have to arise suggesting that even more horrific things could be found in the nastiest of street foods; in that sense, Sweeney Todd’s story was practically inevitable. Then there’s the fact that there are other versions:  a French one about a wigmaker who killed people and disposed of them in pies.  There’s the legend of Sawney Bean, a Scottish legend about a family of cannibals who terrorized highway travelers in the 15th/16th/17th century.

More telling, there is no record in period newspapers describing the arrest or trial of anybody named Sweeney Todd, or anybody being busted, tried, or punished for disposing of corpses in people pies.  There are also no accounts in police records or the courts about any cases even vaguely resembling the Todd story.

However!  There are people who think the Sweeney Todd story might have a basis in fact.  According to a fellow named Peter Haining (who wrote a book in 1993), Sweeney was real man from the previous century, the son of abusive, alcoholic textile workers.  After his parents abandoned him, he went into an apprenticeship, but mostly kept busy with petty larceny, which landed him in Newgate Prison before he turned 13 (not at all uncommon back then).  There he was apprenticed to the prison barber, who also served as coroner and undertaker for the inmates.  This gruesome work taught him the barbering trade and also immured him to the gore of hacking up bodies.  There he stayed at work and under control, mostly, until being released at age 19.  Once free, he set himself up in a barber shop, and went to work.

Unlike in the Victorian story or the plays and media that followed it, the original Sweeney Todd made his first kill over jealousy.  Supposedly, while in Todd’s chair, a client confessed to diddling Todd’s girlfriend, not realizing Todd’s connection to her.  In a fit of jealous rage, he slit the guy’s throat and dumped the body, which was found a few days later.  No pies yet; until Mrs. Lovett enters the picture, he hid the bodies in the crypts and sewers under London streets. Once Mrs. Lovett, who is identified only as a middle aged widow of no great beauty, does make her appearance, as Todd’s lover, Todd is reportedly the one who conceives the idea of cooking up his kills.  He sets her up in a shop, and delivers the bodies to her abattoir via an underground tunnel between his shop and hers.  Anything that wasn’t used for cooking was dumped in the catacombs of St. Dunstan’s church, which is on Fleet Street, conveniently adjacent to the Bell Yard, the reported site of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop.

And the church is how they were reportedly caught.  Back in the day, you expected a certain amount of nasty smells to come from the church yard and catacombs of a church. But there was too much stench of decay coming from St. Dunstan’s, and a Bow Street runner was sent to investigate (the Bow Street Runners were a force of law-enforcement agents who predated the proper police; they were never very organized, numerous or powerful, had very limited arrest powers, and operated on a template that was a weird cross between a detective agency and Dog the Bounty Hunter; not exactly the Pride of Scotland Yard).  The Bow Street men connected this gruesome discovery with some very nasty rumors about a local barber, and next thing you know, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are under arrest.  From there, you can imagine the rest:  media circus, Mrs. Lovett cheats the hangman by suicide with poison, Todd goes to trial in 1801 (for the death of just one guy, a sailor), found guilty thanks to the mounds (literally; ewww! again) of evidence, and by the end of 1802, he’s hanged.  End of story.

But!  Is it true?  Ummm…. Maybe there was a guy named Sweeney Todd in the 18th century.  Maybe he was hanged for murder.  But was he the source of the legend?  Well, I’m just not seeing it.  According to Haining’s book, Todd was only tried for one murder, the death of a sailor; supposedly they suspected him of bunches of deaths, but there are no court records saying so.  And Mrs. Lovett was never tried at all, thanks to dying before coming to trial.  Therefore the whole meat pies thing is just conjecture, no court records examining the evidence. As to the court records about this trial, well, there aren’t any, not between 1674 and 1913, at least, which is what the Old Bailey (London’s criminal courts) have made available online.  You can check it for yourself here.

There were nothing we would recognize today as a functional libel law back then; a newspaper could go on record saying you had two heads, seven peckers, and secretly had love affairs with ducks, and there was essentially nothing you could do to stop it.  And even Haining admits that the newspapers went plumb hooty-wild with this story, spinning yarns that spun way out of control, and bearing no resemblance to the facts actually entered into evidence.  And that’s the sticking point for me, personally.  I personally think popular folklore took this guy’s name and stuck it to an existing legend, aided and abetted by out-of-control journalism (and I use the term loosely) and the morbid bent of a sensation-hungry populace.

But that’s me.  You might have a different opinion.  The Crime Libray has a really good write-up of the story and Haining’s case.  You can read it here.  If you want to read Haining directly, rather than the Crime Library precis, the book is available at Amazon.  For myself, I prefer it as an urban legend, a cautionary tale and lurid scary story of the dangers of poverty, madness and the dangers of urban life in the 19th century.

And that’s it for me.  Wow, I got long winded, didn’t I?  Sorry about that.  We’re going to try and pick up where we left off on October Flurry tomorrow.  In the meantime, don’t forget to tweet, share, comment, and, if you have any recommendations for Fun Friday, email me at the address listed on my About AJ page.  (ooh, and I just recently rediscovered a real treat for my Steampunk fans; I’ll be talking about it on Friday!)  Until I see you again, be good, or if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

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Categories: History, Horror, October Flurry, Steampunk | Leave a comment

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