The Sweeney Todd Article

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
. The man’s title predates the song of Sondheim’s musical by about a hundred and fifty years, first appearing in print 1847 as the name of a melodrama performed in London. The story of Todd, popular as it is here in the states, is even moreso in the United Kingdom. About seven years ago I recall walking into a museum of children’s toys in Edinburgh and seeing, not without some surprise, a coin-operated machine from the 1920s that played out a scene of Sweeney murdering a client and Mrs. Lovett baking pies downstairs. I am told that Sweeney Todd is Britain’s La Llorona, used to threaten guillable kids by grandparents or malicious older siblings. 

Many people will be shocked to learn that historian Peter Haining has written two books about his research, having uncovered that the tale of Todd and his accomplice, pie-maker Mrs. Lovett, was modeled on a true case. 

According to Haining, the real Sweeney Todd was an orphan, growing up in London in the late 18th century. He was apprenticed to a cutler, working sharpening knives, but as a young teen was sent to jail for theft. There, he befriended the prison barber and took up a new apprenticeship under him. Once he was released at age nineteen, he set out to work in this new career, eventually setting up a shop in Fleet Street – an unusual location for a barber’s shop, but flourishing for the lack of competition. Of course, his intent was rarely to shave his clients, but to kill them, his motive being robbery. Money was very important to him: “What the devil did [my mother] bring me into this world for,” he stated at trial, explaining how his murderous tendancies began, “unless she had plenty of money to give me so that I might enjoy myself in it?” His tool for the crimes was his barber’s chair, specially set up so that anyone who leaned back in it would fall through a trapdoor, into a deep underground catacomb. The fall was high enough to usually bring on the client’s death, or at least disable them so he could finish them off with his razor when needed. This ingenious method ensured there would be no bodies or blood in the shop, and much less risk of getting caught. 

This other benefit to these catacombs was that they led to an easy place of disposal, for these were the burial crypts of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, a church that has stood by Fleet Street since the middle ages. Unfortunately for Todd, he was so prolific in his crimes that soon he found himself running out of room in the old vaults. For help, he turned to his girlfriend, Margery Lovett, a pie-maker whose shop was in nearby Bell Yard. The catacombs ran underneath her shop as well, and soon he was using them to make frequent deliveries of meat for her pies – which she claimed and sold as being made of veal. 

Unfortunately, Todd’s collection of corpses filling the catacombs proved to be his undoing. The stench, once they began to rot, started to come up through the church. The rector began to investigate the cause, and eventually the bodies, bones, and bloody footprints leading to the pie-shop all were found. Todd and Lovett both were arrested. Before the trial, Lovett confessed to everything, but she killed herself with poison the night before she was to testify. Todd was tried on one charge of murder – the only body still in an identifiable state – though the prosecution claimed to have seen evidence of at least 160 victims. He was found guilty, and hanged at Tyburn in 1802. 

A fascinating story, as good if not better than the stories of the plays, books and films – except it appears it’s all false. Haining, the historian who claims to have read the court transcripts and records, cited sources that never had any such information. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, where Todd was said to have been tried, hold no record of a Sweeney, Todd, or Barber tried for murder at the turn of the 19th century; Tyburn’s final hanging occurred almost twenty years before Todd was said to have swung there, and most notably, no newspapers of the time make mention of such a case. 

Ignoring Haining’s motives for making such claims, from whence did this story evolve? The first recorded version is usually said to be
The String of Pearls, published in The People’s Periodical in 1846, though an earlier version of the story is said to have been printed in instalments in 1840. This earlier version is nearly impossible to come by, but is said to be much less romanticized than the later, better-known text. 

These types of publications in which the Sweeney Todd stories first appeared are known as penny-dreadfuls, referencing their typical subject matter and price. They were popular, cheap pieces of work, and often took their inspirations from real-life events. What, then could be the event that started the stories for this popular tale? In 1825, we may find the answer, though some distance away from Fleet Street. 

Peeps into the Past puts it: “The ‘Tale,’ as it appears in ‘The Tell Tale, Fireside Companion and Amusing Instructor’ No. 1-16, page 510, is written in the form of a letter addressed to the Editor.” This letter is in fact an inquiry about the existance of a point of the Rue de la Harpe in Paris – a crowded street where, it is claimed, a mysterious empty spot exists in the buildings. On this site stands “a melancholy memorial, signifying, that upon this spot no human habitation shall ever be erected, no human being ever must reside!” The reason? A perruquier, assisted by his neighbor, a patissier, had been working to rob and murder his clients and then dispose of the bodies in pies. 

The story, as it’s told in the reprint to be found in
The Terrific Register, focused mostly on the occasion when the perruquier was caught – sensibly, since that’s the only person who would have survived to tell about it. The details are more or less the same as in the other Sweeney Todd stories, although no names are given for the two criminals. 

Could the Demon Barber of Fleet Street really be The Demon Wigmaker of Rue de la Harpe? Certainly, it is not so catchy a sound. It is said that when the murderers were caught, the story of what they had done so horrified the judges, that it was ordered as part of the sentence that the two homes in which these crimes were commited should be torn down, and no house ever built on the site again. 

Surely there must be evidence of happening, should there be any truth to such a st
ory – and indeed, in 1819, six years before the above story was printed, two houses were reported to have been torn down on the Rue de la Harpe. But for what reason? 

That, my friends, is because the Department of the Seine had recently purchased the property, knowing of some Ancient Roman ruins in the area. They wished to turn them into a museum of antiquities, and so, to provide access from the street, they tore down two houses blocking the way. These ruins are now encompassed by the property of the Musée National du Moyen Age, and can still be visited. Until the Boulevard Saint-Germain was built in the later 19th century, Rue de la Harpe connected to Place Saint-Michel (now Boulevard Saint-Michel.) The two houses in question would have been near this intersection, which is now covered by a sidewalk around the Musée’s property. 

And there you have it – a disappointing end to the search for Sweeney Todd. Some confused Parisian, seeing two buildings torn down on a popular residential street and hearing of no plans to replace them, imagines a horrible reason why no one wants to rebuild, and soon the rumor takes on a 200-year life of its own. While it seems curious that someone would distend the story of a 1,500 year old bath house into one about murder and cannibalism, the fact is Haining’s imagining of a complete trial transcript for the non-existant Sweeney Todd is no worse. 

Or is it still all false? Reportedly, the story of the perruquier on Rue de la Harpe was first told in 1800, in
Fouche’s Archives of the Police. There are no available copies, to my knowledge, and so the version of events it gives is unknown to me. Perhaps there is some truth to the story – maybe Sweeney Todd really was a murderer, living at the end of the 18th century and orphaned as a child, growing up after a time in prison to become one of the world’s most famous serial murderers. Perhaps he really was – The Demon Wigmaker of Rue de la Harpe. 


Gribben, Mark. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” The Crime Library. 01/08/2008. 

Peeps Into the Past. 01/08/2008. 

“Sweeney Todd.” Wikipedia. 01/08/2008. 

“Rue de la Harpe, Paris.” Wikipedia. 01/09/2008.,_Paris 

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“Horrible Affair in the Rue de la Harpe at Paris.” The Terrific Register; or, Record of Crimes, Judgements, Providences and Calamities, Vol. II. London: Sherwood, Jones and Co., 1825. 

“The Palais des Thermes, or Palace of the Baths.” The Saturday Magazine, Volume the Fourteenth. London: John William Parker, 1839. 

Bergdall, Barry. Paris Maps – Slide List. 01/09/2008 

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“Tyburn, London.” Wikipedia. 01/09/2008,_London 

St. Dunstan-in-the-West. 01/09/2008