In the annals of Victorian pulp fiction, the character of Sweeney Todd, otherwise known as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, occupies a prominent position. From his first appearance in print in some serialized Penny Dreadfuls in the 1840s, he appeared in numerous different stories.
The tale, in brief, is about a barber who kills people in his barber’s shop on Fleet Street in central London before having his victims made into mince pies sold to unsuspecting Londoners.
Within a few years of Todd’s tale appearing in print, a version had been adapted for the stage and was featured at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton in east London in the late 1840s.
A version of Todd’s story was then published in the United States in the early 1850s, and by the 1860s, continental writers such as the Frenchman, Paul Féval, were adapting Sweeney into a French character.
There is no doubt that Sweeney Todd’s tale was popular, but what many people don’t know is that it was also possibly based on a true life story.
Sweeney Todd and The String of Pearls
Before looking at who or what the tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was based on, let’s look a little more closely at the first literary rendering of the story in the 1840s.
The tale of Sweeney Todd was first published in work called The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance, which appeared in a serialized format in the Penny Dreadfuls published in London at the time.
The publication in question was the People’s Periodical and Family Library. These Penny Dreadfuls were a kind of Victorian pulp fiction that appeared in cheap serial publications in nineteenth-century England.
The themes generally concerned murder mysteries and horror stories combining Gothic and supernatural elements. The String of Pearls was most likely written by James Malcolm Rymer, possibly with Thomas Peckett Prest as his co-author.
Unfortunately, many Penny Dreadfuls of the time were not attributed to their author for copyright and commercial reasons, and so it is not possible to be entirely sure who the author of individual works was.
We are on firmer ground when it comes to the story itself. In The String of Pearls we learn that Sweeney Todd is a barber whose shop is on Fleet Street in London.
The story is based in 1785 and concerns the disappearance of an English mariner, Lieutenant Thornhill. Thornhill was last seen entering Todd’s barber shop. He was carrying a string of pearls that he intended to give to the lover of a man he had served with and who had been lost to the ocean during their voyage.
The story unfolds as Thornhill’s disappearance is investigated. In the process, we learn that Todd kills his victims by pulling a lever that opens a trap door underneath the chair in his barber shop. The customer then plummets down into his basement.
If the fall doesn’t kill the victim, Todd follows up and dispatches him with one of his razors before taking the body via an underground passageway to Mrs. Lovett’s bakery.
She is his criminal partner and makes mince pies out of the corpses of Todd’s victims. Eventually, as the investigation closes in on Todd and Lovett, he poisons her to cover his tracks, but he is apprehended and hanged.
Influences on James Malcolm Rymer
Given the nature of Rymer’s story and the popularity that it acquired in the decades following its initial appearance in the 1840s, it is unsurprising that people had wondered what influences might have been acting on Rymer when he wrote this story.
Was it based on an actual person? So far as we can tell, the earliest literary references to an individual who killed people and made them into pies come from France in the seventeenth century.
For instance, this set-up features a book by Father Jacques du Bruel entitled Le Théatre des Antiquités de Paris in 1612, which involves a homicidal pastry cook.
A few decades later, a Swedish traveler who visited northern France, Pehr Lindestrom, noted a story he had heard about a murderous barber who worked in the city of Calais. Versions of this earlier French story were being absorbed into English literary tradition by the early nineteenth century, and just a few years before The String of Pearls appeared in print, we find Charles Dickens writing in his book, Martin Chuzzlewit, about rumors of cannibalistic pastry chefs working in the large cities.
The Historical Sweeney Todd?
Given the emergence of these common motifs of cannibalistic chefs making pies out of human flesh in seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century England and France, we might ask if Sweeney Todd was based on a real-life person.
Several theories have been put forward to suggest that he might have been. For instance, in the 1800s, the chief of the Parisian police, Joseph Fouché, apparently oversaw an investigation of a barber who worked in the city and who was suspected of having killed several people before having his neighbor, a pastry cook, dispose of the evidence by baking the flesh into pies.
At first impression, this would seem to suggest that Fouché had investigated the crimes of a real-life Sweeney Todd, but this story is based on dubious evidence.
Nevertheless, an account of it was published in France in 1824 and may have formed the basis for Rymer and Prest’s story twenty years later. We cannot be sure.
Another theory was put forward some years ago proposing that Todd was a real-life character who committed his crimes in London around 1800 and 1801 before being arrested and executed in 1802, but the book in question has been found to have been based on largely falsified evidence.
What we can be sure of, though, is the psychology that made Sweeney Todd’s story so popular at the time. In the first half of the nineteenth-century English society had profoundly changed.
Hundreds of thousands of people had left their villages in the countryside and migrated to the towns. Here, rather than buying bread and meat from their village’s baker or butcher, people were suddenly purchasing food from grocers and purveyors who they didn’t know.
In an age before the government stepped in to regulate these industries and enforce quality standards, many butchers, bakers, and pie-makers tried to cut corners or substitute ingredients to make a greater profit.
Bakers in cities like London or Manchester bulked out their flour with sawdust, and no doubt a cat or two ended up in a pork pie from time to time. As such, while we cannot be sure if there was a historical Sweeney Todd, the one thing that we can be sure of is that the story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street reveals much about the anxieties city dwellers in early Victorian England felt about what they were eating and what it might be made out of.
Peter Haining, Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (London, 1993).
J. Robert Bradgate and Geraint G. Howells, ‘Food Law in the United Kingdom’, in Food, Drug, Cosmetic Law Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3 (May, 1991), pp. 447–466.