Sweeney Todd

This article is about the original character. For other uses, see Sweeney Todd (disambiguation).
Sweeney Todd

Tod Slaughter as Sweeney Todd, 1936 film
Created by James Malcolm Rymer
Thomas Peckett Prest
Portrayed by Moore Marriott (1928 film)
Tod Slaughter (1936 film)
Len Cariou (1979 Broadway cast)
Denis Quilley (1980 London cast, 1993 London revival)
Michael Cerveris (2005 Broadway revival)
Ray Winstone (2006 film)
Johnny Depp (2007 film)
Aliases The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Benjamin Barker
Gender Male
Occupation Barber
Serial killer
Spouse(s) None in original version
Lucy Barker (musical version)

Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the villain of the Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls (1846–47).

The tale became a staple of Victorian melodrama and London urban legend, and has been retold many times since, most notably in the Tony award–winning Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler.

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a historical person[1][2] are strongly disputed by scholars,[3][4][5] although possible legendary prototypes exist.[6]

Plot synopsis

In the original version of the tale, Todd is a barber who dispatches his victims by pulling a lever as they sit in his barber chair. His victims fall backward down a revolving trapdoor into the basement of his shop, generally causing them to break their necks or skulls. In case they are alive, Todd goes to the basement and "polishes them off" (slitting their throats with his straight razor). In some adaptations, the murdering process is reversed, with Todd slitting his customers' throats before dispatching them into the basement through the revolving trapdoor. After Todd has robbed his dead victims of their goods, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime (in some later versions, his friend and/or lover), assists him in disposing of the bodies by baking their flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting customers of her pie shop. Todd's barber shop is situated at 186 Fleet Street, London, next to St. Dunstan's church, and is connected to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop in nearby Bell Yard by means of an underground passage. In most versions of the story, he and Mrs. Lovett hire an unwitting orphan boy, Tobias Ragg, to serve the pies to customers.

Literary history

Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story titled The String of Pearls: A Romance. This penny dreadful was published in 18 weekly parts, in Edward Lloyd's The People's Periodical and Family Library, issues 7–24, 21 November 1846 to 20 March 1847. It was probably written by James Malcolm Rymer, though Thomas Peckett Prest has also been credited with it; possibly each worked on the serial from part to part. Other attributions include Edward P. Hingston, George Macfarren, and Albert Richard Smith.[6][7] In February/March 1847, before the serial was even completed, George Dibdin Pitt adapted The String of Pearls as a melodrama for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: "I'll polish him off".[6]

Lloyd published another, lengthier, penny part serial from 1847–48, with 92 episodes. It was then published in book form in 1850 as The String of Pearls, subtitled "The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance". This expanded version of the story was 732 pages long.[6] A plagiarised version of this book appeared in the United States c. 1852–53 as Sweeney Todd: or the Ruffian Barber. A Tale of Terror of the Seas and the Mysteries of the City by "Captain Merry" (a pseudonym for American author Harry Hazel, 1814–89).[6]

In 1865 the French novelist Paul H.C. Féval (1816–1887), famous as a writer of horror and crime novels and short stories, referred to what he called "L'Affaire de la Rue des Marmousets", in the introductory chapter to his book "La Vampire".[8] A version of this story is related by the author Jacques Yonnet in his book Rue des maléfices (1954). This version is set in late medieval (1387) Paris, at the corner of the Rue des Marmousets and the Rue des Deux-Hermites. The familiar plot of the barber and the pastrycook who sell pies made with human flesh is followed, the dénouement following one of the victims' dogs alerting neighbors and the gendarmes. The two confess, and are summarily burned alive; the houses where the crimes took place are then razed. Whether this version of the story is based on The String of Pearls or its dramatisation, or a much older tale alluded to by Féval is unclear. In any case, it may well be the source for some recent versions that move the tale from London to Paris.[9]

In 1875, Frederick Hazleton's c. 1865 dramatic adaptation Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (see below) was published as Vol 102 of Lacy's Acting Edition of Plays.[6]

A scholarly, annotated edition of the original 1846–47 serial was published in volume form in 2007 by the Oxford University Press under the title of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, edited by Robert Mack.

Alleged historical basis

The original story of Sweeney Todd was quite possibly based on an older urban legend, originally based on dubious pie-fillings.[6] In Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1836–37), the servant Sam Weller says that a pieman used cats "for beefsteak, veal and kidney, 'cording to the demand", and recommends that people should buy pies only "when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kitten."[10] Dickens then developed this in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), published two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846–47), with a character called Tom Pinch who is grateful that his own "evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis".[11]

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person were first made in the introduction to the 1850 (expanded) edition of The String of Pearls and have persisted to the present day.[6] In two books,[1][2] Peter Haining argued that Sweeney Todd was a historical figure who committed his crimes around 1800. Nevertheless, other researchers who have tried to verify his citations find nothing in these sources to back Haining's claims.[3][4][5]

In literature

A late (1890s) reference to the urban legend of the murdering barber can be found in the poem by the Australian bush poet Banjo PatersonThe Man from Ironbark.

In his 2012 novel Dodger, Terry Pratchett portrays Sweeney Todd as a tragic figure, having lost his mind after being exposed to the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars as a barber surgeon.

In performing arts

In stage productions

In January 2014, a world premiere adaptation for the stage exploring the Sweeney Todd tale based on the original Penny Dreadful story “The String Of Pearls” will be performed at the Lyceum Theatre, Crewe, England.

In dance

In film

In music

In radio and audio plays

On television

In comics

In rhyming slang

In rhyming slang, Sweeney Todd is the Flying Squad (a branch of the UK's Metropolitan Police), which inspired the television series The Sweeney.


  1. 1 2 Haining, Peter (1979). The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. F. Muller. ISBN 0-584-10425-1.
  2. 1 2 Haining, Peter (1993). Sweeney Todd: The real story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Boxtree. ISBN 1-85283-442-0.
  3. 1 2 "Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd" (Press release). BBC Press Office. 2005-08-12. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  4. 1 2 Duff, Oliver (2006-01-03). "Sweeney Todd: fact". The Independent. London. Retrieved 2006-11-15. (Full text)
  5. 1 2 "True or False?". Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert. KQED. 2001. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Robert Mack (2007) "Introduction" to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  7. "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" PBS.org. Retrieved 11 February 2006.
  8. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10053
  9. http://suicidegirls.com/members/Aristophanes/1808494/
  10. Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Oxford: Oxford Classics. pp. 278, 335.
  11. Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. Margaret Cardwell (1982). Oxford, Clarendon Press: 495
  12. Crescent Theatre
  13. http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=400379
  14. Manhunter (2004) #23 (August 2006)
  15. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Text ed.). November 2010. ISBN 978-1-906332-79-2.

Further reading

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