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Todd, Sweeney [called the Demon Barber of Fleet Street] (supp. fl. 1784), legendary murderer and barber, may have his source in a murder reported in the London Chronicle of 2 December 1784. It related that a ‘Journeyman Barber that lives near Hyde Park-corner, who had been a long time past jealous of his wife, but could no way bring it home to her’ had shaved a gentleman who boasted of having had ‘certain favours’ from a young woman who lived nearby. ‘The Barber concluding it to be his wife, in the height of his frenzy cut the Gentleman's throat from ear to ear, and absconded’. The story was reprinted in the Annual Register for 1784–5. The murderer's fate is unreported.

In 1823 a publication called The Tell-Tale published the story of a barber in the rue de la Harpe, Paris, who murdered a gentleman visiting from the country and then had the victim's body turned into pies by his next-door neighbour, a patissier. The story was reprinted in 1841, and was supposedly based on a case in France about twenty years earlier, but also resembled a French ballad about a fourteenth-century barber who likewise murdered his victims before having them turned into pies. The legend of the murderous barber may have played on a fear of cannibalism in urban centres; in a crowded city consumers could not see where their meat was coming from. This had been demonstrated by the hysterical reaction to the publication of a broadsheet by in London in 1818, which claimed that a butcher was selling human meat in his shop; a butcher, Thomas Pizzey, whose shop in Clare Market was besieged by a mob clutching Catnach's claims, successfully sued Catnach for malicious libel. In 1843 Charles Dickens, in Martin Chuzzlewit, had Tom Pinch wonder whether his friend John Westlock was ‘afraid I have strayed into one of those streets where the countrymen are murdered; and that I have been made meat-pies of, or some horrible thing’ (Dickens, 576). Whether or not this was a common apprehension of visitors to London it provided a commercial opportunity to a publisher associated with sensational fiction, Edward Lloyd. Lloyd's Penny Atlas (vol. 2, no. 97, 1844) included a story called ‘Joddrel, the Barber, or, Mystery unravelled’, about a French-Irish barber in London, Lewis Joddrel of Bishopsgate, whose neighbours realize that many of his customers disappear. The bodies are discovered with stakes through their heads, but there is no mention of their flesh having been intended for human consumption.

On 21 November 1846 Lloyd began serializing The String of Pearls in The People's Periodical and Family Library. The eighteen-part serial has usually been attributed to , but Helen Smith has argued persuasively that it was actually the work of . It was set in 1785, suggesting that the author may have read the newspaper account of the murdering barber of 1784. The story concerned Sweeney Todd, a barber in Fleet Street (the name may have been borrowed from Samuel Todd, a pearl-stringer who lived near Fleet Street in the 1830s) who murders wealthy clients for their valuables by throwing them from their chairs through a trapdoor into a cellar. (The device may have been borrowed from Thomas Deloney's late sixteenth-century prose work Thomas of Reading.) Todd's neighbour Mrs Lovett then cuts up the bodies to make them into pies. Todd apparently murders a customer, Mark Ingestre, for a string of pearls, but fails to account for the loyalty of Ingestre's lover Johanna or Ingestre's miraculous survival, which frightens him into confessing his crimes. Before the serial had ended a stage version of The String of Pearls had begun a long run at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, on 1 March 1847, almost certainly dramatized by George Dibdin Pitt. There Todd gained his stage catchphrase, ‘I've polished him off’ (Kalikoff, 25), which entered the English language. Edward Lloyd published an enlarged The String of Pearls as a stand-alone ‘penny-blood’ serial during 1850. Both the preface to the 1850 edition and the bills for Pitt's play insisted that the Todd story was based on fact. A further serial, which embellished the details of Pitt's version, and was possibly written by Charlton Lea, was published by Charles Fox in 1878, by which time Todd had become ‘the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’.

By 1878 it had become widely accepted that Sweeney Todd was a historical person. A correspondent to Notes and Queries wrote that he could ‘trace this credulity back (by report, of course) for at least seventy years’ but that he had:
searched in vain the various editions of the Newgate Calendar, the cognate Malefactors' Register, the Old Bailey Sessions papers, numerous collections of romances of London, London legends, the late Walter Thornbury's Old Stories Retold, &c., but can find no trace of such a prosecution, or of any crime bearing resemblance to this one. (N&Q, 5th ser.)
The exception was the sixteenth-century case of the cannibal , who, he suggested, may have been the original of the Todd legend. The story of Sweeney Todd was returned to several times in Notes and Queries, where correspondents usually turned to Pitt's play and concluded that the character was entirely fictitious. However, the legend gained further embellishments. 186 Fleet Street became established as Todd's residence, an identification encouraged by the discovery of human bones under the cellar during building work in the late nineteenth century, supposedly those of Todd's victims. An alternative explanation was that the cellar of 186 Fleet Street had been built across the old vaults of St Dunstan-in-the-West.

Todd remained part of popular culture in the twentieth century and was the subject of several cinema films, most notably Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1935), starring Tod Slaughter, who also frequently played Todd on the stage. Theatre productions continued to claim that the story had a historical basis. The programme of one stage version, Todd, performed in New York in 1924, claimed that Todd was born in Stepney on 26 October 1756 and was tried for murder on 29 January 1802, citing (falsely) the Newgate Calendar, although there was no factual basis for these statements. By the 1930s ‘the Sweeney’ had become cockney rhyming slang for the Metropolitan Police's flying squad, and in the 1970s it provided the name for a television drama series about two flying-squad detectives. Malcolm Arnold composed a ballet, Sweeney Todd, in 1959. The story was reinterpreted for the late twentieth-century stage in 1968 by Christopher Bond, who presented Todd as a victim of society, robbed of his wife and daughter by a lustful and corrupt judge, who returned to London after many years to take a gruesome revenge. This version was adapted into the musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, which opened in New York in 1979 and in London in the following year. The original productions of the musical won several awards. It was frequently revived, particularly in the United States. Although Bond declared that ‘Sweeney Todd is pure fiction’ (Sondheim, Wheeler, and Bond, xl), a belief persists that Todd existed, and Peter Haining has written several books arguing that Todd should be regarded as a historical figure. Todd is perhaps best described as a personification of early nineteenth-century fears of the anonymity of urban life built around some recorded events and older fictional or legendary sources.

Matthew Kilburn

Sources  

P. Haining, The mystery and horrible murders of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) · B. Kalikoff, Murder and moral decay in Victorian popular literature (1986) · H. R. Smith, New light on Sweeney Todd, Thomas Peckett Prest, James Malcolm Rymer and Elizabeth Caroline Grey (2002) · Annual Register (1784–5), 208 · London Chronicle (2 Dec 1784) · N&Q, 5th ser., 10 (1878), 227 · N&Q, 9th ser., 7 (1901), 508; 8 (1901), 131, 168, 273–4, 348; 9 (1902), 345–6 · N&Q, 11th ser., 1 (1910), 468; 7 (1913), 426 · L. James, Print and the people, 1819–1851 (1976) · M. Anglo, Penny dreadfuls and other Victorian horrors (1977) · S. Sondheim, H. Wheeler, and C. G. Bond, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1991) · C. G. Bond, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1974) · C. Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. M. Cardwell (1982), 568, 576 · ‘Star archive: Tod Slaughter’, www.britishpictures.com/stars/Slaught.htm, 27 Sept 2002 · www.sondheim.com/shows/sweeney_todd, 10 Sept 2002 · private information (2004) [H. R. Smith]