Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd is a semi-fictional character who first appeared as one of the protagonists of a penny dreadful serial entitled The String of Pearls (1846-1847).

In this and later versions of the tale he is a barber who murders wealthy customers by pulling a lever while they are in his barber chair which, unknown to them, is fixed to a revolving trap-door, making them fall backward into the basement, generally causing them to break their necks or skulls as they hit the ground. Just in case they are alive, he goes to the basement and "polishes them off", meaning he slits their throats with a cut-throat razor. After Todd has robbed his dead victims of their goods, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime (in some later versions, his friend or lover), assists him in disposing of the bodies by having their flesh baked into meat pies, and selling them to the unsuspecting customers of her pie shop, because "times is hard" and she cannot afford the meat. 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.

The tale surrounding the character became a staple of Victorian melodrama and a Tony award-winning Broadway musical in 1979. Sweeney Todd has also been featured in several films, the most recent being Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), directed by Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp in the title role.

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person are strongly disputed by scholars, although there are possible legendary prototypes, arguably making the story of Sweeney Todd an example of an urban legend.

Story versions

The String of Pearls

The original version of the tale, The String of Pearls, is set in London in the year 1785 and concerns the strange disappearance of a sailor named Lieutenant Thornhill, last seen entering Sweeney Todd's establishment on Fleet Street. Thornhill was bearing a gift of a string of pearls (of the title) to a girl named Johanna Oakley on behalf of her missing lover, Mark Ingestrie, who is presumed lost at sea. One of Thornhill's seafaring friends, Colonel Jeffery, is alerted to Thornhill's disappearance by his faithful dog, Hector, and investigates his whereabouts. He is joined by Johanna, who wants to know what happened to her lover, Mark Ingestrie. Johanna's suspicions of Sweeney Todd's involvement lead her to dress up as a boy and enter Todd's employment, after his last assistant, Tobias Ragg, has been incarcerated in a madhouse. Eventually the full grisly horror of Todd's activities are uncovered when the dismembered remains of hundreds of his victims are discovered in the crypt underneath St Dunstan's church. Meanwhile, Mark Ingestrie, who has been imprisoned in the cellars beneath the pie shop and put to work as the cook, escapes via the lift used to bring the pies up from the cellar into the pie-shop. Here he makes the following startling announcement to the customers of that establishment:

"Ladies and Gentlemen — I fear that what I am going to say will spoil your appetites; but the truth is beautiful at all times, and I have to state that Mrs Lovett's pies are made of human flesh!

Mrs. Lovett is then poisoned by Sweeney Todd who is, himself, apprehended and hanged. For her part Johanna marries Mark and lives happily ever after.

Sondheim's adaptation

In Stephen Sondheim's 1979 stage musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, based on the 1973 play of the same name by Christopher Bond, Todd is reinvented as a tragic character driven by revenge rather than greed.

In the play, he was known as Benjamin Barker, a middle class barber, married to Lucy Barker with an infant daughter Johanna. The villainous Judge Turpin exiles Barker to Australia on false charges in order to have Lucy to himself. Mrs. Lovett tells Todd that Lucy poisoned herself after Turpin raped her, and that Turpin adopted baby Johanna as his ward. By the time Todd returns to London, Johanna has become a young woman and falls in love with a sailor, Anthony, with whom she plans to elope.

In the Sondheim musical, Mrs. Lovett takes in an orphan boy, Tobias Ragg, after Sweeney kills Toby's previous guardian, Adolfo Pirelli (a former assistant of Todd who tries to blackmail him). After Turpin escapes his grasp, Todd swears revenge upon the entire world, resolving to kill as many people as he can; Mrs. Lovett then suggests they turn his victims' remains into pies. With this plan in action, both Todd and Mrs. Lovett become incredibly successful.

In the musical's climactic scene, Todd finally kills Judge Turpin, as well as an insane beggar woman — who turns out to be none other than Lucy, Todd's long-lost wife. When Mrs. Lovett confesses that she hid Lucy's identity in order to have Todd to herself, he throws her into a furnace to burn to death. As he grieves over his wife's body, Toby — who wants revenge for the murder of the only mother he's ever known — sneaks up behind him. Todd lifts his head, willingly allowing Toby to slit his throat. He dies with his wife's body in his arms.

Literary history

Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story entitled The String of Pearls: A Romance. This penny dreadful was published in eighteen 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. Other attributions include Edward P. Hingston, George Macfarren and Albert Richard Smith.In February/March 1847, before the serial was even completed, The String of Pearls was adapted as a melodrama by George Dibden Pitt 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". Neil Gaiman, in a promotional 'penny dreadful', identified a number of earlier texts that feed into the Todd story, some dating back to at least the late 17th century.

Another, lengthier, penny part serial was published by Lloyd from 1847/8, with 92 episodes and published in book form in 1850 as The String of Pearls with the subtitle "The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance". This expanded version of the story was 732 pages in length.A plagiarised version of this appeared in America 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)).

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.

In 1992 the first episode of a planned comic adaptation titled Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was published in issue #6 of Stephen R. Bissette's horror comics anthology Taboo. The adaptation was written by Neil Gaiman, with artwork by Michael Zulli. The adaptation was published as a pamphlet insert which came with the perfect bound book. Only the first episode was completed before the project was abandoned.

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. In the novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) by Charles Dickens, published some two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846-7), a character called Tom Pinch 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". A similar story, which first appeared in an 1824 publication called The Tell Tale, reported how a barber and wig-maker of the Rue de la Harpe in Paris cut his customers throats, relieved them of their valuables and then had their bodies made into meat pies, utilising the services of a pasty cook, whose establishment was on the same street.

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person were made in the introduction to the 1850 (expanded) edition of The String of Pearls and have persisted to the present day. In two books, Peter Haining argued that Sweeney Todd was an 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. A check of the website Old Bailey at for "Associated Records 1674-1834" for an alleged trial in December 1801 and hanging of Sweeney Todd for January 1802 show no reference; in fact the only murder trial for this period is that of a Governor/Lt Col. Joseph Wall who was hanged 28 January 1802 for killing a Benjamin Armstrong on 10 July 1782 on the isle of Gorée, West Africa, and the discharge of a Humphrey White in January 1802.

On stage and screen

  • The String of Pearls (1847) a melodrama by George Dibden Pitt. It opened at Hoxton's Britannia Theatre, and billed as "founded on fact". It was something of a success, and the story spread by word of mouth and took on the quality of an urban legend. Various versions of the tale were staples of the British theatre for the rest of the century.
  • Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (c. 1865), a dramatic adaption written by Frederick Hazleton which premiered at the Old Bower Saloon, Stangate Street, Lambeth.
  • "Sweeney Todd, The Barber" , a song which assumes its audience knows the stage version and claims that such a character in real life was even more remarkable. Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1956, attributed it to R. P. Weston, a songwriter active from 1906 to 1934.
  • Sweeney Todd (1926), the first film version of the story, starring G.A. Baughan in the title role. The film is now lost.
  • Sweeney Todd (1928) a silent film starring Moore Marriott as Sweeney Todd and Iris Darbyshire as Mrs. Lovett. This is the first surviving film adaptation.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (1936), a film version of the Victorian melodrama starring Tod Slaughter as Sweeney Todd and Stella Rho as Mrs. "Lovatt".
  • "The Strange Case of the Demon Barber" (8 January 1946), an adaptation of the Sweeney Todd story featured in an episode of the radio drama The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
  • In 1947, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Stage Series broadcast a radio adaptation of the Pitt play starring Mavor Moore as Todd, Jane Mallett as Mrs. Lovett, John Drainie as Tobias, Lloyd Bochner as Mark Ingesterie and Arden Kaye as Johanna Oakley. The production was adapted by Ronald Hamilton and directed by Andrew Allan, with original music composed by Lucio Agostini.
  • Sweeney Todd (1959), a ballet version performed by the the Royal Ballet with music by Malcolm Arnold. The choreography was directed by John Cranko.
  • Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970), a horror film with John Miranda as Sweeney Todd and Jane Helay as Maggie Lovett, directed by Andy Milligan.
  • "Sweeney Todd" (1970), an episode of the ITV series Mystery and Imagination starring Freddie Jones as Sweeney Todd and Heather Canning as Nellie Lovett. In this adaptation, written by Vincent Tilsey and directed by Reginald Collin, the title character is portrayed as insane rather than evil. Heather Canning played Mrs. Lovett, Lewis Fiander played Mark Ingesterie, Mel Martin played the heroine Charlotte and Len Jones played Tobias.
  • Sweeney Todd (1973), a TV production by the CBC TV series The Purple Playhouse with Barry Morse (best known for his role as "Lt. Gerard" in The Fugitive) as Todd. This was again Pitt's version of the play.
  • Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1973), a play by the British playwright Christopher Bond. This version of the story was the first to give Todd a more sympathetic motive: he is a wrongfully imprisoned barber named Benjamin Barker who returns under the name Sweeney Todd to London after 15 years in an Australian penal colony to find that the judge responsible for his imprisonment has raped his young wife and driven her to suicide. He swears revenge, but when his plans face obstacles, he begins to slash the throats of his customers. This new element of Todd being motivated by vengeance was Bond's way of grafting dramatic themes from The Revenger's Tragedy onto Pitt's stage plot.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A Musical Thriller (1979), the acclaimed musical adaptation of Bond's play by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler starring Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. George Hearn later replaced Cariou as Todd. In 1982, the musical was televised on The Entertainment Channel, starring Lansbury and George Hearn, and directed by Terry Hughes and Harold Prince.
  • The Tale of Sweeney Todd (1998), a television movie directed by John Schlesinger, commissioned by British Sky Broadcasting for which Ben Kingsley received a Screen Actors Guild Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of the title role. Joanna Lumley was Mrs. Lovett.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert (2001), a filmed concert version of Sondheim's musical, stars George Hearn as Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker, Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett and Neil Patrick Harris as Toby.
  • In 2005, the Broadway Revival Cast made their recording of the show by Sondheim. It was a special redoing of the musical, re-scored specifically for a small orchestra to be played by the actors themselves. The cast consisted of John Arbo (Jonas Fogg; bass player), Donna Lynne Champlin (Pirelli; piano, accordion, flute), Alexander Gemignani (The Beadle; piano, trumpet), Mark Jacoby (Judge Turpin; trumpet, percussion), Diana DiMarzio (Beggar Woman/Lucy Barker; clarinet), Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony Hope; cello, piano), Lauren Molina (Johanna Barker; cello), Manoel Felciano (Tobias; violin, clarinet, piano)), Patti LuPone (Mrs. Lovett; tuba, percussion), and Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd; guitar). Cerveris, LuPone, and Felciano were all nominated for Tony Awards; the show itself was nominated at the Tonys for Best Revival and won Best Direction and Best Orchestration.
  • Sweeney Todd (2006), a BBC television drama version with a screenplay written by Joshua St Johnston and starring Ray Winstone in the title role and Essie Davis as Mrs Lovett.
  • Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls: an Audio Melodrama in Three Despicable Acts (2007), an audio play by Yuri Rasovsky, won three 2008 Audie Awards for best audio drama, best original work and for achievement in production.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) a film directed by Tim Burton, adapted from Sondheim's musical. Johnny Depp is Sweeney Todd and Helena Bonham Carter is Mrs. Lovett. Alan Rickman plays Judge Turpin, and Ed Sanders is Tobias. The cast also included Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall. The film received two Golden Globe Awards - one for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical (Johnny Depp), and one for Best Picture, Comedy or Musical. The film was also nominated for three Academy Awards, winning for Art Direction.


Further reading

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street edited by Robert Mack (2007). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199229333
  • Robert Mack (2008) The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend. Continuum. ISBN 0826497918

External links

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