Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

The Real Sweeney Todd

Throat cut scene from the play
Throat cut scene from the play

The Demon Barber Sweeney Todd is the English bogeyman: the character older children call upon to frighten their friends and younger children. Unruly youngsters are cautioned against misbehaving with threats of being attacked by Sweeney and served up in a meat pie.

To most people, the Demon Barber who used a trap door and trick chair to slaughter his clients was the stuff of urban legend. After all, the events connected with his story are almost unbelievable. His exploits prey upon very common human fears: being attacked while vulnerable, and being served up as food or unknowingly consuming someone else. Who hasn't sat in the chair and felt a shiver as the barber or hair dresser takes out that straight razor, sharpens it on the strop and then applies it to the back of the neck? Or taken a bite of a meal and wondered just what the origin of the hair in the hamburger was? So it was for years, as the legend of Sweeney Todd was passed on from generation to generation, people wrote off the story as pure fiction.

But most myths and legends have a basis somewhere in truth, and Sweeney Todd is no different. There really was a mad barber, he really did use a trapdoor and straight razor to rob and kill customers, and most did end up as filling for meat pies. Extensive, painstaking research by British author Peter Haining has shown this without a doubt. Todd's life and exploits are not nearly as romantic as Sondheim would have us believe, but then who would pay to see a movie or musical about a psychopathic mass murderer unless there was more to the story?

What follows is the true story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. There is little romantic or even melodramatic about the life and times of Sweeney Todd. He was an amoral, bitter man who lusted for money and was not averse to killing to get it.

 

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