Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

The Trial of Sweeney Todd — The Defense

Now it was the defense's turn to address the jury. The defense counsel, appointed by the court to serve the Demon Barber, quickly went to the bizarre and circumstantial nature of the case against Sweeney Todd. To be sure, establishing innocence in the face of such hatred that the spectators felt for Sweeney Todd would be difficult, at best. But the defense counsel, whose name remains shrouded by the mists of time, gave it his all.

"Instead of evidence, near or remote fixing the deed upon him, we have nothing but long stories about vaults, bad odours in churches, moveable floorboards, chairs standing on their heads, secret passages and pork pies," he began. "Really, gentlemen of the jury, I do think that the manner in which the prosecution has been got up against my virtuous and pious client is an outrage to your common sense."

He then attacked the prosecution's pieces of evidence one by one. First, how could the disappearance of respectable men from their homes have anything to do with Sweeney Todd, he asked. Then, answering his own question, he said "We are told that the respectable men want to get shaved, and that Sir Richard Blunt had a shave several times at my client's shop, yet here he is quite alive and well to give evidence today, and no one will say that Sir Richard is not a respectable man."

And what about the smell in St. Dunstan's? "You might as well say that my client committed felony because this court was not well ventilated!"

The most serious evidence against Sweeney Todd was the disappearance of Francis Thornhill. "Really, this is too bad. Hundreds of people may have seen him come out and no doubt did so but they happened not to know him. So just because no one passed the time of day with this man, my client is declared guilty of murder."

As for the bone, the barrister held no account of forensic evidence. "Gentlemen of the jury, what would you think of a man who should produce a brick and swear that it belonged to a certain house?"

Calling the prosecution's case "sophistry" he questioned the death of Margery Lovett. He placed the blame for the murders squarely on her shoulders and said that she accused Sweeney Todd, "a man well-known for his benevolence and piety," out of spite. Then declining to call any witnesses for the defense, he rested his case.

The judge quickly summed up the case for the jury. In the tradition of the time, his summation amounted to almost a restatement of the prosecution's case against Sweeney Todd. Then, he charged the jury to determine the guilt or innocence of the Demon Barber.

The next phase of the trial, deliberation and sentencing, took less than 10 minutes. The jury retired to consider the details of the case and returned a guilty verdict after five minutes. The judge, placing a black cloth atop his white wig, asked Sweeney Todd if he had any words before sentence was passed.

"I am not guilty!" Todd shouted.

"It is now my painful duty to pass upon you the sentence of the law, which is that you be taken from here to a place of execution and hanged by the neck until dead. May Heaven have mercy upon you.

"You cannot expect that society can do otherwise than put out of life someone who, like yourself, has been a terror and a scourge."

On January 25, 1802, in the prison yard at Newgate, Sweeney Todd was strung up on the gallows before a crowd of thousands, where he apparently "died hard." After his execution, his body was given over to a handful of learned "barber-surgeons" where it was dissected. Sweeney Todd ended up, like so many of his victims, as a pile of meat and bones.

A sketch of Sweeney Todd as he goes to the gallows.
A sketch of Sweeney Todd as he goes to the gallows.

 

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