Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

The Trial of Sweeney Todd — The Crown

London was abuzz as the trial of Sweeney Todd approached in December 1801. "Scarcely ever in London has such an amount of public excitement been produced by any criminal proceedings as by the trial of Sweeney Todd," wrote the Daily Courant. "So great is the excitement that sober-minded men, who do not see any peculiar interest in the sayings and doings of a great criminal, are disgusted that the popular taste should run that way.

"Be that as it may, the case of Rex v. Sweeney Todd will certainly be one of the trials of the age."

That prescient prediction by the newspaper was held to be true as the trial opened. Sweeney Todd had not been told of the death of Margery Lovett prior to his trial, and when he was informed, he apparently turned pale, "like some great, gaunt ghost."

Todd was actually on trial for just one murder, that a seaman, Francis Thornhill. Despite the large number of bodies and the mountain of evidence found at his home, police could scarcely identify any other victims. Sir Richard had rightly surmised that although the barber was a mass murderer, one slaying would be sufficient to send him to the gallows.

Dressed in a red gown, chain, and white peruke, the attorney general, representing King George III, opened his case. A reporter for the Newgate Calender the long-serving recorder of criminal behavior in England dutifully took down the statements.

"Mr. Thornhill had been commissioned to take a certain string of Oriental pearls, valued at 16,000 pounds, to a young lady in London," the prosecutor began.  "He was anxious to fill this request, and as soon as the ship docked, went into the City with the pearls. It appears that upon his route to deliver them, he went into the shop of the prisoner at the bar to be shaved, and no one ever saw him again."

The captain of the ship and a friend of the dead man retraced his route to the city when he failed to show up, and questioned Todd. Sweeney admitted shaving the sailor but said he completed the job and Thornhill went on his way. Col. Jeffrey, the friend of Thornhill remained in London after the ship sailed to Bristol, sure that the string of pearls would soon show up.

"Gentlemen, it did," the prosecutor continued. "It appeared at the Hammersmith residence of Mr. John Mundel who lent money upon securities and it will be deposed that one evening the prisoner at the bar went to this Mr. Mundel and pawned a string of pearls for one thousand pounds."

Describing in graphic details the scene beneath St. Dunstan's Church, the attorney general revealed some of the more horrifying facts of the case of the Demon Barber. "Almost every vault was full of the fresh remains of the dead. (Sir Richard) found that into old coffins, the tenants of which had mouldered to dust, there had been thrust fresh bodies, with scarcely any flesh remaining on them yet sufficient to produce the stench in the church".

The prosecutor then went on to describe the connecting tunnel between Fleet Street and Bell Yard, and then tied it all together with the evidence found in Sweeney Todd's shop.

"Sweeney Todd's house was found crammed with property and clothing sufficient for 160 people," he said to the stunned courtroom. "Yes, gentlemen of the jury, I said 160 people, and among all that clothing was found a piece of jacket which will be sworn to have belonged to Francis Thornhill."

There was still more evidence, the prosecutor said.

"Is a piece of sleeve enough to convict a man? Wisely, the law says no and looks for the body of a murdered man," he said confidently. "We will produce that proof. For among the skeletons found contiguous to Todd's premises was one which will be sworn to as being that of the deceased Mr. Thornhill."

Colonel William Jeffrey took the stand for the prosecution and told how he had gone in search of Thornhill, and how he later sought the help of the Bow Street Runners. He descended into the catacomb with Sir Richard and a doctor, who removed a bone from a skeleton they found there. Jeffery made his mark upon the bone for identification.

Next up for the prosecution was its star witness, the hero of the hour, Sir Richard Blunt. He told of how the rumors of Sweeney Todd had been brought to his attention and how he had linked Todd with the stench of St. Dunstan's. "After careful inquiry, I found that out of 13 disappearances, no less than ten had declared their intention to get shaved, or their hair dressed, or to go through some process which required them to visit a barber.

"My attention was directed to the peculiar odour in the church and from that moment, I, in my own mind, connected it with Sweeney Todd and the disappearances of the persons who had so unaccountably been lost in the immediate neighborhood of Fleet Street. And in the midst of this, I had formal application made to me concerning the disappearance of Mr. Francis Thornhill, who had been clearly traced to the shop of the prisoner at the bar and never seen by anyone to leave it."

The final witness for the prosecution was Dr. Sylvester Steers, who identified the leg bone found beneath Todd's shop as one belonging to Thornhill. How did he come to this conclusion, the prosecutor asked.

"Mr. Thornhill met with a very unusual and painful accident," the doctor replied. "The external condyle or projection on the outer end of the thighbone, which makes part of the knee joint, was broken off, and there was a diagonal fracture about three inches higher upon the bone. I had the sole care of the case, and although a cure was effected, it was not without considerable distortion of the bone."

"From my frequent examination I was perfectly well acquainted with the case, and I can swear that the bone in the hands of the jury was the one so broken to which I attended."

Forensic evidence such as this had never before been produced in a court trial, and the question of whether the jury, educated men though they might be, would accept it. The evidence of Todd's guilt was certainly apparent if circumstantial evidence was to be believed. The job of the prosecutor would have been made so much easier if Mrs. Lovett had only been alive to testify.

 

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