Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney's World

"His voice was soft, his manner mild
He seldom laughed but he often smiled
He'd seen how civilized men behave
He never forgot and he never forgave
Not Sweeney
Not Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street..."

"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" By Stephen Sondheim.

Sweeney Todd was the only child of a pair of silk industry workers who labored in their home in the slum of Stepney. His parents were both alcoholics who placed a desire for gin above everything else in life, and Sweeney quickly learned where he ranked in order of importance to his parents.

Drawing of Gin Lane
Drawing of Gin Lane

He wasn't alone in this regard. Gin, which had recently been introduced to England from the Netherlands, was increasingly becoming the true opiate of the masses. William Hogarth, whose etchings frequently took on a moralistic tone, reveals the upper-class attitude toward the liquor in his artwork, Gin Lane, which features a half-naked drunken woman oblivious to her child, who is falling head first to the ground out of her arms. In the background of Gin Lane, buildings crumble from disrepair, and the devil operates the local pawnshop, which, along with the undertaker's, represents the only thriving businesses in the district. An emaciated, half-dead skeleton of a man sits in a drunken stupor across from his inebriated wife.

Made from cheap corn and fermented juniper berries, gin was partly responsible for the rising crime and lower life-expectancy in London, where gin mills frequently advertised "drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, clean straw provided." Beer, wine and sherry were much too expensive for the laboring classes, but Hogarth, in the antithesis to his Gin Lane etching, created another artwork, which shows happy, healthy beer drinkers in a clean, safe neighborhood where the only ramshackle shops are, of course, the undertaker and pawn broker.

"Gin was said to be the drink of the more sedentary trades," wrote David Hughson in his 1806 History of London. "It was essentially a disease of poverty, so cheap, so warming and brought such forgetfulness of cold and misery."

Colin Wilson reports that in the year following Sweeney Todd's birth, eight million gallons of gin were consumed in England, with Londoners responsible for 14 gallons each. As gin consumption increased, so did crime and cruelty. "Pity was a strange and valuable emotion," wrote Christopher Hibbert in The Roots of Evil. "Unwanted babies were left out in the streets to die or were thrown into dung heaps or open drains; the torture of animals was a popular sport. Cat-dropping, bear-baiting and bull-baiting were as universally enjoyed as throwing at cocks."

 

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