Sweeney Todd (aka the Demon Barber) was a character from a 19th Century penny dreadful1, made popular by Stephen Sondheim's musical, a razor-wielding barber who killed his customers for cash and turned them into meat pies. He first appeared in 1846 as a secondary character in a short story called The String of Pearls - A Romance by Thomas Prest, which was published in The People's Periodical. A hack playwright by the name of George Dibdin Pitt, who commonly filched other people's stories, dramatised the story for the stage as The String of Pearls - The Fiend on Fleet Street, and advertised it as 'founded on fact'. The play debuted at London's Hoxton Theatre on 1 March, 1847, and ever since then people have speculated as to whether Sweeney Todd really had existed, or if he was simply a fictional bogeyman invented to sate the appetite of the morbid Victorian imagination.
Did Sweeney Todd really exist? Up until recently, nobody knew. A number of daily newspapers at the time had reported real-life horror stories that bore certain similarity to the ghastly tale of Sweeney Todd. Stories of fainting ladies aside, the Victorian community had an enormous, morbid appetite for all things ghastly. Shocking tales of crime like this would have been spread through word of mouth like wildfire, although they were also probably embellished along the way. Many penny dreadfuls were actually fictionalised accounts of real stories. It was known that Thomas Prest, who first wrote about Sweeney Todd, had the habit of scouring newspapers for story ideas. However, these were just written off by most as a story to scare bad children and to thrill audiences.
All of this changed when British author Peter Haining recently revealed, through painstaking research, that there was once a psychopathic barber named Sweeney Todd who lived in the 19th Century and who did actually murder his customers for money, although his tale is somewhat less exciting than Sondheim's musical. Unlike the Sondheim/Prest dramatised character, Sweeney Todd was simply an amoral, bitter man who was not adverse to killing for money. To find out more, click here.
Man or myth, one thing is for sure - the tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber, is not likely to be forgotten anytime soon. As Anna Pavord of the London Observer wrote in 1979:
Sweeney Todd will never die. We all need bogeymen and he was bogier than most.