Archive for September 15th, 2011

by Sam Juliano

“A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been for a long time past jealous of his wife, but could no way bring it home to her. A young gentleman by chance coming into his master’s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in much liquor, mentioned his having seen a fine girl home, from whom he had certain favors the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber concluding it to be his wife, in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’s throat from ear to ear and abscoded.”Haining 34. The Annual Register of London 1785.

Thus began, according to one theory, the infamous tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber whose homocidal activities at 186 Fleet Street, have chilled and thrilled the hearts of Londoners for over 200 years. The historical Sweeney Todd, hanged for murder in 1801, may have been the most successful serial killer of all-time, some accounts attributing 160 unfortunate customers to his victim list. (Haining 96.) Sweeney’s saga has changed hands so many times, that many of the original facts have been tempered by colorful exaggeration. Of course as far as melodramatic villains are concerned, Sweeney reigns supreme. The story of Sweeney Todd as a cultural property dates back to about forty-five years after the original crimes were discovered and made public. Thomas Peckett Prest adapted the story into a serial titled “The String of Pearls: A Romance,” which sprawled across eighteen episodes and was published in a “penny” newspaper. That version of the story intimated that Sweeney Todd killed his customers for the money (pearls) they had on them. To dispose of their remains, he carried them through underground tunnels to Mrs. Lovett’s bakery a few blocks away where they have supplied the stuffing for her meat pies. Their gruesome game ends when Sweeney is caught in the act by police and Mrs. Lovett dies of poison left to her by (Sweeney). The evolution of the story received it’s first theatrical incarnation in March 1847 when The String of Pearls or the Fiend of Fleet Street opened as a “melodrama” at the Royal Brittania Saloon, where it soon became a long-running success. Reports asserted that audiences of the time were greatly entertained by Sweeney’s ingenious “murder weapon”, his disappearing barber chair. Bolted to a trap door in the floor, the chair would flip over, sending its human contents into the basement, while a duplicate chair would swing up to take its place. (more…)

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