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Sweeney Todd the demon barber

Sweeney Todd the demon barber

Todd and he really did use a trapdoor and straight razor to rob and kill customers.  What’s more, his victims did end up as filling for meat pies.�
Sweeney Todd was a very angry and bitter man who lusted for the  money and lifestyle of the upper class and and had no qualms about killing to get it.

Life was hard, dirty and cheap in 18th century London. The industrial revolution was gaining momentum and folks from the countryside flocked to London in search of work. The city was still recovering from the plague years and was completely unprepared for the great influx of people. Poverty, disease, and misery  were widespread, and the separation between the haves and have-nots was distinct.

The ambivalent attitude toward law enforcement and the common law, which was basically a code of social ethics, made it easy to get away with criminal activity because those in power were dead set against codifying offenses in writing. 18th century London was a criminal’s play ground, because it was the responsibility of the victim to catch and bring witness against the criminal. Since both murder and theft were capital offenses for which the accused could be executed, most victims were murdered to make sure they could not testify.  Though the many of ruling elite were trying to set up some sort of police force to handle the widespread lawlessness, the corruption rampant in the ruling classes made it nearly impossible to establish an orderly society that left little chance for getting out of the lifestyle of poverty. For these reasons and more, many saw no other alternative than resorting to a life of crime. It was this sort of life into which Sweeney Todd was born in the year 1748.

Sweeney Todd was the only child to be born to a husband and wife who were silk industry workers. They lived in the Stephney slums and were both alcoholics who had a love for gin, and Sweeney quickly learned where he ranked in order of importance to his parents. Unfortunately, Sweeney wasn’t the only child to suffer in this regard. Gin, which had recently been introduced to England from the Netherlands, was increasingly becoming the drug of choice for the masses. Sweeney Todd’s childhood was obviously an unhappy one  and ended when he was forced to go to work helping his family load silk threads onto bobbins for the clothing mills, probably around the age of 6 to 8 years of age.

Sweeney Todd grew up in the shadow of the infamous Tower of London, which by now had been converted into a museum, as well as  the Royal Zoo.  Young Sweeney Todd spent as much free time as he could get in the tower, where he was fascinated by the instruments of torture that were on display, the dark and often gruesome stories told by Tower employees, and he would watch the cruelty  inflicted on zoo animals by the keepers. Sweeney’s taste for violence increased during the 1758 Silk Workers Riots, when the impoverished workers incest over the importation of cheap calico, went on a rampage and attacked any women that were wearing the cheap cloth imported from India.

The defining moment that helped turn Sweeney Todd into the man he became occurred when he was 12 or 13 years of age. During one of the coldest winters on record in London, Sweeney’s parents, driven by their desire for gin, left one dark and bitterly cold evening, leaving their son alone at home. They never returned.

Young Sweeney Todd was then turned over to a local parish charged with finding Sweeney an apprenticeship.  Shortly after he became a ward of the court, Sweeney was turned over to a cutler by the name of John Crook, which, ironically, did the  manufacturing and sharpening of knives and razors.�
John Crook had a shop called the Pistol and C. His trade was fashioning any number of articles from gunpowder, musket balls, and many other things; but he specialized in razors. Unfortunately, apprentices were usually maltreated, and orphan apprentices even more-so. Any money an apprentice made was property of the master. The life of apprenticeship was a harsh, cruel and dispiriting life for those who were condemned to it. Most ended up turning to a life of crime and many ended up with the hangman’s noose around their neck.�
Young Sweeney Todd almost fell into that common trap, when two years after he joined Crook’s shop he was arrested and convicted of petty larceny. The details of the crime are scarce, whether Crook was the victim or co-conspirator was never recorded. Sweeney could have walked the steps to the hangman’s noose for a theft conviction, but since he was just 14 years old, the judge at Old Bailey took pity on the orphan and sentenced him to five years in Newgate Prison. The mercy shown to Sweeney Todd was, as noted above, unusual. Children trained as pickpockets were hanged for as little as the theft of a handkerchief, and any kind of shoplifting was punishable by death.

Sweeney ended up in prison for petty larceny, but some how managed to escape being hanged. While in prison Sweeney Todd managed to convince the prison barber that because of Sweeney’s apprenticeship with the cutler he would make a good soap-boy for the barber. It was imperative that Sweeney find a means of support while he was in the prison, because the prisoners had to pay bribes to their guards for even the most basic of needs, such as water and food. Prisoners with no money usually died.

Sweeney learned how to shave as well as how to be an excellent pickpocket from Mr. Plummer, who while he was a very good barber, was also an inmate serving time for a larceny charge. Sweeney’s dark personality blossomed in prison and when he was released, an angry, bitter, vengeful and murderous man was unleashed on an unsuspecting London. He was 19.

After several years spent working as a fly-barber, Sweeney Todd had finally managed to scrape together enough capital to buy a small shop on the now infamous Fleet Street near the Temple Bar.  St. Dunstan’s church and Sweeney Todd’s shop were on the north side of Fleet Street. The small two story building served as Todd’s shop and residence.  He fashioned himself the now famous barber chair that would flip and drop his unsuspecting victims into the dark catacombs that had been built underneath the area hundreds of years before.
Usually, the fall would kill the victim,but on occasion Sweeney would be forced to hurry down to the area to finish the victim off with a quick slice of his razor. The only problem Sweeney had was figuring how dispose of the bodies once he was finished with them. This is around the time he met infamous Mrs. Lovett. By all accounts, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, (her first name is given variously as Margery or Sarah…history seems unclear on this point), hit it off very well.  Mrs. Lovett was a widow, and, like Todd, had a taste and lust for the finer things in life, as well as a cold and calculating personality.  Todd and Mrs. Lovett hit upon a rather gruesome idea to not only get rid of the bodies but to turn a profit on the meat as well.

By now, Sweeney was a prolific murderer and was running out of room in the catacombs to dispose of the bodies.  He helped Mrs. Lovett set up her meat pie shop close to his barber shop.  They installed a false wall that could be slid back for Todd to deliver the ‘long pork’ to Mrs. Lovett to use in her pork pies.  With in a very short period of time, the fame of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies spread all over London. Rich and poor alike clamoured after Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies, raving about how delicious they were. Thomas Prest, a well known writer of the day, expounded upon these marvelous meat pies: “There was about them a flavour never surpassed and rarely equaled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of delicious gravy that defied description.”  One must wonder what Prest’s reaction was when he found out that he, and a huge part of London, found out that they had unwittingly been turned into cannibals; on top of the fact that Mrs. Lovett had expanded her business to also shipping the meat to all over parts of England.

However, Todd and Lovett got greedy and soon could not keep up with the amount of bodies that kept piling up, and by now people were starting to notice that many who entered into Sweeney’s shop never came out again.

The clergy and the parishioners of St. Dunstan’s church began to notice a horrible stench that was permeating the whole church and particularly the sacristy, and not knowing where it was coming from finally called in the authorities to investigate.  Sir Richard Blunt and a man known only to history as Mr. Otton began to conduct the investigation into the bowels of the church and the catacombs. It was clear that the stench was emanating from catacombs, but no bodies of animals or humans were found.  While the first investigation revealed nothing, but Blunt was smart, and after hearing the many rumours floating around about Todd, decided to do another investigation of the catacombs and probe further into them than he and his team did the first time.  This time, they found the source of the sickening reek.

Bits and pieces of bodies were strewn all over the area, decapitated heads were found piled up to nearly the ceiling, skeletons with the meat stripped from them where thrown about, also nearly piled to the ceiling. Blunt and his men found a set of bloody footprints leading away from the area and followed them right to Sweeney’s shop. Blunt quickly came to the realization that Todd was murdering his clients, and even more horribly, was disposing of the evidence in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.
Blunt and his men wasted no time making a sweeping search of Todd’s premises and found the additional evidence needed to bring Sweeney to justice; which was the numerous items that had belongs to many of his victims.
Blunt wasted no time in dispatching a group of his men to arrest Mrs. Lovett, and sent another squad to pick up Sweeney Todd.  When the squad arrived to arrest Mrs. Lovett, she was in the middle of serving quite a few of her regular customers.  When these people found out what they had been eating they tried to tear her away from the squad and hang her. However, Blunts men managed to get her out to a waiting carriage and took her off to Newgate prison.  Sweeney, on the other hand, was arrested without any fuss. He was already sitting in a cell in Newgate prison before the public knew of his role in these hideous crimes.

Mrs. Lovett quickly confessed her role in the murders to the governor of Newgate Prison. She told the governor everything; how she and Todd had plotted and executed their hideous plan.  While it seems clear that Mrs. Lovett was going to make sure that Todd was going to swing with her, she apparently had a plan of her own and nearly destroyed the case against Sweeney Todd.  In December of 1801, Mrs. Lovett was found dead in her cell. She had committed suicide by poisoning herself.

However, the trial commenced and Sweeney Todd was found guilty of multiple counts of murder and sentenced to hang. On January 25, 1802, in the prison yard at Newgate, Sweeney Todd was led to the gallows in the Newgate prison yard and hanged. By the accounts of the papers of the day, Sweeney did not go easy, but as it was reported, “…died hard…”. After his execution, his body was given over to a handful of  “barber-surgeons” where it was dissected for the purpose of educating students about the anatomy of the body. Ironically, and perhaps fittingly enough, Sweeney Todd ended up like his victims, as nothing more than a bloody pile of meat and bones.