Sweeney Todd: Real or Fake?

Sweeney Todd: Real or Fake? image

Sweeney Todd: A show based on a true story?

As biographical musicals like Hamilton and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson take rise on and off Broadway, where is the line between historically correct and dramatized for the stage? Shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Gypsy and Side Show may spark your interest because they are loosely based on real life. Let’s take a closer dive into one of the darker shows – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, to see just where this line lies.

Sweeney Todd has been surrounded in many discussions on this very topic. Was Sweeney a real man, or a character that rose out of myth? Keep reading to see for yourself – Sweeney Todd, fact or fiction?

Background on the show

The story of Sweeney Todd has been produced in many different mediums: in print as Thomas Prests’ The String of Pearls and then again in his book Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber Fleet Street, on stage as a musical written by Stephen Sondheim and on screen in 2007. The original Broadway show opened on March 1, 1979, a performance sure to please. With leads like Angela Lansbury as ‘Mrs. Lovett,’ Len Cariou as ‘Sweeney’ and Victor Garber as ‘Anthony Garber,’ it ran for 557 shows on Broadway. In interviews, Sondheim has described the themes of Sweeney Todd and what lead him to craft it this way.[1]After being allowed to adapt Christopher Bond’s 1973 Sweeney Todd play, he noticed that the tale was one of extreme obsession, particularly with revenge, and the way it consumes a person’s being. Because of this, Sondheim made sure that his show would take a more detailed look at the crimes of Todd and Lovett, examining the emotional and mental magnitude of such actions. Sondheim stressed the need for Sweeney to seen not only as the perpetrator of such crimes, but also a victim. These characteristics feed the audiences underlying need to examine their dark side and have been a significant contributing factor in the popularity of the show.

Before it was Sondheim’s musical thriller, it was a penny dreadful, “The String of Pearls: A Romance,” written by Thomas Prest in The People’s Periodical in 1846. Here, Sweeney Todd is introduced as a character. As the plot goes, the lover of Johanna Oakley has gone missing. This disappearance raises some eyebrows, as it’s discovered the man set to deliver her lover’s last gift has also vanished. The gift, a string of pearls, leads Johanna on quite the journey – to the barber shop where the man was last seen. As you can surmise, the question arises as to whether her lover was a victim of Sweeney Todd.

Fact or Fiction?

Was Prest’s Todd based on a real person, or was he a creation of Prest’s imagination? Edward Lloyd wrote in the prologue for The People’s Periodical in 1846-47, “There certainly was a man, and the record of his crimes is still to be found in the chronicles of criminality of this country[2].” Peter Haining, a writer for various papers and editor at the New English Library, agrees. Called a “prolific writer and editor who delighted in horror in crime”[3]by The Guardian, Haining wrote Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber in 1993 and claims to have an accurate depiction of the real man[4]:

According to Haining, Todd was born in the most unfortunate part of London, during the mid-eighteenth century. Enduring a particularly hard childhood, Todd was an orphan at the age of twelve and sent to prison at fourteen for theft. During his 5-year stay at Newgate Prison, he learned to be a barber. Finally, upon his release, he decided to open a barber shop on Fleet Street. A testament to his sinister side, he devised a chair that would tip patrons back, head first, into a trapdoor to his cellar. In the basement, the victim’s throat would be slit, and their organs taken for use by Mrs. Lovett, his neighbor and specialist in making pies. However, in 1801 the pair was arrested because of rumors of disappearing sailors. Todd was only convicted of one murder, that of sailor Francis Thornhill, and hung in 1802; Lovett committed suicide shortly after confessing to her part in the crime.

While Haining’s account is enthralling and dark, many say it lacks definitive evidence. However, there were crimes in London that share hauntingly similar traits, and it is possible that these crimes served as influences on Prest. For Instance:

  • In 1784 the newspaper The Annual Register details a victim who had their throat slashed by a barber[5]
  • A five-volume biographical record of notorious criminals housed at Newgate Prison was published in the late 1700s. Titled “The Newgate Calendar,” there is a detailed story of a man named Sawney Bean (very close in name to Sweeney Todd). Bean, called “The Man-Eater of Scotland,” supposedly robbed people on the street, murdered them and ate their corpse. He, along with his family, was executed for these crimes.[6]
  • The Minister of Police, Joseph Fouche, documented murders in 1800 during his 16 years in the position. These murders, committed by a Parisian barber, were in cahoots with a pastry chef who supposedly made and sold pies made with the meat of his victims.[7]
  • James Catnatch, a man notorious for publishing rumors and false tales to get business for his one-page newspaper, published a paper titled “A Number of Human Bodies Found in the Shop of a Pork Butcher” in 1818[8]

While no public records substantiate the existence of a serial killing London barber named Sweeney Todd entirely, any one of these crimes could have likely influenced the creation of Prest’s Todd. Maybe Todd is as mysterious as Jack the Ripper…

Sweeney Todd at Casa Mañana 

Sweeney Todd at Casa Mañana is sure to thrill. Come join us and our incredible Apprentice Program cast as we go on a journey to Fleet Street, August 3-5. Click here to purchase tickets: https://bit.ly/2KpZ9rF



[1](Fischer, Paul. “A Rare Audience with Stephen Sondheim.” Film Monthly.com – I, Robot (2004), 2007, www.filmmonthly.com/paul_fischer_profiles/a_rare_audience_with_stephen_sondheim.html)

[2]FromThePage.com. “The String of Pearls, or, The Barber of Fleet Street; A Domestic Romance (London: Lloyd, 1850).” Collections | FromThePage,fromthepage.com/nesvetr/the-james-malcolm-rymer-collection/the-string-of-pearls-or-the-barber-of-fleet-street-a-domestic-romance-london-lloyd-1850.

[3](“Sweeney Todd: Fact or Fiction?” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 2 Apr. 2009, www.independent.co.uk/news/media/sweeney-todd-fact-or-fiction-6112800.html).

[4]Haining, Peter. Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Pavilion Books, 2007.

[5](“True Criminals.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/kqed/demonbarber/penny/truecriminals.html).

[6](“True Criminals.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/kqed/demonbarber/penny/truecriminals.html).

[7](“Newspaper, Novel, Blood.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/kqed/demonbarber/penny/newspaper.html).

[8](“Newspaper, Novel, Blood.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/kqed/demonbarber/penny/newspaper.html).