Did Sweeney Todd Actually Exist?

Did Sweeney Todd Actually Exist?
Johnny Depp appears as Sweeney Todd in the 2007 musical

Swing your razor wide, Sweeney!
Hold it to the skies!
Freely flows the blood of those
Who moralize!

There cannot be many who have not heard the story of Sweeney Todd, the infamous 'Demon Barber', who during the late 18th century slashed his way through innumerable unsuspecting customers in his establishment in Fleet Street, before having their flesh baked into pies by his lover, Mrs Lovett.

It is a perennial tale of horror, much reinterpreted in popular entertainment, in books, films and even musicals. It has been generally accepted that Todd never actually existed and that, like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, he is an amalgam of different sources, a composite of obscure horror tales, known murderers, folklore and the very human fear of cannibalism. Very few claim that Todd is anything other than the fictional murderer first depicted in a mid-18th-century 'penny dreadful', The String of Pearls, although a few writers believe otherwise.

But there are exceptions.

The late Peter Haining, author of two books on Todd, claimed that he had discovered undeniable evidence that Todd actually existed:

I pored over archives in London and Washington, looked at 18th-century maps and scrutinised contemporary publications. They revealed that Todd's life and crimes were more intriguing, more curious and more gruesome than previously suspected. Moreover, his background conforms to the psychological profiles of serial killers built up by modern police criminologists. The Demon Barber's crimes, it turns out, are no urban myth.

It is perhaps interesting that the supposed real-life Sweeney Todd was a product of the East End — a child Haining described as having 'breathed the fetid air of the East End slums' (a largely incorrect description of the Spitalfields area at that time, it should be said, as the area was relatively rural at the time).

According to Haining, Todd was born on 26 October 1756, at either 85, 87 or 89 Brick Lane, to impoverished silk-weavers — his mother barely 20 years of age, and his father an incorrigible alcoholic who regularly beat his wife and son. The boy shed no tear when his parents disappeared in 1768, after which he embarked upon his nascent life of crime, ending up in Newgate Prison at the age of 14. There he was apparently apprenticed to the barber who shaved the heads of condemned men, the man from whom he learned his notorious skills.

Upon his release, Todd set himself up as a barber, first on Hyde Park Corner, then, famously, at his address in Fleet Street. The rest of the story, culminating in Sweeney Todd's execution for his murders in 1802, is well known. Unfortunately, there is no record of any such trial or execution, or of the childhood imprisonment in Newgate. In fact. Haining's claims have not been corroborated by others.

It would seem unwise, then, to dwell on this notorious character as a genuine individual whose criminality found its trigger in the darkness of east London.

This is an extract from Mob Town A History of Crime and Disorder in the East End, by John Bennett. The book is available now, from Yale University Press, rrp £18.99.

Last Updated 16 October 2017