Sweeney Todd

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Sweeney Todd

Postby bjr » Sat Jan 19, 2008 5:06 pm

http://knowledgeoflondon.com/sweeny.html


Sweeney Todd the demon barber of Fleet Street, had his shop at number 186 Fleet Street, which is now the Dundee Courier building with a Kwick copier shop below as pictured here.
On this site he is believed to have robbed and murdered over 150 customers, thereby making him the number one serial killer in British history.

Sweeney was born on 16th October 1756, at number 85 Brick Lane in London's East End. In those times Brick Lane was almost a rural country lane that led out to the brickfields of Bethnal Green. Todd's mother Elizabeth, was a silk-winder and his father Samuel Todd a silk weaver, working for the French Huguenots in nearby Norton Folgate, Spitalfields. In February 1770 aged only 14 years Sweeney Todd was sentenced to a five year term in Newgate Prison wrongly accused of stealing a pocket watch. While in prison he met up with an old barber named Elmer Plummer, who was serving ten years for fraud. Plummer took a liking to young Sweeney and taught him how to cut hair and shave, and how to pick pockets of the customers, Sweeney was a keen learner and soon became Plummer's apprentice boy, lathering-up and shaving some of the prisoners who could afford their services.

After his release in 1775, with a few pounds he had stolen at work in the jail, and with the little knowledge of haircuts he gained, Sweeney Todd opened his Barber Shop at 186 Fleet Street, next door to St Dunstan's Church, just a few blocks away from the Royal Courts of Justice. The shop stood at the side of the narrow alleyway named Hen and Chicken Court, at the corner of Fetter Lane.

The first murder account in the Daily Courant, London's first newspaper, that had by this time merged with the Daily Gazetteer, described a murder that could well have been the work of Todd. It recalls on 14th of April 1785 a murder was committed near to Fleet Street on a gentleman from the country who was on a visit to London. The gentleman was seen arguing with a barber when the barber took from his white coat a razor and slit the throat of the man, the barber then ran towards White Friars Street, disappearing into the fog.

The story of the barbers shop tells of when customers were seated in the revolving chair, that stood in the centre of the small shop and over a trapdoor that led to a disused cellar. The chair if swung over would reveal an identical empty chair that would take its place. Sweeney when committing his murderous act, would exit through the rear door and down a flight of creaky stairs to where the customer would by now be lying unconscious after their fall. Sweeney would then take out his razor and slit their throats (through Sweeney Todd's act this type of razor became known as a cut throat razor).

With his lover the pie maker Margery Lovett, they discovered a disused underground tunnel leading from the cellar of Sweeney's shop, that ran beneath St Dunstan's Church and the burial crypt, finishing up under Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, that would make an ideal business partnership for them both.

The story for Sweeney Todd ended at the end of a rope on January 25th 1802. He was strung up outside Newgate Prison; it is said before a crowd of thousands, who had been waiting throughout the night to see Sweeney's demise. After his execution, his body given over for medical research by a group of hospital surgeons. Sweeney Todd ended up, like so many of his victims, with his entrails on a plate. And as for Mrs. Margery Lovett, she was to cheat death by the hangman, she was found by prison warders poisoned in her cell at Newgate prison.

If you had been looking for a hair cut and had been walking along Fleet Street in the year of 1785, heading westwards towards the Temple bar, a large gateway in the centre of the road, and heading for the fresh air of Covent Gardens, you would have crossed over Fetter Lane on your right and then immediately afterwards you would have noticed Hen and Chicken court, a dark narrow passageway. Perhaps you may have paused, and if a young woman asked you to go down the alleyway with her for some sport, you would have felt the danger of walking down such a dark alleyway alone. You would not have been aware of the horror lurking inside the old brown wooden barber shop at the side of the alley would be a great deal more of a danger than the girl beckoning in the alley, and if you decided not to have a haircut or shave you would have passed by Todd's barber shop with a lucky escape.

This old brown wooden barber shop would not have taken any of your attention whatsoever, as there was no window display, and the windows were misty with steam and dirt, and hard to see through. You may have noticed the red and white striped pole projecting out from the shop front, denoting its dual role as a barber surgeon. If curiosity had got the better of you and you stuck your nose against the window, you may have seen some dusty wigs on wood blocks the shape of heads. You may have become alarmed by the number of jars containing rotten teeth. These displays were to advertise the skills of pulling out teeth as barbers of the day acted as dentists too. Had you looked at the sign above the shop you would have seen the worn out hand painted yellow sign proclaiming 'Sweeney Todd, barbers'. If you had opened the barber's door, a rusty old bell would ting to alert the barber who may have been away from his chair. Once inside the shop you would have noticed the bare wood floor creaking. Heavy brown wooden beams run across the low ceiling, meeting up with the dark wooden walls that made it appear dark even on a sunny day. Flickering oil lamps at either side of the shop would only be lit when a customer would arrive. There was an old wooden bench near the chair where there were arranged; razors, combs, brushes, shaving bowls, . By the side of the chair was a leather strap that was used to sharpen a blunt razor or knife. On the left side of the shop was a small open fire, with bits of coal and some smoldering burnt hair, that Sweeney would throw on from time to time. The chair it is said was made of oak wood with ornate legs, with a small step to rest your feet when in the chair.

The barber himself was even more off putting than his shop; a sullen figure with heavy eyebrows, a long hard mouth, and an awkward stance. Every day a few people would gather outside the barbers shop, to witness Gog and Magog, being the name given to the two statues above the church who every hour would hit their clubs at the large bell of St Dunstan's Church. The figures were installed in 1671, and are carved in wood, each holding a club; they would swing from side to side, with two hits each quarter. The crowd themselves would not have known of the underground tunnels that were beneath the church. They were part of the priory of white friars monastery, that stood opposite in what is today's Bouverie Street. Whereas, our barber surgeon was most certainly aware of the tunnels, it may have been one of the reasons why he took the shop in the first place, as the tunnels were of course full of rats. So from his small shop on Fleet Street with living accommodation for himself up stairs, Sweeney set about making his fame and fortune.

Thomas Peckett Prest was the first author to write the tale of Sweeney Todd and Margery Lovett shortly after their arrest and trial. He had worked on Fleet Street and was familiar with Lovett's two-story pie shop. In the basement of the shop was the bakery, and a false wall could be opened to reveal the catacombs behind. It was through this false wall that Todd would apparently deliver his ghastly pie fillings. Prest described the shop this way: "On the left side of Bell Yard, going down from Carey Street, was, at the time we write of, one of the most celebrated shops for the sale of veal and pork pies that London had ever produced. High and low, rich and poor, resorted to it; its fame had spread far and wide; and at twelve o'clock every day when the first batch of pies was sold there was a tremendous rush to obtain them. "Oh, those delicious pies," wrote Prest (who probably sampled one or two in his time). "There was about them a flavor never surpassed and rarely equaled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of delicious gravy that defied description." No one believes that Mrs. Lovett was solely responsible for baking her renowned meat pies. A 1924 account states that she had a hired girl and a male pie maker who helped with the preparation. It was unlikely that either of them suspected where Mrs. Lovett's meat supply came from, and C.W. Biller, in that 1924 biography, asserts that anyone who began to suspect "they, too, became pie filling."
To my critics
When I'm in a sober mood, I worry, work and think,
When I'm in a drunken mood, I gamble, play and drink,
But when my moods are over and my time has come to pass,
I hope I'm buried upside down, so the world may kiss my ar*e
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Re: Sweeney Todd

Postby bjr » Sat Jan 19, 2008 5:07 pm

http://news.independent.co.uk/media/article336235.ece


Sweeney Todd: fact or fiction?
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the legendary character who killed customers and then had their flesh served up in meat pies, is brought to life again on television tonight. At least one historian believes the tale may have some basis in fact. Oliver Duff reports
Published: 03 January 2006
"He kept a shop in London Town /Of fancy clients and good renown/And what if none of their souls were saved?/They went to their maker impeccably shaved."

So goes "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" in Stephen Sondheim's popular musical. For two centuries, newspaper-readers, theatre-goers and young children have been repelled and entranced by the exploits of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street; a mass murderer who slit the throats of his clientele as they relaxed in the barber's chair. Their corpses were then served up by his lover in apparently highly regarded meat pies.

The exact number of smooth-chinned gentlemen despatched by Mr Todd - and, indeed, whether or not he existed at all - is disputed among crime historians. Tonight, BBC1 airs Sweeney Todd. Set in the backstreets of late 18th-century London, it treats the murders with a grim realism. The actor Ray Winstone plays the leading part, while Essie Davis is Mrs Lovett, a girlfriend who "isn't too choosy about her men or the source of meat for her pie shop".

A high gore content and body count are assured. More questionable is Winstone's claim that Todd is "a character you may find yourself feeling sorry for".

But is it really possible that such a picaresque psychopath ever existed? Crime historian Peter Haining, who ploughed through the available evidence for 25 years before writing Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1993, believes so. He was absolutely convinced of Todd's existence by reports he found in The Newgate Calendar - "a more factual, reliable document than the penny dreadfuls of the time". He added: "It is simply all too gruesome not to be true."

By Mr Haining's account - still not widely accepted - the man was the monstrous product of his hard upbringing, an opportunist thief who was barbarous even by the standards of his contemporaries, "polishing off" at least 160 victims in a 17-year killing frenzy.

The story begins with Todd's birth, to gin-soaked parents, in a Stepney slum on 26 October 1756. He endured a short, poverty-stricken childhood (during which his main fascination was with the instruments of torture at the Tower of London) before being orphaned aged 12. He survived by becoming apprentice to a vicious cutler (specialist in razors), John Crook. Two years later, he was jailed for petty theft and sentenced to five years in the notoriously harsh Newgate Prison. There he learnt his trade as "soap boy" to the prison barber. By the time he walked out of the gates in the autumn of 1775 he was "a morose, bitter and cruel young man of 19", according to Haining. He then found work as a "flying barber" of no fixed abode, before settling in the infamous premises next to St Dunstan's Church on Fleet Street, then a haven for drunkards and robbers. "Easy shaving for a penny - as good as you will find any," ran the shopfront sign, next to which were displayed jars with teeth he had pulled and blood he had let - references to the surgical duties of a barber.

In Haining's account, Todd's first reported victim was a "young gentleman from the country" who fell into conversation with the barber on a street corner. "The two men came to an argument and all of a sudden the barber took from his clothing a razor and slit the throat of the young man, thereafter disappearing into the alleys of Hen and Chicken Court." As evidence Haining quotes the Daily Courant of 14 April 1785, which reported the murder with horror and fascination.

It was soon after that the legendary trick barber's chair supposedly came into use. Customers unlucky enough to find themselves in a dark, empty shop and unwise enough to flaunt their wealth met their grisly end beneath the floorboards. Todd pulled a lever, which tipped the victim headfirst through a revolving trapdoor on to the cellar floor (there was an identical chair bolted to the other side of the trapdoor which swung up, to allay the suspicions of passers-by). He would then descend the steps to cut their throat from ear to ear.

Todd initially left the bodies in the underground passages below the church but, worrying about the rapidly growing pile, instead devised the idea of employing Margery (some say Sarah) Lovett's piemaking skills.

He dismembered the bodies, stripping the flesh, heart, liver and kidneys into a box to carry to Mrs Lovett's bakery at nearby Bell Yard. Bones and heads were piled in the Weston family vault beneath the church - later to be discovered by unfortunate detectives, tipped off by churchgoers upset by the stench of rotting flesh (which must have been overwhelming to be noticed above the festering stink of Georgian London).

Gossip about disappearing sailors eventually led to the pair's arrest. Lovett confessed everything before committing suicide in prison, apparently, while Todd's trial in 1801 is said to have generated feverish excitement. He stood accused of just one murder - enough to hang him, if convicted - that of a seaman, Francis Thornhill, on his way to deliver a string of 16,000 pearls when he decided to stop for a shave. A pawnbroker's clerk gave evidence that the pearls were later pawned by Todd and the prosecution described how his house "was found crammed with property and clothing sufficient for 160 people" - causing a "thrill of horror" to run round the court.

The man Haining believes was the Demon Barber blamed his mother: "I was fondled and kissed and called a pretty boy," went his dubiously reported testimony. "But later I used to wish I was strong enough to throttle her. What the devil did she bring me into this world for unless she had plenty of money to give me that I might enjoy myself in it?"

The jury took 10 minutes to find him guilty and he was hanged, aged 45, on 25 January 1802 at Newgate Prison, in front of a crowd of one thousand.

Gruesomely thrilling stuff - but complete cobblers, according to others. The playwright Christopher Bond, whose 1973 work was adapted by Sondheim for the musical, began his tale by telling readers: "Sweeney Todd is pure fiction ... No one has ever succeeded in finding a shred of evidence as to the existence of a Demon Barber thereabouts."

What Mr Haining presents as truth may be the colourful imaginings of the day's tabloids - the populist 19th-century "penny dreadfuls". The cheap sheets were the first to seize the story, zealously reporting Todd's "trial" and execution as fact, alongside vivid descriptions of the decomposing human remains. The strong likelihood is that they grossly exaggerated reality to boost sales. The stories spread through word of mouth and certainly suffered embellishment along the way.

Another favourite villain of the time was "Spring-Heeled Jack" - a mad nobleman who got his kicks from skulking around London in the middle of the night and leaping out on young women and old men to scare them.

He was said to breathe flames and to have springs in the soles of the boots so that he could jump away from his pursuers.

The authorities eventually tracked down the practical joker and warned him off, but his behaviour had by then become something of an urban myth and inspired copycats.

Later, there grew the story of Jack the Ripper - a villain whose existence and identity is contested even more fiercely than Todd's. The novelist Patricia Cornwell is convinced that he was the painter, Walter Sickert - to the outrage of other "Ripperologists".

The hack Thomas Peckett Prest wrote the most popular story about Todd and Lovett, The String of Pearls (1846), in which he praised her "delicious" pies. George Dibdin Pitt adapted it for the stage and the myth grew. The Demon Barber's first cinematic appearance was in a silent film in the 1920s and he soon got speaking lines in a serious horror film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in 1936. The Sondheim musical first ran on Broadway in 1979 - the sudden draw of the knife across the victim's throat left the audience gasping - and won nine Tony Awards. Ben Kingsley and Joanna Lumley starred in the most recent television version, in 1998.

Joshua St Johnston, who wrote the BBC1 drama to be screened this evening, said he wanted people to believe the story was true, but admitted even he was sceptical.

"Researching was very confusing," he said. "In the end it was only by visiting St Dunstan's Church, where Sweeney Todd was meant to have hidden the bits of the bodies that didn't go into pies, that I realised he probably didn't exist, as there was nothing there referring to it."

Mr St Johnston hopes his version moves the tale beyond music-hall melodrama: "It's an attempt to apply a 21st-century understanding of criminal psychology to an 18th-century serial killer."

That little evidence exists of Sweeney Todd may be down to how easy it was to get away with murder, and not because he was the product of gruesome Georgian imaginations. "Maybe there really was a Sweeney Todd after all - he just never got caught," admitted Mr St Johnston.

Two centuries on, it is unlikely that the truth and legend of Sweeny Todd will ever be adequately disentangled. But it seems certain that our appetite for the gruesome will always be satisfied by the Demon Barber's capacity to titillate and revolt.

"The tale of Sweeney Todd has the same lure as the Jack the Ripper story," said Mr Haining. "It has, if I can use these words, the perfect ingredients: the revolving chair, the men's eventual fate as pie filling, and the enduring mystery of not being sure how many he killed."

Or to steal the words that Anna Pavord penned for The Observer in 1979: "Sweeney Todd will never die. We all need bogeymen and he was bogier than most."
To my critics
When I'm in a sober mood, I worry, work and think,
When I'm in a drunken mood, I gamble, play and drink,
But when my moods are over and my time has come to pass,
I hope I'm buried upside down, so the world may kiss my ar*e
User avatar
bjr
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Posts: 4181
Joined: Fri Nov 23, 2007 2:10 pm
Location: 3rd Cesspit from left of Rothley Towers


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