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Serial Killers, Urban Legends, and Sondheim

By David G Anderson

The fascination swirling around the legend of a mass-murdering Figaro, who along with an accomplice made cannibals of the genteel in London, has circulated for almost 200 years. Let’s see, there is the ubiquitous fascination with serial killers. Next, the intrigue of whether the urban legend is fact or fiction. Then, how such a morbid plot could end up in a blockbuster musical. Ahh—the fascination with Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street! Incredibly, the genres are omnifarious in this Sondheim masterpiece: horror/serial killer, revenge plot, anti-heroism, and musical/psychological thriller. Res ipsa loquitor, the thing speaks for itself.

Why the morose fascination with horror and serial killers? Scott A. Bonn PhD, in a 2017 article outlines some of the reasons we are drawn to horror and these celebrity-monster killers. Bonn states, “In many ways, serial killers are for adults what monsters are for children—scary fun.” He continues “I believe that the public loves serial killers for a number of interrelated reasons. First, they are rare in the business of murder. . . . Second, they generally kill randomly. . . thus making us all vulnerable. Third, serial killers are prolific and insatiable. . . . Fourth, their behavior is without a coherent motive such as jealousy or rage. They are driven by demons. . . . Finally, they provide a conduit for the public’s most primal feelings such as fear, lust, and anger” (“What Drives Our Curious Fascination with Serial Killers,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201710/what-drives-our-curious-fascination-serial-killers). Predominantly we need assurance that good triumphs evil, with the St. Georges to slay our nightmarish dragons.

Was Sweeney Todd a real person? The myth/cult following of Sweeney Todd is so powerful that many people claim in print (but mostly on fan websites) that he was a real person. It’s almost humorous reading the claims and counterclaims of this debate. This phenomenon is not all that uncommon. Dr. Bonn commenting on this portent, “Exaggerated depictions of serial killers in the mass media have blurred fact and fiction. As a result, real-life killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional ones like Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter have become interchangeable in the minds of many people” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201710/what-drives-our-curious-fascination-serial-killers). Sondheim’s brilliant characterization and musical score further propels the discussion.

According to Peter Haining’s book, Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, (London Robson Books, 1993), the razor-wielding cutthroat was very real but simply discounted by historians.

Story is that Todd was born in the East London slums mid 1700s. Orphaned at age twelve, he became a convicted felon at fourteen. His sentence was five years at Newgate Prison for thievery, where he tutored under the prison barber thus learning his trade. He set up shop on Fleet Street next to St. Dunston’s Church following his release.

The “Daily Courant” on April 14, 1785, reported that Todd’s first murder victim was a man he killed in an alley next to his barbershop. Ostensibly, this primal act triggered a seventeen-year campaign of slitting customers’ throats. An ingenious customized chair would send them down a chute headfirst into the cellar below. Mrs. Lovett, owner of the pie shop below, would then harvest the bodies for her meat-pies. One hundred and sixty people were dispatched in this manner, with the unsuitable body parts kept in a crypt beneath the church next door.

An investigation of several missing sailors in 1801 led to Todd being convicted of murdering seaman Francis Thornhill. Thereafter Mrs. Lovett confessed her crimes and committed suicide in prison. Todd was hanged from a portable scaffold in front of thousands of people on the morning of January 25, 1802.

This has been soundly refuted by historians as simply not true. A 2007 article in London’s Time Out calls Peter Haining’s account, “a carefully planned hoax.” The article further states that the Sweeney Todd we are familiar with originated with a story in a weekly penny dreadful, The People’s Periodical. The story published over an eighteen-week period in 1846–47 was titled, The String of Pearls: A Romance. It featured a razor-brandishing barber who turns his victims into meat-pies. Straightaway the myth of Todd’s existence sprang to life. “One addition that has remained popular is the notion that the tale is ‘founded in fact’ as Britannia advertised on the 1 March 1847 playbill, (http://branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=Sharon-aronofsky-weltman-1847-sweeney-todd-and-abolition). Hmm maybe—more fishy-pie than human-pie to the absorbing myth. 

So where then did the story originate? “Doubts existing in the mind of some correspondents as to the origin of Sweeney Todd, I have made extensive research to discover the fundamental basis. . . . The story of Sweeney Todd was first imported from France in 1823 and appeared in a monthly publication, the Tell-Tale. . . . It was titled ‘A Terrific Story of the Rue de la Harpe,’ and described the cruel murder and mutilation of a country gentleman in the boutique of a fiend-like Figaro, who, after appropriating a casket of pearls he carried, disposed of the corpse to his paramour in crime, a pie-maker, whose patties were the rage of Parisian society. The subsequent discovery of the remains . . . of nearly three hundred human beings . . . diffused disgust and dismay through the French metropolis” (G. Yarrow Baldock*, Oxford Press*, May 3, 1902, pp. 1–2).

Engaging this story in 1847, George Dibdin Pitt, scripted his melodrama, The String of Pearls, or the Fiend of Fleet Street. Its phantastic popularity stimulated dozens of others to write their own versions. Inspired after seeing Christopher Bond’s adaptation of pre-Victorian era clienteles being murdered by a legendary malevolent barber and his resourceful business neighbor, Stephen Sondheim approached Bond about turning his script into a musical. Forsaking greed as a motive, a more imaginative backstory was created for the eldritch barber’s murderous ways.  

Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler invests its title character via mise-en-scene with a fierce revenge motive, transforming the greedy villain of earlier works into a sympathetic anti-hero, casting a more considerate light on the human-pie baking Mrs. Lovett. Todd had his freedom, beautiful wife, and innocent child ripped from him unjustly by the lecherous Judge Turpin and his obsequious beadle. Sweeney, paradoxically becomes the monster created in the face of Judge Turpin’s turpitude. Mrs. Lovett, in poverty straits due to a paucity of customers, is viewed as loving an unattainable man. Benjamin Barker, now Sweeney Todd, has returned to London having successfully escaped an Australian prison after fifteen years. His only desire is to be reunited with his wife Lucy and daughter Johanna. Mrs. Lovett, whose shop is situated directly beneath Barker’s/Sweeney’s former second-story barbershop, informs him that Judge Turpin indeed ravaged Lucy, resulting in her suicide, and he adopted Johanna. The devasting news diverts Sweeney’s primary objective of reunification to a resolute slicing out his revenge.

Sweeney’s plan of murderous-retribution on Turpin is untimely thwarted. Insanely furious, he vows to take his vengeance on all mankind, fostering his ideation/predilection toward throat-cutting, enabling Mrs. Lovett’s meat-pie scheme. Her new-found ingredient becomes the craze of London with customers lining up. “Sweeney, monomaniacally pursuing his desire for the perfect narrative closure—either reunion with his family or revenge against the judge—becomes blind to everything else and ends thwarted, confused, and denied any closure but death. Mrs. Lovett, pursuing material wealth and commercial success, requires a perpetually deferred desire—the cycle of customers, bodies, and meat-pies. When the two desires overlap, the unholy couple instantiate a model of the industrial-age worldview, dehumanizing other people and turning them into objects that serve their obsessions; revenge and money” (Robert L. McLaughlin, Sweeney Todd, National Register 2013 ed. P.iii).

The piling up of blood-let bodies is directly proportional to the recurring terror—a terror begetting a self-reproachful panache; synchronously cascading Todd into an abyss, engraving horrific oddment-scars on Benjamin Barker’s soul. Sans illumination only blackness remains. Perhaps we, ourselves, discover multiple fascinations within this play, be it death by barber, the question of legend, or a Sondheim musical. The intersection of tragedy and comedy while efficaciously interlacing sophistication and base humor into this musical score not only thrills but also haunts. Que up Sondheim’s mesmerizing magic for a memorable experience that produces skin-prickling sensations. Truly a gruesome tasty delight! Res ipsa loquitor!

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