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To most people, Sweeney Todd needs no introduction, thanks in part to Tim Burton’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, starring Johnny Depp as the throat-slashing barber of Fleet Street. In the movie, Todd dumps the bodies of his victims into the basement, where their bones are stripped of flesh and made into pies by his wicked accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, played in Burton’s film by Helena Bonham Carter. Those familiar with the movie know how the story ends. But what they may not know is that this tale is nearly 170 years old.

The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in 1846 under the title String of Pearls in a “penny dreadful” (so named for the publication’s price as well as its macabre themes). The original version of the tale centers on the disappearance of a sailor named Lietutentant Thornhill, who comes to London bearing a string of pearls for a girl named Johanna Oakely, on behalf of her missing lover, Mark Ingestrie.

After visiting Todd’s barbershop on Fleet Street, Thornhill disappears, arousing suspicions amongst his friends that the barber may also have been involved in the disappearance of Ingestrie. Driven by a desperate desire to find her lover, Oakely disguises herself as a boy and goes to work for Todd after his former assistant, Tobias Ragg, is incarcerated in an insane asylum. Eventually, Todd’s grisly activities are revealed when Ingestrie, who has been kept prisoner beneath the cellars of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and forced to work as a cook, escapes through the lift used to deliver the pies to and from the kitchen. Todd, who is furious at Mrs. Lovett for allowing Ingestrie to escape, then poisons her, before he is apprehended and hanged for his crimes. Ingestrie and Oakely marry and live happily ever after.

But where did the idea for this twisted tale originate, and is there any truth to it?

Today, Todd is depicted as a barber in the modern sense. However, as a character, he would have been recognizable as a surgeon in Victorian London. Barber-surgeons—as they were known—provided a variety of medical services for their communities. Their services ranged from the mundane—picking lice from a person’s head, trimming or shaving beards, and cutting hair—to the more involved, such as extracting teeth, performing minor surgical procedures and, of course, bloodletting, which is the origin of the red and white barber pole (click here to read more).

The barber-surgeons and surgeons existed separately until 1540, when Henry VIII integrated the two through the establishment of the Barber-Surgeons Company. Although united, tensions between the two persisted until they eventually split in 1745. Even so, barbers continued to perform surgical tasks well into the 19th century—much to the annoyance of their counterparts, who were trying to disassociate themselves from hair-cutting and shaving by the Victorian period.

The 18th and 19th centuries were rife with rumours about the dubious activities of medical practitioners, and even cannibalism, many of which tall stories originated as ways of slandering one’s rivals. On 3 May 1718, The British Gazetteer reported:

We have Intelligence from Lincoln, that a man being hanged there [at] the last Assizes, within three days after his execution, a couple of apothecaries contracted with a butcher for a sum of money, to take the body out of the grave, and cut off all the flesh, fit for them to make a skeleton of; which flesh he sold for venison to an inn-keeper; who making it into a pasty, invited many of his neighbours to the eating of it; but sometime after the villainy being detected, the butcher and the two apothecaries were committed to Lincoln Gaol.

Fortunately, many of these stories have never been substantiated, and it is likely that most of them were contrived by other medical practitioners to undermine the reputations of their competitors.  Once out there, these rumours captured the imagination of the public, which continued to elaborate them into new and often more terrifying tales. Even Charles Dickens could not resist the idea of unsuspecting crowds consuming the fleshy meat of their fellow human beings on a visit to their local pie shop. In 1844, he published Martin Chuzzlewit, in which a character named Tom Pinch expresses gratitude that his own “evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic [sic] pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis.” [1]

Of course, not all tales about cannibalism were fictional, nor were all forms of cannibalism rejected as socially unacceptable in earlier periods. The New England Puritan minister and lay physician, Edward Taylor (c.1658–1702), wrote that “human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness [epilepsy].” [2] In Denmark, the use of human blood as a cure for epilepsy was widespread: often, the sick and infirm would gather under the scaffold hoping to catch the spilt blood of a freshly executed criminal. English physicians, too, believed in the curative potency of human blood, and recommended this “cure” to their patients as late as 1747.  Other body parts–such as human flesh, fat and/or bone–were also used to cure patients of various ailments during this period. These parts were typically ground down to a fine powder and drunk or applied to the skin topically. [3]

Despite its popularity, however, the practice of medicinal cannibalism declined during the latter half of the 18th century as public opinion turned against it.  By the time the macabre story of Sweeney Todd appeared in print, all forms of cannibalism were deemed socially unacceptable, making the tale of the demon barber even more compelling, albeit fictional.

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1. Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ( Publishing, 2009), p. 372
2. Edward Taylor, ‘Dispensatory’, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts, Yale University Library, pp. 376-7.
3. For more on medicinal cannibalism, see Richard Sugg, ”’Good Physic but Bad Food”: Early Modern Attitudes towards Medicinal Cannibalism and its Suppliers’, Social History of Medicine, 19:2, pp. 225-40.