The History of Sweeney Todd

Welcome back gals and ghouls! This week I am stoked to bring you into the magical world of Sweeney Todd. I have always been a fan of Sweeney Todd the Musical, and recently I decided to look into the history of Sweeney Todd and the “real story” if you will. I will warn you that it is pretty gruesome, and not very pretty… However, if you are really into messed up shit and you want to know more about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, read on. 

The Beginning

Courtesy of

Sweeney Todd was first introduced as a fictional villain in the Victorian penny dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls” (1846-47). The story follows the mystery behind the disappearance of sailor Lieutenant Thornhill, who was last seen walking into Sweeney Todd’s barber shop on Fleet Street in London, England in 1785. Thornhill was sent to deliver a gift, a string of pearls, to the young Joanna Oakley, who’s lover, Mark Ingestrie, has been presumed lost at sea. Lieutenant Thornhill’s disappearance was brought to the attention of his seamates, Colonel Jeffrey, by Thornhill’s canine companion, Hector.

With the help of Joanna, Jeffrey set off to figure out what came of Lieutenant Thornhill. From the very beginning, Joanna had suspected that the creepy neighbourhood barber was somehow involved, so she disguised herself as a young boy and applied to become Todd’s assistant in his barber shop. Mr. Todd was in need of a new assistant because his former child-assistant, Tobias Ragg, had been institutionalized after accusing Todd of murder.

Once entering the barber shop as an assistant, Joanna finally sees the gruesome truth behind the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. She discovers that Todd, once the customer is sitting in his barber chair, is pulling a lever which drops the customer down numerous levels into the basement of the building where, upon impact, their necks will snap and they begin to die. She also discovered that when the customers don’t die on impact, Todd will “Polish them off” by slitting their throats with his straight razor. Among the first victims she sees is her love, Mark, who is (luckily) still alive, and is rescued before Todd can get to him.

Later, it is discovered that the bodies were being robbed by Todd and then stored underneath St. Dunstan’s church. The bodies were then being used by Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s neighbour and the owner of the local pie shop, for their meat to create the beloved pies in her shop. In the end, Todd poisons Mrs. Lovett and is hanged for his crime and then Joanna and Mark get married… blah blah blah… the end.

Modernized Story

Courtesy of

Nowadays, many of us know of Sweeney Todd because of the fabulous movie-musical starring the oh-so-dreamy Johnny Depp (yes, I know that it was a musical long before that film.. Trust me.. I was a theatre kid). So what’s the difference between the original story and the musical version we have grown to know and love? Well.. let’s see.

  1. The original has no singing (duh)
  2. The musical version shows Todd slitting the throats of his victims before dropping them down the “body chute” if you will
  3. There is no church in the musical
  4. The character of Tobias is alive, well and free in the musical
  5. In the musical, Todd is Joanna’s father and her mother is a creepy beggar lady
  6. Joanna’s love interest in the musicals name is Anthony and he is very much free and alive as well, and he also arrives in London WITH Todd
  7. Todd arrives in London at the beginning of the story after being exiled and having his child taken away from him by Judge Turpin
  8. Mrs. Lovett is killed by being thrown into a fire, not from poison
  9. Sweeney Todd’s real name in the musical is Benjamin Barker, he changes it to Todd when he comes back to London to hide who he truly is
  10. Joanna does not try to get a job as Todd’s assistant, she enters his shop as a client

I think that’s about enough to prove that the stories are very, very different. The main premiss is the same, of course, but there are many crucial differences.

Is Sweeney Todd Real?

When I was in high school, I was in a production of Sweeney Todd and, as I always do, I did probably too much research into the story than I should have. One thing that I came across was the theory that Sweeney Todd was in fact a real man, who actually had a barber shop at 186 Fleet Street, London, England (pictured below), which is actually beside a church, which kind of makes me laugh.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 11.23.54 PM
Courtesy of Google Earth

Many of the stories of this real Sweeney Todd stated that he was actually a short man with red hair and black eyes and that the church involvement was in fact reality and that essentially the originally story was true. However, there is no historical information that proves that there was ever such a man. Conspiracy theorists believe that this is just a cover up and that Todd was a real person who committed these horrific crimes.

So that’s it for this week! I know that this was probably a random post to some of you, but I’ve wanted to write about this for some time. I encourage all of you to watch the musical as well as read The String of Pearls if you can get your hands on a copy because the penny dreadful was DEFINITELY much creepier than the more modernized tale. If you have seen the movie or read this story, comment below and let me know if you found it scary or if you think he was a real person! 

Until next time… Keep it spooky! 


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