This weekend my husband and I were doing a bit of spring cleaning and I came across a box of some of my old CDs. After reliving the late 90s with a little Will Smith, I popped in my Sweeney Todd soundtrack (from the 2007 motion picture starring Johnny Depp, of course). As I listened to this over the last few days on my commute I realized that the story of Sweeny Todd would make a great blog entry.
Now, I don’t mean that I’m going to relate the entire of story of Johnny Depp (Todd) offing people in his barber chair on Fleet Street, so Mrs. Lovett could bake them into pies, but more the story of how Sweeney Todd came to be.
In London during the nineteenth century people could purchase “penny dreadfuls” from street vendors. These were small publications that featured multi-part sensational stories. Stories would be continued over the course of several weeks. These definitely were not high literature and appealed largely to young people and the working class. Well, the story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in a penny dreadful titled The String of Pearls in the 1846-7. Versions of the story continued to appear in London for decades to come and, finally, in the 1870s, made it’s way to the United States. From here it developed into a play, a ballet in the 1950s, a movie in the 1960s, a Sondheim musical in 1979, and finally a Tim Burton film in 2007.
Is the tale of Sweeney Todd based at all in history?
Well, some claim he was an actual person. A few books have been published claiming he was a real man who committed his crimes in 1800, but every time someone tries to verify the sources of these claims, they come up empty handed.
Others say that the tale of Todd is merely an urban legend that developed in the first half of the eighteenth century amongst the poorer areas of London. Meat pies are a traditional staple of English cuisine (think pot pie) and times were hard for London’s working class so meat was hard to come by. Many warned, probably in jest, that you needed to know who made the pies you were eating because they could be using cat meat….or worse! These ideas even appeared in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzelwitt, the latter being published a mere two weeks before the appearance of the The String of Pearls.
So, it is true that Sweeney Todd probably developed out urban legends and sensational stories written for mere amusement. There are no historical documents supporting the existence of any such man, but he is still an interesting piece of history. Because, even if the man isn’t real, the story is and it shows how a small tale can grow into a phenomenon and take on a life of its own.