Sweeney Todd might have been French… or he might have been fake

Alright! You sir, you sir, how about a shave?
Come and visit your good friend Sweeney.
You sir, too sir? Welcome to the grave.
-Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

He’s a classic night terror from the smog-ensconced streets of Victorian London. A blood-caked fiend who sits comfortably alongside the mysterious likes of Spring-Heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper in the pantheon of 19th Century terrors, each atrocity painting an ever more squalid picture of this so-called Great City of Empire.

Thanks to Stephen Sondheim’s catchy show tunes, Tim Burton and George King’s hit horror films, and countless productions that have dominated everything from back-street music halls to the bright lights of the West End, the story is an easy one to paraphrase:

Sweeney Todd is a wronged barber turned serial murderer. As soon as his unwary victims slip into his barber’s chair, he tilts back their heads and slits their vulnerable throats with a flourish of his straight razor and a spray of arterial grot, sending them plummeting into the cellar below. This cellar is linked to the pie-shop next door, run by Mrs Lovett his partner-in-crime and partner-in-bed, who bakes the corpus delicti into copious delights.

A still from the 1926 silent movie incarnation of Sweeney Todd
A still from the 1926 silent movie incarnation of Sweeney Todd

The beats of that story were born in the pages of The String of Pearls: A Romance, serialised from 1846 to 1847 in one of the macabre ‘Penny Dreadful’ newspapers that offered up cheap thrills in the age of velvet-curtained gothic horror, and finessed by its 1847 stage play that held the wide-eyed audiences at Hoxton’s Britannia Theatre enraptured.

If the likes of Dracula (1897), Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Carmilla (1872) and The Turn of the Screw (1898) were the genre’s high culture, reflecting the drawing-room fears of its monied middle-class readers, than The String of Pearls was its sensationalism for the streets, pandering simple – yet visceral – fears of the horrors next door, often with a dollop of innuendo.

No allegory, no ennui, just a maniac with a razor and pies filled with human offal.

The poster for George King's 1936 film version, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The poster for George King’s 1936 film version, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

But unlike the trail of brutalised cadavers left by Jack the Ripper or the disturbing eye-witness accounts of Spring-Heeled Jack, there’s nothing to suggest that the Sweeney Todd we think we know was real.

There are no records of Sweeney Todd in any court documents (no Margery Lovett nor Tobias Ragg either, but the names of his lover and her adopted urchin have a whiff of Charles Dickins about them anyway), and no record of a barbershop located on Fleet Street. There’s no birth certificate and no death certificate. There are newspaper reports (although tellingly there are no reports of his trial or execution), however Victorian newspapers often reported gruesome hearsay as if it were fact, padding out the pages with embellished scandals or outright lies.

There are murderous barbers in these pages, of course, but few match the lurid details of the crime in any satisfactory way.

A 1871 illustration showing a seller of popular songsheets
A 1871 illustration showing a seller of popular songsheets

In 1784 The London Chronicle recalled “a most remarkable murder [perpetrated] by a journeyman barber” near Hyde Park Corner, while a libel suit in 1818 against gossip James Catnatch might have also been an inspiration.

A printer of widely popular chapbooks, cheeky songs and the tabloid muck-raker of his day, Catnatch wrote that a human remains had been found in the sausages served at a Drury Lane pork butcher’s shop, driving the poor man out of business. This butcher – Thomas Pizzey – won his case and Clerkenwell Court found Catnatch guilty, sentencing him to six months for his trouble.

Fittingly, the gossip in the gutters turned to Catnatch’s defeat rather than his latest ‘exclusive’, immortalised in this snarky verse that kept the case firmly embedded in memory:

Six months in quod old Jemmy’s got,
because he a shocking tale had started,
About Mr. Pizzey who dealt in sausages
In Blackmore Street, Clare Market

If Sweeney Todd wasn’t a Londoner, then perhaps he was a Parisian with the bulk of the story culled from the yellowing pages of the The Tell Tale magazine, which recounted a similarly ghoulish fable as if it were fact. ‘A Terrific Story of the Rue de la Harpe, Paris’, published 1825 and written by prolific hack Thomas Peckett Prest, was lifted in turn from a grim volume of true crime – Archives de la Police – released in 1816 by Joseph Fouché, former Minister of Police under the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

A Machiavellian political actor in his own right, Fouché has a reputation as all-seeing super-cop that still endures.

Rue de la Harpe pictured 1865-1869
Rue de la Harpe pictured 1865-1869

The tale was set less than a decade after the French Revolution when life was cheap, food supply uncertain and the rule of law negligible. It concerned a barber – a perruquier – who plied his trade on the “long and dismal” Rue de la Harpe and a baker who ran the pie shop next door. This barber murdered his patrons, taking the bodies down to the basement where the wall had been knocked down, linking it to the pie shop – a pie shop with a reputation as the best in the city.

The duo were tried and found guilty at the Palais de Justice in 1801 and in a punishment seen to fit their crime, they were spared Madam Guillotine and torn to pieces on the rack instead.

As if this story weren’t compelling enough, that two houses on the street had been pulled down purely as a matter of civil engineering was soon eclipsed by the far more titillating reason presented by The Tall Tale:

This case was of so terrific a nature, it was made part of the sentence of the law, that besides the execution of the monsters upon the rack, the houses in which they perpetrated those infernal deeds, should be pulled down, and that the spot on which they stood should be marked out to posterity with horror and execration.

The story was reported in Britain as well as France, because it fit the increasingly hostile narrative that sought to portray this new-fangled French Republic as dangerous and barbaric. Indeed, cannibalism was a huge part of British propaganda from the 1790s onward, showing the inevitable consequence of the society without the firm hand of the aristocracy and the church, thboth temporal and spiritual.

A British cartoon from 1792, vilifying the 'cannibalism' of the French revolutionaries
A British cartoon from 1792, vilifying the “cannibalism” of the French revolutionaries

In 1846 this story grew taller in the re-telling. The Rue de la Harpe was replaced by Fleet Street in The String of Pearls (A Romance), most likely authored by James Malcolm Rymer and our old friend Thomas Peckett Prest, and The Demon Barber was born, firmly embedding Sweeney Todd in Victorian popular culture and inspiring numerous other accounts – most notably the 1979 musical.

So while ‘our’ Sweeney Todd was made up, at least his French predecessor was real, right?

Well, maybe not. Fouché may appear on the surface to be a trustworthy source and well placed to report on real crimes, but he isn’t without controversy.

Like the credulous ‘true’ reports of Sweeney Todd in the likes of Britain’s Newgate Calendar, there’s no other record of the murders on the Rue de la Harpe outside of his Archives de la Police – nor of its perpetrators, which is odd given they were tried at the Palais de Justice only 15 years before his book’s publication.

To throw further doubt on Fouché’s veracity, a posthumous memoir was denounced by his son as fraudulent and compiled from a jumble of notes and papers by Alphonse de Beauchamp and an accomplice.

This Beauchamp was a former police agent with an axe to grind against his employer due to a dispute that saw the lackey sentenced to internal exile and subject to an oppressive level of surveillance. He chuntered in an 1822 letter, two years before Fouché’s apparent memoir saw publication, that:

I am the victim, as you know, of an arbitrary act of the regicide Fouché’ who, depriving me of employment, made me forfeit fourteen years of work and public service.

Not that this means that Fouché’s earlier – living – works were ghost-written by scheming underlings, but it does suggest things aren’t always what they seem in Napoleonic France’s backbiting corridors of power.

A money-lender meets his end in The String of Pearls
A money-lender meets his end in The String of Pearls

What’s more, his account – set in the 1790s – is eerily similar to an earlier French folk tale, traced as far back as 1387 and known as L’Affaire de la Rue des Marmousets, or la Légende du Barbier et du Pâtissier Sanguinaires (The Legend of the Barber and the Bloody Pastry Seller).

This 14th Century account survives in a ballad called La Rue des Marmouzets, but rather than being a protean account like almost-Sweeneys we’ve seen before the elements are instantly – almost shockingly – familiar:

Towards the end of the fourteenth century
There lived a sort of demon barber,
Who slit his clients throats at 24 Rue des Marmouzets.

He carried on this horrible trade
And no-one could resist him,
In his cellar he polished them off,
His accomplice a villainous pie merchant next door.

In an echo of the Rue de la Harpe affair, the site of this ghastly ritual was said to have been razed to the ground and a simple stone pyramid apparently marked its location until 1536.

The origins of this story, much like the others, is difficult to trace.

Contemporary court records were lost in 1871 while the City of Light burned under the chaotic rule of the Paris Commune, leaving only the hazy recollections of later historians, but what we know for certain is that the Sweeney Todd you’re looking for definitely didn’t exist.

But good stories don’t always have to be true, do they?

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  • Sweeney Todd: The String of Pearls: The Original Victorian Classic by James Malcolm Rymer, Thomas Peckett Prest
  • The Life and Times of James Catnach, (Late of Seven Dials), Ballad Monger by Charles Hindley
  • Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street By Peter Haining
  • Medusa’s Head: The Rise and Survival of Joseph Fouché, Inventor of the Modern Police State by Rand Mirante
  • Crime Library: Sweeney Todd by Mark Gribben, accessed via Wayback Machine
  • Street Literature by Ruth Richardson, accessed via British Library