Claims that Sweeney Todd was a historical person are strongly disputed by scholars, although possible legendary prototypes exist.
In the original version of the tale, Todd is a barber who dispatches his victims by pulling a lever as they sit in his barber chair. His victims fall backward down a revolving trap door into the basement of his shop, generally causing them to break their necks or skulls. In case they are alive, Todd goes to the basement and "polishes them off" (slitting their throats with his straight razor). In some adaptations, the murdering process is reversed, with Todd slitting his customers' throats before dispatching them into the basement through the revolving trap door. After Todd has robbed his dead victims of their goods, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime (in some later versions, his friend and/or lover), assists him in disposing of the bodies by baking their flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting customers of her pie shop. Todd's barber shop is situated at 152 Fleet Street, London, next to St. Dunstan's church, and is connected to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop in nearby Bell Yard by means of an underground passage. In most versions of the story, he and Mrs. Lovett hire an unwitting orphan boy, Tobias Ragg, to serve the pies to customers.
Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story titled The String of Pearls: A Romance. This penny dreadful was published in 18 weekly parts, in Edward Lloyd's The People's Periodical and Family Library, issues 7-24, 21 November 1846 to 20 March 1847. It was probably written by James Malcolm Rymer, though Thomas Peckett Prest has also been credited with it; possibly each worked on the serial from part to part. Other attributions include Edward P. Hingston, George Macfarren, and Albert Richard Smith. In February/March 1847, before the serial was even completed, George Dibdin Pitt adapted The String of Pearls as a melodrama for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: "I'll polish him off".
Lloyd published another, lengthier, penny part serial from 1847-48, with 92 episodes. It was then published in book form in 1850 as The String of Pearls, subtitled "The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance". This expanded version of the story was 732 pages long. A plagiarised version of this book appeared in the United States c. 1852-53 as Sweeney Todd: or the Ruffian Barber. A Tale of Terror of the Seas and the Mysteries of the City by "Captain Merry" (a pseudonym for American author Harry Hazel, 1814-89).
In 1865 the French novelist Paul H.C. Féval (1816-1887), famous as a writer of horror and crime novels and short stories, referred to what he called "L'Affaire de la Rue des Marmousets", in the introductory chapter to his book "La Vampire". A version of this story is related by the author Jacques Yonnet in his book Rue des maléfices (1954). This version is set in late medieval (1387) Paris, at the corner of the Rue des Marmousets and the Rue des Deux-Hermites. The familiar plot of the barber and the pastrycook who sell pies made with human flesh is followed, the dénouement following one of the victims' dogs alerting neighbors and the gendarmes. The two confess, and are summarily burned alive; the houses where the crimes took place are then razed. Whether this version of the story is based on The String of Pearls or its dramatisation, or a much older tale alluded to by Féval is unclear. In any case, it may well be the source for some recent versions that move the tale from London to Paris.
In 1875, Frederick Hazleton's c. 1865 dramatic adaptation Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (see below) was published as Vol 102 of Lacy's Acting Edition of Plays.
A scholarly, annotated edition of the original 1846-47 serial was published in volume form in 2007 by the Oxford University Press under the title of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, edited by Robert Mack.
Alleged historical basis
The original story of Sweeney Todd quite possibly stems from an older urban legend, originally based on dubious pie-fillings. In Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the servant Sam Weller says that a pieman used cats "for beefsteak, veal and kidney, 'cording to the demand", and recommends that people should buy pies only "when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kitten." Dickens then developed this in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), published two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846-47), with a character called Tom Pinch who is grateful that his own "evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis".
Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person were first made in the introduction to the 1850 (expanded) edition of The String of Pearls and have persisted to the present day. In two books,Peter Haining argued that Sweeney Todd was a historical figure who committed his crimes around 1800. Nevertheless, other researchers who have tried to verify his citations find nothing in these sources to back Haining's claims.
The String of Pearls (1847), a melodrama by George Dibdin Pitt that opened at Hoxton's Britannia Theatre and billed as "founded on fact". It was something of a success, and the story spread by word of mouth and took on the quality of an urban legend. Various versions of the tale were staples of the British theatre for the rest of the century. The play was produced on Broadway in 1924 at the Frazee Theatre, starring Robert Vivian as Sweeney Todd and Raffaella Ottiano as Mrs. Lovett.
Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (c. 1865), a dramatic adaption written by Frederick Hazleton which premiered at the Old Bower Saloon, Stangate Street, Lambeth.
Sweeney Todd (1962), a four-act melodrama adapted from The String of Pearls by Brian J Burton who also composed new songs and lyrics. It was first performed at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1973), a play by the British playwright Christopher Bond. This version of the story was the first to give Todd a more sympathetic motive: he is Benjamin Barker, a wrongfully convicted barber who after 15 years in an Australian penal colony escapes and returns to London under the new name Sweeney Todd, only to find that Judge Turpin, who is responsible for his conviction, has raped his young wife and adopted his daughter. He at first plans to kill Turpin, but when his prey escapes, he swears vengeance on the whole world and begins to slash his customers' throats. He goes into business with Mrs. Lovett, his former landlady, who bakes his victims' flesh into pies. At the end of the play, he finally gets his revenge by killing the Judge, but then unknowingly kills his own wife, who Mrs. Lovett had misled him into believing had died. He kills Mrs. Lovett, but is in turn killed by Mrs. Lovett's assistant Tobias Ragg, who slits Todd's throat with his own razor.
"Sweeney Todd, The Barber", a song which assumes its audience knows the stage version and claims that such a character existed in real life. Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1956, attributed it to R. P. Weston, a songwriter active from 1906 to 1934.
"Fleet Street", a hard rock/heavy metal song by the Canadian band Fist (AKA "Myofist" in parts of Europe), released on their 1982 A&M Records album Fleet Street, also known as Thunder in Rock in the USA and Europe.
"The Strange Case of the Demon Barber" (January 8, 1946), an adaptation of the Sweeney Todd story featured in an episode of the radio drama The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In this interpretation, an actor playing the character on stage begins to believe he is committing similar murders while sleepwalking, while Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson uncover evidence that may prove his sanity.
The second episode of the BBC Radio comedy series 1835, entitled "Haircut, Sir?" (broadcast in 2004) and written by Jim Poyser, portrayed aimless aristocrat Viscount Belport (Paul Rider) and his servant Ned (Jason Done) joining the police force under Sir Robert Peel and encountering demon barber Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Keeble) on their first case.
Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls: An Audio Melodrama in Three Despicable Acts (2007), an audio play by Yuri Rasovsky, won three 2008 Audie Awards for best audio drama, best original work, and achievement in production.
"Sweeney Todd" (1970), an episode of the ITV series Mystery and Imagination starring Freddie Jones as Sweeney Todd and Heather Canning as Nellie Lovett. In this adaptation, written by Vincent Tilsey and directed by Reginald Collin, the title character is portrayed as insane rather than evil. Lewis Fiander played Mark Ingesterie with Mel Martin as the heroine Charlotte and Len Jones as Tobias.
Sweeney Todd (1973), an hour-long TV production by the CBC Television series The Purple Playhouse with Barry Morse as Todd. This was again Pitt's version of the play.
Teeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Quarter Street was a musical comedy skit performed on The Two Ronnies with Ronnie Corbett as the pint-sized half-brother of Sweeney Todd and Ronnie Barker as Mrs. Lovett. They revive the arrangement that Lovett had with Todd, and nearly get away with it until a bit of clumsiness on Teeny's part reveals to a room full of police the chute down to the kitchen.
Sweeney Todd (2006), a BBC television drama version with a screenplay written by Joshua St Johnston and starring Ray Winstone in the title role and Essie Davis as Mrs. Lovett. In this version, Todd's murderous ways are the result of physical (possibly sexual) cruelty and assault while imprisoned as a child in Newgate Gaol for a crime committed by his father who had escaped; at the film's conclusion, while in the condemned man's cell in Newgate and shaving himself on the morning of his execution, he deliberately slashes his own throat rather than be hanged.
"Oh My, Meat Pie" (2008), an episode of the Cooking Channel series Good Eats, which inserts the inventor of shepherd's pie into the world of Sweeney Todd in a historical recounting of the original recipe of the dish.
"Andy's Play" (2010), the 129th episode of The Office series where Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) sings and acts in the production of "Sweeney Todd". It originally aired on NBC on October 7, 2010.
The character of Sweeney Todd is presented as a villain in Marc Andreyko's Manhunter series, wherein he appears as a ghost which possesses men (causing them to resemble him) and murders women. A supporting character, Obsidian, is shown to be a fan of Sondheim's musical.
Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli were to have created a Sweeney Todd adaptation for Taboo, published by Steve Bissette and Tundra, but only completed a prologue.
Classical Comics, a UK publisher creating graphic novel adaptations of classical literature, has produced a full colour, 176-page paperback, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2010), with script adaptation by Sean M. Wilson, linework by Declan Shalvey; colouring by Jason Cardy & Kat Nicholson, and lettering by Jim Campbell.