The True History of Sweeney Todd

Many people love to hear the kind of story that will give them the shivers; One that will cause fright but keep the listener wanting more. The great writer and composer Stephen Sondheim wrote one of the most chilling and shocking plays of our time; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sweeney Todd takes place in London, England on Fleet Street. This musical tells the twisted tale of Sweeney Todd , a barber, and Ms. Lovett, a pie maker. Todd seeks revenge on the world for the loss of his wife and daughter and Ms. Lovett is unhappy with her unsatisfactory meat pies. The two devise a system where Todd slits his customers throats while he is giving them a shave and hands off the corpses to Ms. Lovett who bakes them into their meat pies. Soon, both the barber shop and the pie shop are both booming with business and it becomes too late for the pair to halt their treachery. Blood continues to be spilled and the crazy shop owners become infatuated in their practices. Such a horrific story seems too far-fetched for it to hold any historical truth but some scholars believe that Sweeney Todd was indeed loosely based off of real events and a real man.

Sweeney Todd was an only child to two alchoholic parents. To the parents, gin was more important than any other object of interest on the earth, including their only son. Todd was abandoned at 13 and started working for a man named John Crook at a shop he owned. It was not long before Todd was arrested for petty larceny and sent to live at Newgate prison. While there, he became very bored and took into his interest the prison barber, whom with he helped give men shaves. Todd learned to be a barber, and when released at 19 became a “flying barber”- a man who traveled place to place while doing his job.

Sweeney’s first murder was at Hyde Park corner, where he killed a man who was describing favors given to him by a woman whose description resembled Sweeney’s lover. Soon Sweeney had opened his own barbershop on Fleet Street in London, only a few blocks away from the court of justice. The location was also right next to a church called St. Dunstans. The street the shop was on connected through to a complex sewer system.

In the barbershop itself lay a system Sweeney Todd used to dispose his victims. There was a trap door underneath the barber chair that flipped over when customers reclined. Instead of slitting customers’ throats right away like in the theatre production, the fall from Sweeney’s shop to the basement would usually kill the victim. Occasionally, Sweeney would have to run down to the basement and slit the victim’s throat to make sure they no longer lived. Later when he came back to the victims, Todd would take the valubles and strip the victim’s clothing. He would then skin them and strip all the meat from the bones. The remains would be scattered in the underground allies of fleet street, underneath the church.

Discussion Questions:

In what ways did Sondheim’s story differ? Which parts were true?

Why do you think Sondheim changed the story?

Between Lovett and Todd, do you think one is more to blame?

What motivated Todd’s murders? Or was he just a psychopath?
Why do you think this story was an especially frightening one?

Do you think Todd would have become a murderer if he hadn’t gone to prison? Because he was falsely accused and convicted, do you think it was partly that wrongful punishment that lead to his murderous acts?

Do you believe that death was the appropriate punishment for Todd and Lovett?

Why do you think no certain description of Todd could be taken? What sort of stereotypes do you think the people of London must have seen him as?

Gribben, By Mark. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street -- The Crime Library — Fresh Meat Pies — Crime Library on" Not Reality. Actuality. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <>.
Gabriella Hakim
Julia Erskine
Emily Rudnick