The demon barber of Fleet Street

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles on Tuesday, 26 July 2011

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This edited article about Sweeney Todd originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 996 published on 11 April 1981.

String of Pearls, picture, image, illustration

A melodrama based on Sweeney Todd’s story was stages at the Britannia in Hoxton

William Carter went into Sweeney Todd’s barber’s shop in London one day, and asked for a shave. He was attended to straight away, for he was the only customer. “Certainly, sir,” said the barber. “I have a razor ready and sharpened for a beard such as yours.”

That was the last anyone saw of Carter. Commonly known as the “demon barber” of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd was reputed to have killed him and many other unsuspecting clients who entered his shop when it was empty.

His regular customers, however, liked the cheery barber, who always liked to have a laugh while at work in his hairdressing establishment. There were others, however, who suspected that behind his smiling front lurked a man of evil character.

There was strong suspicion that he was a murderer. Rumour had it that several customers disappeared into the barber’s shop and were never seen again.

Then strange stories also began to circulate about Mrs Johnstone, who kept the pie-shop next door. She was thought to have collected the bodies of the victims whom Sweeney Todd murdered.

Having committed the crimes, Todd, it was said, then passed the bodies to her through a trap door by pulling a lever which was hidden in the shop.

As the story goes, Sweeney Todd was finally arrested after the disappearance of William Carter, and after hours of intense interrogation, he finally broke down and confessed.

Questioned about Mrs Johnstone’s part in the crime, Todd explained that she, “boiled the bodies up, and then put pieces of the meat into her pies”.

Countless people have accepted this story as true. However, there is no record of anyone with the name of Todd ever having a barber’s shop in Fleet Street. Nor is there any trace of Mrs Johnstone either.

It is now believed that the story was no more than a popular myth, which was kept alive by writers, who produced lurid melodramas on the subject from the mid-to-late 19th century.

The British actor Tod Slaughter became famous for his portrayal of the “demon barber”, which he played in the earlier part of this century. Slaughter even made a film entitled Sweeney Todd in 1936.

Slaughter explained, “As a boy, I was told about Sweeney Todd by my father, and I believed the barber to have been a real person. And, having played him for all these years, I’m inclined to think he really did exist!”

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