Peter Haining - The Mystery & Horrible Murders Of Sweeney Todd (Muller 1979)
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is a figure famous around the world. A sinister hairdresser who is said to have disposed of his unsuspecting customers through a revolving chair, and having robbed and murdered them, handed over their corpses to his partner in crime to make into meat pies, he has few peers in the annals of crime - or British history for that matter.
Yet this extraordinary character whose name has been familiar to young and old alike since the middle of the Nineteenth Century, is shrouded in mystery:
Was he a real person who actually murdered a hundred and more victims - or just a figment of a writer's brilliant imagination?
Why is it that although plays featuring his dark deeds have become among the most popular and enduring of any in the history of the theatre, the novel which gave him literary life has been unheard of for a century and a quarter?
And, perhaps most surprisingly of all in view of this notoriety, why has no full length study of the Demon Barber been attempted before now?
These were just some of the questions that had fascinated Peter Haining since his years as a journalist in Fleet Street, and which he finally set out to try and answer in this remarkable book. And not only has he succeeded in coming up with some surprising evidence about Sweeney Todd, but has studied the illusive book which made him famous, and made extensive use of this work. He also looks at the background to the legend, its subsequent enormous success in the entertainment media, and continued growth to the present day. Indeed he discusses all the elements that have gone towards making this such an intriguing story - and even gives space to a variety of theories about the Demon Barber -including one idea that he might actually have been a woman!
At long last, this book throws a revealing light or a figure as famous in London lore as Dick Whittington and Jack the Ripper
The throat-slasher of St. Dunstans seems to have held a lasting fascination for Haining, who also published the long forgotten Frederick Hazleton penny dreadful, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, with a fine introduction by himself for W. H. Allen in 1980. His Sweeney Todd: The Real Story Of The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (Robson, 1998; anti-review below), is a reworking of the earlier books and sets out to "prove" that, not only was there some substance to the macabre story, but that Todd actually existed. It bears a dedication "To W.O.G. Lofts who helped to spring man of the traps"
Frederick Hazleton - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (W. H. Allen, 1980)
Photo: Graham Miller
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has become legendary throughout the world. The macabre story of his luring unsuspecting customers into his shop, slitting their throats and then having his partner in crime – a pastrycook named Mrs Lovett – turn the corpses into meat pies has been a favourite melodrama for more than a century.
Yet for all Sweeney Todd's notoriety the mystery as to whether or not he really existed has remained unresolved. Here, Peter Haining does much to prove that Sweeney Todd did exist, and did indeed own a barber's shop in Fleet Street. He also presents the original nineteenth-century novel by Frederick Hazleton, which will delight not only believers in the Sweeney Todd saga but those avid readers and collectors of the Victorian Penny Dreadful. The contemporary illustrations add to the relish.
Peter Haining - Sweeney Todd: The Real Story Of The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (Robson, 1998)
Groan. Another personal 'one that got away'. I use to see this around fairly often, remaindered or discounted or something. Never snapped it up, because I thought it was merely a repackaging of his earlier The Mystery & Horrible Murders Of Sweeney Todd (Muller 1979). Just goes to show how wrong you can be!
Haining certainly revisits the earlier book (and his introduction to the Frederick Hazleton novel), but this time he takes it that step further as, utilizing fact, "fact", centuries old remembered conversations and "it was rumoured at the time"s, he not only "proves" that Sweeney Todd exists, but also gives us a cradle-to-scaffold biography! How comes nobody else has consulted The Newgate Calendar for references to the meat-pie martyr and, if they did, what's their excuse for finding zero mention of him contained in it's grisly pages? Why have I had to wait until now to learn that Sweeney was a local lad, born in Brick Lane?
This time, rather fittingly, the dedication runs "To the memory of Tod Slaughter. I'm polishing 'em off well tonight!"
It's research, Jim, but not as we know it. Outrageous. But in a totally brilliant way.
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty. - Christine Campbell Thomson