Sweeney Todd Question #27 ~ Man or Myth?

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Sweeney Todd Question #27 ~ Man or Myth?

Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sat Nov 04, 2006 10:39 am

As the saying goes…all good things must come to an end. Today is our last question in our discussion of Sweeney Todd. :bawl: Thanks, Noodlemantras as always for your participation and insights! :thanks!:

I hope you all have your copy of Happy Days! Liz and I will be taking a short break to get ready for the discussion. Look for tidbits to start around November 15 and don’t forget to pick up The People’s Act of Love while you are at the book store. :noodlemantra:

This Monday will be our next Monday Night Thread…we hope you will stop by and say hello! :welcome:

And now our final question for Sweeney Todd…
Do you believe there was a real Sweeney Todd? Why or why not?
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Unread postby Gilbert's Girl » Sat Nov 04, 2006 11:27 am

I guess the old saying goes " there's no smoke without fire". I am sure there was something that the story was based on a possible murder involving a barber, as to whether he was called Sweeny Todd I think it very unlikley, especially as there is no confirmed evidence to suggest it.

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Unread postby Betty Sue » Sat Nov 04, 2006 12:21 pm

Never would have thought I could have believed it, but the tidbits laid out a very convincing scenario for the possibility of the existence of a real Sweeney Todd (and Mrs. Lovett). After all, it takes all kinds! :freaked:
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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sat Nov 04, 2006 1:54 pm

I suppose we will never know for sure but I think there was probably something to the story for it to have persisted this long. As you said GG, it's unlikely there was smoke without some fire. It does take all kinds, Betty Sue! :-O
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Unread postby MommaDeppLover » Sat Nov 04, 2006 2:15 pm

Hello Ladies,

I have been reading, 'Sweeney Todd' by Peter Haining.
I would hope that Tim Burton and Johnny have enjoyed reading this too. To me, wondering about a storyline that could of happened is intriguing. Mr. Haining tries to explain that a boy was born to improvised parents that left him. Then little Sweeney finds himself wrongly imprisoned. Learns his trade of being a barber while in prison. Back in those days, 1750's, being a Barber was an excellent occupation. After being released from prison, Mr. Todd tried to be respectable, and opens his Barber Shop....BUT, well the rest is up for alllll kinds of interpretation....So to answer this question today....If Mr. Haining has done his homework, well then perhaps a Mr. Todd did exist. Or, at least someone that had committed those awful crimes....
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Unread postby gemini » Sat Nov 04, 2006 2:34 pm

Reasons why I think Sweeney Todd may have been a real person.

I have been swaying back and forth on this subject but find the whole story and history much more interesting if he was real; here are a few points in favor of realism.

First reading Peter Hainings book may have made me a little biased. Interesting tidbit: Haining worked on Fleet St as a young journalist. (He does list news articles, manuscripts, and documents but in my opinion does not go into detail.) He mentions several books mentioning people who believed Sweeney to have existed.

Peter Haining goes as far with his history as naming the address on Fleet St where the shop was.

When the supposed Sweeney house at 186 Fleet St was torn down in the 1880s a large pit of bones were found under the cellar. Some say this was originally under St Dunstan's church, which had been rebuilt about 1830. (They could have been the old church vaults or some of Todd's earlier victims hidden among older relics.)

Although St Dunstan's church was located in a surly area the gentry used it for weddings, Christenings and burials. This being next to Sweeney's shop would bring wealthy prospects to an otherwise poverty stricken area.

There are many truths to the story. The fact that his parents were poverty stricken gin drinkers which is an apt description of many in that time.


First, the real life setting did enable a killer like Sweeney to go undetected by lack of a real policed city.
The overwhelming amount of lawlessness and crimes and that the Bow Street Runners were under-manned and could not possibly follow up on them all. (Although in the story Sir Richard Blunts discovers him.)

In "The Crimes of London" by J. W. Maskell 1876 Todd is mentioned as the most dastardly criminal of his age. He states that when arrested his premises were found crammed with clothing sufficient for 160 people.

A bill from Peckham Rye Asylum (supposed found in Sweeney's effects). Todd appears to have confined his apprentice in 1786 for madness. It reads" Mr. Sweeney Todd , Fleet St., London, Paid one year's keep and burial of Thomas Simkins aged 15. Found dead in his bed after residing at the asylum for ten months and four days.

A news article describes a killing next to Sweeneys shop. Dated April 14, 1785 Daily Courant. Parts read; Young man murdered next to St Dunstans Church in conversation with man in clothing of a barber. After slitting his throat the man escaped down the alleyway of Hen and Chicken Court.

Alan Dent Theatre critic of the Guardian said in an article in Lilliput magazine in 1942. The Sweeney Todd legend has been in existence since the days of George II and the experts agree that it probably has a basis in fact.

Compiling this list I have found that, however annoying it is, I could also have written a list just as long with reasons I believe him to be a fictionary character but I' d rather not.
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Unread postby Depputante » Sat Nov 04, 2006 5:02 pm

Well, I'm a fence sitter. :blush:
He probably could have been real. Especially with the lack of documentation, and people often dying back then.
I can't really see people writing such 'exhuberant' stories like that way back then, unless there was some truth to it.
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Unread postby Linda B. » Sat Nov 04, 2006 5:07 pm

His name may not have been Sweeney Todd (more like Sawney Bean) but I guarantee there was some person who perpetraited crimes like those described. No way you can tell me serial killers are a product of modern times.
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Unread postby gemini » Sat Nov 04, 2006 6:24 pm

Yes, Linda B. you do make a good point. If not actually real, it is very likely he is a personality combined from aspects of real killers like Sawney Bean of that era.
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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sat Nov 04, 2006 7:12 pm

[b]In case you were wondering…like I was…
This is from mysteriousbritian.co.uk

http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/legends/sawney_bean.html


The legend of Sawney Bean

The story of Sawney Bean is one of the most gruesome Scottish legends, the plot of which would not look out of place in any modern horror/slasher movie. Evidence suggests the tale dates to the early 18th century.

Alexander Sawney Bean was - legend tells - the head of an incestuous cannibalistic family, who oversaw a 25-year reign of murder and robbery from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 15th century. The cave most readily associated with Sawney and his nefarious clan is close to Ballantrae on Bennane head in Ayrshire, although other sea caves along the Ayrshire and Galloway coast have also been associated with the story.

There are numerous written sources detailing the account of Sawney and his family, and it has been suggested that the legend has its roots in real events, although this is unlikely as will be outlined later in this article. The tale appears in full and lurid detail in the succinctly titled Historical and Traditional Tales Connected with the South of Scotland by John Nicholson in 1843. The following is a watered down account of the tale based on Nicholson:

The Legend

Sawney Bean was born in the late 14th century, in a small East Lothian village not ten miles from Edinburgh. He began life as a hedger and ditcher, but, being prone to idleness and inclined towards dishonesty he ran away from home with a woman who was as viciously inclined as himself. Having no means to make a living they set up home in a sea cave in Galloway supporting themselves by robbing and murdering travellers and locals, and surviving on their victim's pickled and salted flesh. In time their family grew to an incestuous gang of 46 sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. Their reign of terror did not go unnoticed: for one hundreds of people went missing over the years, and the Beans became so successful in their butchery that they cast unwanted limbs into the sea. These were washed up on distant and local beaches, much to the horror of the coastal communities. In time the areas reputation reached the ears of the authorities and, in these suspicious times, many innocent people were executed for Sawney's crimes. The hardest hit were innkeepers as, more often than not, the missing person was last seen in an inn or lodgings: suspicion naturally falling on those who had seen them last. This happened on so many occasions that numerous innkeepers fled to take up other less risky occupations, and the area became a shunned and depopulated place.

Sawney's family had by now grown very large and started to attack larger groups, although never more than they thought they could overwhelm. They were confident they would not be discovered: the cave that they had chosen had kept them well hidden from prying eyes. The tide passed right into the mouth of the cave, which went almost a mile into the cliffs. It was estimated that in their 25-year reign of terror they had killed more than a thousand men women and children. They were finally discovered by fortunate chance: A man and his wife were returning from a local fayre on horseback - the man in front with his wife behind - when they were ambushed by the Bean family. The husband put a furious struggle with his sword and pistol and managed to plough through the villainous host. Unfortunately his wife lost her balance and fell from the horse, to be instantly butchered by the female cannibals, who ripped out her entrails and started to feast on her blood. Her horrified husband fought back even harder and was lucky that 30 or so other revellers from the fayre came along the path. The Bean family made a hasty retreat back to their hideout, as the man explained to the crowd what had happened. The husband went along with the group to Glasgow, magistrates were informed, who in turn told the King, James IV, who was so enthralled with the case that he took personal charge. Equipped with bloodhounds the King and a posse of 400 men made their way to the scene of the slaughter and the hunt began.

The bloodhounds get all the credit for the capture of Sawney Bean: the King's men did not notice the well-hidden cave but the dogs could not ignore the strong smell of flesh that surrounded it. The men entered the cave and found a horrible scene: dried parts of human bodies were hanging all from the roof, pickled limbs lay in barrels, and all around piles of money and trinkets from the pockets of the dead lay in piles. The Beans made no attempt to escape all were caught alive and brought to Edinburgh in chains, where they were incarcerated in the Tollbooth, and the next day taken to Leith.

The people were horrified when they heard about the crimes of Sawney Bean and his family and decided to give them a punishment even more barbaric. The execution was a slow one: the men bled to death after their hands and legs were cut off, and the women were burned alive after they were forced to watch the execution of the men. John Nicholson tells us about the execution as follows "...they all died without the least sign of repentance, but continued cursing and vending the most dreadful imprecations to the very last gasp of life."

Truth in the Tale?

The truth of the Sawney Bean legend is hard to confirm, but there are many factors which suggest the story is an 18th Century invention. It seems that the legend first saw print in the early 18th Century in the lurid broadsheets and chapbooks of the time. (See The Legend of Sawney Bean, London 1975 by Ronald Holmes for an excellent investigation into the myth.)These were all printed in England, but broadly match Nicholson's later rendering of the tale. The content of chapbooks was mainly invented and exaggerated stories about grisly deeds, executions, murders and other lurid accounts, aimed at shocking readers. They were evidently very popular and were certainly the forerunners of the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls.

According to Fiona Black in The Polar Twins, the tale was probably an English invention to denigrate the Scots, especially in the period of unrest that saw the Jacobite rebellion. There are however records of periods of famine, and some occurrences of cannibalism, in Scotland in the late 15th century.

Another sticking point is that there are no contemporary records from the time that even mention Sawney Bean. Although there are 'relatively' few records from the time, it is strange that such a high profile story, with the added involvement of the King James IV, has no historical evidence at all. There are also no records of the executions of the various innkeepers, and the disappearances of travellers in the Ayrshire area.

Like many legends said to be based on fact - where contemporary evidence does not exist - it is possible that a grain of truth exists somewhere in the story. It is also impossible to conclusively prove that there is no truth at all in the story. Personally I do not think that Bean existed, but the Ayrshire coastline is steeped in dark folklore, and the Bean legend may have its root in some far away bloody deed or gristly piece of folklore that has been long forgotten.

A Local Anecdote

Local blacksmith, and psychic detective, Tom Robinson is convinced of the truth to the tale after witnessing ghosts in the cave of Sawney Bean. Mr Robinson believes that instead of being executed in Edinburgh, the Sawney family were cornered and sealed alive in their cave to die a slow, agonising death. The ghosts aren't those of Sawney and his family though, but their victims who were cursed before they were killed and eaten by the cannibalistic clan. Inside a cave, which he considered to be the Sawney home, Tom recounts how he heard a woman's scream and saw a female form dragged into the back of the cave by 12 white lights, while a male form lay immobile on the cave floor. The images faded into the cave wall. Upon further investigation, Mr Robinson returned to the site in 1991 and performed an exorcism.

Sights to See

Today the Sawney Bean legend has become part of the Tourism and Heritage trial. The cave identified with the tale, since the late 19th Century, is on the coast at Bennane head between Lendalfoot and Ballantrae. There is a reconstruction of the cave that was home to the cannibalistic Sawney Bean and his family at the Edinburgh Dungeon on Market Street, near the Waverly Bridge in Edinburgh.
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Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby Liz » Sat Nov 04, 2006 8:00 pm

Gemini, thanks for posting that list of new and interesting tidbits on the supposed "real" Sweeney Todd. I had not read any of those, being that I never got a hold of that book. :-/

But I think I'm still on the fence, like Linda B.
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Unread postby Depputante » Sat Nov 04, 2006 8:43 pm

Linda B. wrote:His name may not have been Sweeney Todd (more like Sawney Bean) but I guarantee there was some person who perpetraited crimes like those described. No way you can tell me serial killers are a product of modern times.


Tobias could have been the original author too! :-O
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Unread postby gilly » Sat Nov 04, 2006 10:53 pm

Certainly the story of ST is something that most Londoner's are aware of...Oral history is a fascinating subject to study and the oral history about ST is loud and persistent,so I would have to say there must be some truth in it :cool: .
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Unread postby suec » Sun Nov 05, 2006 6:16 am

I think he probably was real. I know that the lurid, melodramatic story would have ensured its popularity, fictional or not, but there do seem to be some pointers that he did exist. I find it very easy to believe in the existence of the real serial killer at that time. Even the details about him eluding justice so easily ring true - especially for someone of my generation who remembers the story of the Yorkshire Ripper and the tales of him being interviewed by police as a possible suspect but escaping detection until he was arrested by chance. I am convinced by the motive, especially at that time in history of extreme social divides and truly awful conditions for the poor: a strong motivation for someone with no morals.
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Unread postby Liz » Sun Nov 05, 2006 11:42 am

I want to get off the subject for a moment here and take this opportunity to thank everyone who participated in this discussion. :thanks!: Going into it I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. :freaked: But it surprised me as being one of the better ones. :thumbsup: :thumbsup: Of course, that is due to all of you. :notworthy: Plus it was exciting having new members aboard. :bounce: Hope to see you all again next month for Happy Days. :hope:

I don’t mean to stop the discussion here, so carry on…..
You can't judge a book by its cover.

The only thing that matters is the ending. It's the most important part of the story.


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