History facts of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett's
History of the Barber Pole
- Barber shop poles are upright poles with red and white stripes in a descending spiral, topped by a bowl or ball. They are traditionally found on the exterior of the entrance to a barber shop.
- Many modern poles rotate, giving the impression of downward movement. Some poles have a blue stripe in addition to the red and white stripes.
- Barbers assumed surgical and dental tasks like bloodletting, amputation and tooth extraction when these tasks were forbidden to clergy in 1163. The "barber-surgeon" typically used long cloths as tourniquets and to wipe up blood that did not flow into a bowl.
- The red and white stripes on the barber pole represent these cloths and the "topper" represents the collection bowl used in bloodletting.
- An additional blue stripe may represent venous blood---or it may have been added by American barbers. The "bowl" atop the barber pole may also represent the holding bowl for leeches, often used for bloodletting and amputations by barber-surgeons.
- The custom of calling modern-day British surgeons "Mr." but using "Dr." for a PhD or "academic" doctor is the legacy of the days of barber-surgeon guilds.
History of Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber Sweeney Todd is the English bogeyman: the character older children call upon to frighten their friends and younger children. Unruly youngsters are cautioned against misbehaving with threats of being attacked by Sweeney and served up in a meat pie.
To most people, the Demon Barber who used a trap door and trick chair to slaughter his clients was the stuff of urban legend. After all, the events connected with his story are almost unbelievable. His exploits prey upon very common human fears: being attacked while vulnerable, and being served up as food or unknowingly consuming someone else. Who hasn't sat in the chair and felt a shiver as the barber or hair dresser takes out that straight razor, sharpens it on the strop and then applies it to the back of the neck? Or taken a bite of a meal and wondered just what the origin of the hair in the hamburger was? So it was for years, as the legend of Sweeney Todd was passed on from generation to generation, people wrote off the story as pure fiction.
But most myths and legends have a basis somewhere in truth, and Sweeney Todd is no different. There really was a mad barber, he really did use a trapdoor and straight razor to rob and kill customers, and most did end up as filling for meat pies. Extensive, painstaking research by British author Peter Haining has shown this without a doubt. Todd's life and exploits are not nearly as romantic as Sondheim would have us believe, but then who would pay to see a movie or musical about a psychopathic mass murderer unless there was more to the story?
What follows is the true story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. There is little romantic or even melodramatic about the life and times of Sweeney Todd. He was an amoral, bitter man who lusted for money and was not averse to killing to get it.
History of Mrs. Lovett
Sweeney Todd's accomplice is even more shrouded in mystery than the murderous barber himself. Her surname was undoubtedly Lovett, but whether her first name was Margery or Sarah remains a mystery. Haining argues in favor of Margery, as most of the articles written about her use that name. She was less than beautiful, according to articles written at the time of her arrest, and her smile came not from her heart, but was as false as the veal filling in her pies.
Engraving of Mrs Lovett
Mrs. Lovett was a widow, whose first husband had died under mysterious circumstances and no one was ever able to place her in Sweeney Todd's presence in public. The pair were lovers, though, and apparently their passions were fulfilled after a successful murder and butchering job. She liked the finer things in life, considered herself better than her working class background, and used her portion of the profits to furnish silk sheets and fine furniture in her apartment above her Bell Yard bakery.
How she met Sweeney Todd is a mystery, but apparently he set her up in her shop in Bell Yard. He had been busy "polishing off" Sweeney's own play on words - his customers for some time before he brought Mrs. Lovett into the act. Until she started using his victims in her meat pies, Todd had been using the abandoned crypts beneath St. Dunstan's church to hide his handiwork. There, he managed to store the bodies amid the dozens of family crypts that time had all but forgotten. But he was running out of room and needed a new way to dispose of his murder victims.
Thomas Peckett Prest was the first author to write the tale of Sweeney Todd and Margery Lovett shortly after their arrest and trial. He had worked on Fleet Street and was familiar with Lovett's two-story pie shop. In the basement of the shop was the bakery, and a false wall could be opened to reveal the catacombs behind. It was through this false wall that Todd would apparently deliver his ghastly pie fillings. Prest described the shop this way: "On the left side of Bell Yard, going down from Carey Street, was, at the time we write of, one of the most celebrated shops for the sale of veal and pork pies that London had ever produced. High and low, rich and poor, resorted to it; its fame had spread far and wide; and at twelve o'clock every day when the first batch of pies was sold there was a tremendous rush to obtain them