by Ian Sputnik
The String of Pearls: A Romance, otherwise known as The Barber of Fleet Street: A Domestic Romance was first published by Edward Lloyd as serialised work of fiction from 1846 to 1847 in his periodical The People’s Periodical and Family Library. As with many pieces published as a penny dreadful, the official author of the work isn’t known, but it’s widely regarded as having been penned by James Malcolm Rymer and/or Thomas Peckett Prest (both credited with Varney the Vampire as featured in our previous Penny Dreadful article).
Set in 1785, it introduced the world to the infamous Sweeney Todd and his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett. Todd would murder customers in his barber’s establishment by pulling a lever that would send his hapless victims tumbling backwards from the barber chair, through a revolving trapdoor and into the cellar. Any that survived this drop had their throats slit by Todd’s hand using his straight razor; if they hadn’t already suffered this fate whilst seated in his barber’s chair.
A further detail of the plot took the already bloodthirsty themes of penny dreadfuls in a horrifyingly new direction. The bodies of the murdered were butchered and used as pie fillings by his neighbour, Lovett; who in turn would sell them to unsuspecting customers of her shop.
The String of Pearls title was in reference to an early victim of Todd’s, Lieutenant Thornhill, who had gone missing while en route to deliver a pearl necklace to a lady. He had last been seen entering Todd’s place of business. This inevitably leads to Todd’s downfall; with Lovett being poisoned and Todd being hanged.
Such stories were extremely popular due to people’s morbid obsession in blood and gore, fuelled by the fear of rising crime at the time. The String of Pearls was such a success that it was already being performed on stage by 1847.
Due to the abhorrent nature of the crimes, Todd’s exploits have resonated throughout time. As well as the serialised story and play, a book version of the story followed shortly in 1850. Todd has also been played on the big screen by several famous actors: Moore Marriott in 1928, Tom Slaughter in 1936 (and no, the unfortunate surname was not overlooked by us), Ray Winstone in 2006, and most recently by Johnny Depp in 2007.
Fun fact: up until the 19th century barbers were referred to as barber-surgeons. In addition to a haircut and shave, they would also perform other tasks including extracting teeth, cutting out gallstones, setting fractures, and blood letting (although Sweeney Todd may have taken this task a bit too far). They were not properly trained, but they were in possession of the crude equipment necessary to attempt these procedures. It’s the reason why barber shops would have a red and white pole outside their place of business—red, white, and blue in America—and which is a traditional symbol that can still to be seen outside many salons today.
It should also be noted that theories claiming Sweeney Todd was based on a real person have been ruled out and thoroughly debunked. But the next time you let someone give you a wet shave, try not to dwell on the fact that the other name for a straight razor is a cut throat one…