Monday, November 01, 2010

Sweeney Todd by Peter Haining

Sweeney Todd is a well-known stage play about a barber who kills men and sells their bodies to his neighbor, a woman who makes meat pies, to use their meat in her pies. Nobody, however, thinks the story is real. It's just made up for the theatre. Isn't it?

Author Peter Haining takes the reader on a journey to find out if Sweeney Todd was a real person or not and to discover the real Sweeney Todd through the veil of years. Since so many stories about the legendary barber exist, the story supposedly took place in many different eras, from the late 17th Century to the early 19th, and in places as far removed as London, Paris and Calais. There is also a connection to Sawney Beane, the monster of Scotland, who supposedly raised a family on robbery, rapine, murder and cannibalism.

Well, Sweeney Todd was a real person and so was Mrs. Lovett, and a tunnel was found at 154 Fleet Street, leading to another property on a side street. From there, Haining traces the true tale of Sweeney Todd, from his childhood to his apprenticeship and from then, on to his murderous career. Along the way, Todd not only killed customers who came to his shop, but some of his apprentices as well. Victims of his general animus, or because they had seen or heard entirely too much and must be disposed of?

He was finally caught by the police, who discovered his means of disposing of his customers, a barber's chair that would drop people in it into the basement. There, they were knocked out by the force of the fall, dispatched and stripped of their belongings, and the choicer parts taken through a hidden passage to the cookshop on the next street over, where they were turned into the parts for many meat pies and other savories.

Peter Haining tracks down reports of the actual trial and finds the very real location where the murders took place, and provides insight into the very real Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Sweeney Todd apparently hated everyone and life in general and took out this animus on everyone around him. His companion in crime loved money most of all, and shared in the selling of the items that Todd looted from the bodies, and the money gained thereby. But his clients weren't the only ones who fell to his blade, but the apprentices known as lather boys who worked for him also disappeared. More than six of them. Did they run away, or were they, too, disposed of when they found out or suspected too much of what was happening to Sweeney Todd's clientele. The trial notes never say, and apparently the police of that time also never knew. But it paints a chilling picture of the real Sweeney Todd and what a horrible and vile man he must have been. Or not.

Reading this book is a real eye-opener. It was written in the early 90's, but a lot of the documentary sources seem to be missing or in actuality non-existent. So, even though it's iisted as non-fiction in the library, it seems to be almost completely made up and comes across as something neither fish nor fowl. Not quite a history and not quite a fiction, and dry as dust in the bargain. The book's wealth of information was so overwhelming, and yet at the same time, its so uninteresting that you could use the book as a sleep aid.

For all its wealth of plausible but (Madeup?) information, it's neither really shocking or thrilling.It's just there. Often, it feels like some scholarly dissertation rather than a book meant for laymen or women. From the way the book is laid out, it's never quite clear if Peter Haining is just having us on, or if he meant it to be truly factual. But if the second, why do the records he claims to have found (sources generally not mentioned) do not bear him out? At the time the book was written, it was unusual to have sources listed in a book like this, but even in updated versions, that lack has not been rectified, and several of the claims seem to be suppositions without facts to back them up. How does he know that young Sweeney Todd was fascinated by torture implements in the Tower of London? Why is there no record of decaying body parts being found in a tomb at St. Dunstan's, and how did people even smell them in a city full of horrid and disagreeable smells?

It's up to the reader to decide for themselves how much of the book is fact and how much is just plausibly made up, but it seems clear that with the lack of clear and consistent historical and judicial records, we'll never know if a real Sweeney Todd existed. And this book commits the further sin of being mostly boring as well. So, not really recommended, unless dry scientific papers are your idea of a good time for reading.

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