The Penny Dreadful was a British kind of Dime Novel that usually dealt with horrific subject matter and didn’t shy away from gore and violence. It’s not known if the term refers to their ‘dreadful’ content or a is comment on the writing quality which could be sketchy to say the least. Nevertheless, these small chapbooks that cost a single penny were a big form of entertainment for the poorer classes in Victorian society.
As with the pulp magazines of the twentieth century, many iconic heroes made their debuts in the Penny Dreadfuls like Varney the Vampyre and Spring-heeled Jack. They also fictionalised the exploits of real-life dreadful people such as the highwayman Dick Turpin. But by far the most enduring figure to emerge from the Penny Dreadfuls is Sweeney Todd; the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
It is unknown if Sweeney Todd existed as an urban legend before the publication of The String of Pearls. We’re not even too sure who wrote it. Serialized in Edward Lloyd’s The People’s Periodical and Family Library in eighteen parts in the winter of 1846/47, the changes in its writing style suggest at least three different authors. In the world of Penny Dreadful publishing, it was not uncommon for the owner of a magazine like Edward Lloyd to buy a cheap story form an unknown author and give it an overhaul via various hack-writers on his staff.
Opening in 1785, the story begins with a sailor and his dog entering the barber shop of Sweeney Todd on Fleet Street. The sailor; Lieutenant Thornhill, recently returned from India, is carrying a message for one Johanna Oakley. The message is accompanied by the titular string of pearls; a gift from Thornhill’s friend Mark Ingestrie, who is presumed lost at sea, to his lover.
I’m sure I’m not giving anything away by revealing the fate of Lieutenant Thornhill upon meeting Sweeney Todd. Anybody who has heard of the Demon Barber will no doubt be familiar with his game; that of murdering the odd customer by the use of a mechanical chair that tips backwards, emptying its occupant through a trapdoor to land on his skull in the cellar below. Todd occasionally has to ‘polish them off’ with his cut-throat razor, and sells their corpses to Mrs. Lovett – owner of the neighboring pie shop – for use in her tasty culinary treats.
When Thornhill doesn’t return from shore leave, his comrade, Colonel Jeffrey, suspects something is amiss; a suspicion hardened by the appearance of Thornhill’s dog who leads Jeffrey to Todd’s shop. Jeffrey falls in with Johanna Oakley and the novel becomes a detective story with many protagonists. As well as Jeffrey and Johanna – the latter of which dresses up as a boy to gain inside knowledge of Todd under the guise of his new apprentice – there’s Tobias Ragg; Todd’s previous apprentice whom he had locked up in an asylum after the lad accuses him of murder. Then there’s Jarvis Williams; a hapless baker conned into making Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies, ignorant of their main ingredient. Lastly, there is Sir Richard Blunt, a magistrate keen on unravelling the mystery and finding the source of the dreadful stink coming from the crypt of St. Dunstan’s Church…
Sweeney Todd became a stock villain in Victorian London’s literary catalogue. He was so popular that he was appearing in stage productions before the concluding installment of The String of Pearls made it to press! His plagiarized story appeared in many more Penny Dreadfuls before the century was out, even making its way to New York in Sweeney Todd or the Ruffian Barber: A Tale of the Terrors of the Seas and The Mysteries of the City. Todd was a villain of pantomime and then cinema, returning to the stage in the Broadway musical that cemented his title as one of pop culture’s major bogeyman.