Thanks to the talents of Mr. Johnny Depp, most of us are now familiar with the story of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. In the 2007 film, Sweeney Todd slashes the throats of his unsuspecting victims and dumps their bodies into the basement, where their bones are then stripped of their meat and made into pies by Todd’s accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. If you’ve seen this movie, you know how the story ends… What you may not know, however, is that this dark tale is not the product of Tim Burton’s twisted imagination. It a story which has been around in various forms for at least 150 years.
The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in 1846 under the title String of Pearls in a ‘penny dreadful’ (so named for the publication’s price as well as its macabre themes). The original version of the tale centres upon the disappearance of a sailor named Lietutentant Thornhill, who comes to London bearing a string of pearls for a girl named Johanna Oakely on behalf of her missing lover, Mark Ingestrie. After visiting Sweeney Todd’s barber shop on Fleet Street, Thornhill disappears, arousing suspicions amongst his friends that Todd may also have been involved in the disappearance of Ingestrie. In a desperate attempt to discover the truth about her missing lover, Oakely disguises herself as a boy and goes to work for Todd after his former assistant, Tobias Ragg, is incarcerated in an insane asylum. Eventually, Todd’s grisly activities are revealed when Ingestrie, who has been kept prisoner beneath the cellars of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and forced to work as a cook, escapes through the lift used to transport the pies to and from the kitchen. Todd, who is furious at Mrs. Lovett for allowing Ingestrie to escape, then poisons her before he, himself, is hanged for his crimes. Ingestrie and Oakely marry and live happily ever after.
But where did the idea for this twisted tale originate, and is there any truth to it?
The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are rife with rumours about the dubious doings of medical practitioners and cannibalism. On 3 May 1718, The British Gazetteer reported:
We have Intelligence from Lincoln, that a man being hanged there [at] the last Assizes, within three days after his execution, a couple of apothecaries contracted with a butcher for a sum of money, to take the body out of the grave, and cut off all the flesh, fit for them to make a skeleton of; which flesh he sold for venison to an inn-keeper; who making it into a pasty, invited many of his neighbours to the eating of it; but sometime after the villainy being detected, the butcher and the two apothecaries were committed to Lincoln Gaol.
Fortunately, many of these stories have never been substantiated, and it is likely that most of them were contrived by other medical practitioners to undermine the authority of their competitors. Once out there, these rumours captured the imagination of the public, who continued to spin them into new and often more terrifying versions. Even Charles Dickens could not resist the idea of unsuspecting crowds consuming the fleshy meat of their fellow human beings on a visit to their local pie shop. In 1844, he published Martin Chuzzlewit, in which a character named Tom Pinch expresses gratitude that his own ‘evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic [sic] pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis’. 
Of course, not all tales about cannibalism were fictional, nor were all forms of cannibalism rejected as socially unacceptable during the early modern period. The New England Puritan minister and lay physician, Edward Taylor (c.1658–1702), wrote that ‘human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness [epilepsy]‘.  In Denmark, the use of human blood as a cure for epilepsy was widespread: often, the sick and infirmed would gather under the scaffold hoping to catch the spilt blood of a freshly executed criminal. English physicians, too, believed in the curative potency of human blood, and recommended this ‘cure’ to their patients as late as 1747. Other body parts–such as human flesh, fat and/or bone–were also used to cure patients of various ailments during this period. These parts were typically ground down to a fine powder and drunk or applied to the skin topically. 
Despite its popularity, however, the practice of medicinal cannibalism declined during the latter half of the 18th century as public opinion turned against it. By the time the story of Sweeney Todd appeared in print, all forms of cannibalism were deemed socially unacceptable, making the tale of the demon barber even more powerful albeit untrue.
1. Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, (Digireads.com Publishing, 2009), p. 372
2. Edward Taylor, ‘Dispensatory’, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts, Yale University Library, pp. 376-7.
3. For more on medicinal cannibalism, see Richard Sugg, ”’Good Physic but Bad Food”: Early Modern Attitudes towards Medicinal Cannibalism and its Suppliers’, Social History of Medicine, 19:2, pp. 225-40.