Slashing Throats for 170 Years: The “Real” Sweeney Todd


To most people, Sweeney Todd needs no introduction, thanks in part to Tim Burton’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, starring Johnny Depp as the throat-slashing barber of Fleet Street. In the movie, Todd dumps the bodies of his victims into the basement, where their bones are stripped of flesh and made into pies by his wicked accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, played in Burton’s film by Helena Bonham Carter. Those familiar with the movie know how the story ends. But what they may not know is that this tale is nearly 170 years old.

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 centers on 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 Todd’s barbershop on Fleet Street, Thornhill disappears, arousing suspicions amongst his friends that the barber may also have been involved in the disappearance of Ingestrie. Driven by a desperate desire to find her 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 deliver the pies to and from the kitchen. Todd, who is furious at Mrs. Lovett for allowing Ingestrie to escape, then poisons her, before he is apprehended and 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?

Today, Todd is depicted as a barber in the modern sense. However, as a character, he would have been recognizable as a surgeon in Victorian London. Barber-surgeons—as they were known—provided a variety of medical services for their communities. Their services ranged from the mundane—picking lice from a person’s head, trimming or shaving beards, and cutting hair—to the more involved, such as extracting teeth, performing minor surgical procedures and, of course, bloodletting, which is the origin of the red and white barber pole (click here to read more).

The barber-surgeons and surgeons existed separately until 1540, when Henry VIII integrated the two through the establishment of the Barber-Surgeons Company. Although united, tensions between the two persisted until they eventually split in 1745. Even so, barbers continued to perform surgical tasks well into the 19th century—much to the annoyance of their counterparts, who were trying to disassociate themselves from hair-cutting and shaving by the Victorian period.

The 18th and 19th centuries were rife with rumours about the dubious activities of medical practitioners, and even cannibalism, many of which tall stories originated as ways of slandering one’s rivals. 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 reputations of their competitors.  Once out there, these rumours captured the imagination of the public, which continued to elaborate them into new and often more terrifying tales. 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.” [1]

Of course, not all tales about cannibalism were fictional, nor were all forms of cannibalism rejected as socially unacceptable in earlier periods. 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].” [2] In Denmark, the use of human blood as a cure for epilepsy was widespread: often, the sick and infirm 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. [3]

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 macabre story of Sweeney Todd appeared in print, all forms of cannibalism were deemed socially unacceptable, making the tale of the demon barber even more compelling, albeit fictional.

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1. Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ( 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.

“Fancy Going to the Empire of Death” in THE GUARDIAN


My article on “dark tourism” and our desire to visit places associated with death is out in The Guardian today, featuring some stunning photos by Dr. Paul Koudounaris. Check it out by clicking here.

THE BUTCHERING ART – Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You!

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be working with FSG-Scientific American (an imprint of Macmillan) on a book project. The Butchering Art will take readers on a gruesome journey into the world of pre-antiseptic surgery. Further details in the press release below!

Thanks to everyone who has supported and nurtured my dreams as a writer. I couldn’t have gotten to this exciting stage without you.

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“Scary Sexual Devices” in PENTHOUSE!


I’m excited to announce that my article on “Scary Sexual Devices from the Past” is featured in PENTHOUSE this month, no doubt killing the mood of readers everywhere! It’s a three-page spread which has been brilliantly illustrated by British cartoonist, Adrian Teal. In it, I discuss everything from testicle tasters, to radium condoms, molly dolls, and more. If you’re too shy to buy a copy in the store, you can download it digitally here. Enjoy!

Dead Men’s Eyes: A History of Optography


Aurora, Illinois. 16 February 1914. It was a cold, wintery night when Theresa Hollander’s father discovered her broken and bloodied body near a shed in St. Nicholas’s Cemetery. The 20-year-old (pictured below) had been brutally beaten to death with a wooden club, which had been discarded along with the girl’s corpse amongst the tombstones. Much to her father’s horror, Theresa’s eyes were wide open, her hands clutched in frozen agony.

Opt3Suspicion fell immediately onto the girl’s former boyfriend, Anthony Petras, who vehemently denied being involved in Theresa’s murder. A little over a week later, newspapers around the country began reporting that the corpse’s eyeball had been removed and photographed in the hopes that the image of her slayer could be retrieved from her retina. According to The Washington Times (25 February 1914):

The picture was taken at the suggestion of a local oculist, who told police that the retina would show the last object within her vision before she became unconscious. The photograph is held by the accusers of Anthony Petras. It will be shown to the grand jury which meets Saturday.

For hundreds of years, people had wondered whether it might be possible to capture an image of our last vision at the point of death. The idea was first put forward in the 17th century by a Jesuit friar named Christopher Schiener, who claimed to observe a faint image on the retina of a frog he had been dissecting. [1] It wasn’t until the invention of photography in the 1840s, however, that “optography” emerged as a scientific pursuit. It reached the height of popularity in the last decades of the 19th century after the German physiologist, Wilhelm Kuhne, devised a process in 1878 which he believed helped to preserve details from the retina of the eye.

Kuhne believed that the primary process behind vision was chemical, and that the retina worked like a photographic plate from which crucial information could be retrieved after death. His “optograms” exploited the retinal substance, rhodopsin, which bleaches when exposed to light through a crystalline lens. He demonstrated his process by reproducing what appeared to be the pattern of crossbars over a window (below) on the retina of a dead rabbit.

An albino rabbit, after being kept 15 min. in the dark, was decapitated; one eye was removed from the head under sodium light…and fastened onto the edge of a cork by means of needles…[The eye was placed in a] dark chamber with the cornea pressing softly against the diaphragm. The image was visible on the sclerotic, on one side of the optic nerve…that I was sure that it fell on the more deeply coloured division of the retina and could readily mark its place in the appropriate quadrant. Thereupon the yellow curtain was removed from the pane and the eye after five minutes’ exposure was taken away, divided along the equator and examined in feeble gaslight….I brought the preparation out into darkened daylight and shewed it to several witnesses. There was evident on the retina a most distinct brighter diffused spot, the small dimension of which corresponded to those of the image previously seen by me, and the position of which made me already sure that it was the optogram. [2]

Kuhne was satisfied with the results, but wanted to try his experiment on a human subject next. His opportunity arose in 1880, when a man named Erhard Gustav Reif was sentenced to death by guillotine after drowning his two young sons in the river. The eager scientist immediately retrieved the murderer’s decapitated head, removed the eyeballs, and reported seeing “violent and disturbing movements” on the dead man’s retina. The ambiguity of these images was attributed to the fact that the prisoner was wearing a blindfold at the moment of his death. Kuhne’s sketch of what he saw still survives. [3]

Other similar experiments were carried out in the 1880s and 1890s. It was even suggested that an optogram should be produced from the eye of Mary Jane Kelly, one of Jack the Ripper’s victims, though it’s unclear whether the procedure was actually carried out. The idea that optography might have forensic potential was later popularized by the science fiction writer, Jules Verne, in Les Frères Kip (1902). Indeed, so widespread was the idea, that some murderers even went to great lengths to destroy their victims’ eyeballs, as in the case of Constable P.C. Gutteridge in 1927:

In the early hours of September 27, 1927, occurred a crime that shocked England with its brutality…In the very act of doing his duty Constable P.C. Gutteridge of the Essex constabulary was shot down. He was found by the roadside with four bullet wounds in his head, each fired from a distance of about ten inches. A shot had been fired through each eye, and it was believed by some at the time that the murderer had done this out of superstition. There is an old belief that a picture of the murderer is imprinted in the victim’s eyes. [4]

Ultimately, optography fell from fashion due, in part, to the impracticalities of processing retinal images. The last serious scientific attempt at retrieving images from retinas took place in 1975 when police in Heidelberg, Germany, invited the physiologist, Evangelos Alexandridis, to repeat Kuhne’s experiments in order to determine whether or not optograms could be used in forensic investigations. The scientist placed anesthetized rabbits in front of “panels bearing high-contrast patterns or images (one of which was a portrait of Salvador Dali) before being killed.” [5] The retinal images were then photographed, some of which can be seen below from the Museum of Optography.

But what of Illinois murder victim Theresa Hollander? Unsurprisingly, the removal of her eyeball and the subsequent photograph revealed nothing that would help the case against her ex-boyfriend. Petras was tried not once, but twice, and found not guilty on both occasions. He maintainted his innocence till his death.

The exact circumstances of Theresa’s murder remain a mystery to this day.

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1. Derek Ogbourne, “Optography and Optograms.” Available online. I am hugely indebted to Ogbourne’s work for this article.
2. Kühne, W, 1878, On the Photochemistry of the Retina and on Visual Purple, (trans. by Michael Foster).
3. Michael J. Aminoff and Robert B. Daroff, Encyclopedia of the Neurological Sciences, p. 813.
4. Richard Harrison, Scotland Yard (1948), p. 74.
5. Ogbourne, “Optography.”

The Embalmed Soldiers of the American Civil War

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Thomas Holmes—the “Father of Modern Embalming”—had an unusual way of advertising his services throughout the American Civil War. During one of his many excursions to the front, the surgeon plucked the body of an unknown soldier from the battlefield and brought it back to Washington D.C. There, he washed the corpse and injected it with his patented “safe” embalming fluid, which he claimed was free from toxins. He then dressed the soldier in a fine set of clothes and put him on display in his shop window for all to see.

Prior to the mid-19th century, embalming was used chiefly to preserve specimens after dissection. Surgeons and anatomists often used arsenic when creating dry mount displays from cadaverous remains. Mixtures of arsenic and soap were sometimes used to bathe the insides of a specimen in order to prevent decomposition and insect infestation. In 1838, the French chemist, Jean Gannal, introduced a new method for preserving human remains which called for arsenic to be injected directly into the carotid artery. This allowed anatomists to dissect corpses or prepare anatomical specimens without worrying about putrefaction or decay. By and large, it worked, though many anatomists suffered arsenic poisoning as a result.

2The nature of embalming changed when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Suddenly, there was an enormous outcry for the bodies of fallen soldiers to be returned to their hometowns so that families could say a proper goodbye to the dead. It was during this period that the foundations of the modern funeral industry were laid, and the embalmer—as a professional—began to emerge.

The trend began when a captain in the Army Medical Corps (and close friend of President Lincoln) became the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. On 24 May 1861, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth (left) was shot while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of a hotel in Virginia. The flag was so large that it could be seen from the White House.

News of the shooting traveled quickly back to Washington. Holmes offered his services to Ellsworth’s family, and the captain’s embalmed body was taken to the White House, where it lay in state in the East Room for several days. Afterwards, his preserved remains were taken to New York City, where thousands lined up to view the funeral cortege. Along the route, a group of mourners displayed a banner that declared: “Ellsworth, ‘His blood cries for vengeance.’” [1]

Lincoln was so impressed with Holmes’s work that he asked the surgeon to train others so that Union soldiers killed-in-action could be safely preserved and sent back home to their grieving families. Setting up battlefield embalming sheds (right), Holmes trained numerous surgeons in his new technique, and then sold them his “safe” embalming solution for $3 per bottle. Soon, embalmers were pitching tents close to the front, and performing demonstrations of their methods for soldiers, who were then offered a chance to pre-pay to have their own bodies embalmed should they die in forthcoming battles.

The procedure was relatively simple. Embalmers rarely needed to drain blood from the battered bodies of dead soldiers since most of them bled out when injured in battle. By squeezing a rubber ball attached to a tube, surgeons pumped the corpses full of embalming fluid, typically via an artery located in the armpit. The bodies were then placed in zinc-lined coffins (to prevent further decay), with the names of the deceased and their parents prominently displayed on the lid. [2]

While embalmers offered families a chance to reclaim the bodies of their fallen fathers, sons, uncles and brothers, the public in general grew increasingly uncomfortable with the “commodification of the dead.” [3] Speaking to a Yankee reporter, one embalmer remarked:

I would be glad to prepare private soldiers. They were wurth [sic] a five dollar bill apiece. But Lord bless you, a colonel pays a hundred, and a brigadier-general pays two hundred. There’s lots of them now, and I have cut the acquaintance of everything below a major. I might, as a great favor, do a captain, but he must pay a major’s price. I insist upon that! Such windfalls don’t come everyday. There won’t be another such killing for a century. [4]

The high prices weren’t the only problem.

Because of the lack of federal regulations governing embalmers, there were several cases of fraud and attempted extortion. For instance, in 1864, Timothy Dwight of New York made an official complaint against Dr Richard Burr (below), a prominent Washington embalmer, claiming that Burr tried to extort money from him by holding his son’s body to ransom. Allegedly, Burr took possession of Dwight’s son after he died in battle. Without the family’s permission, Burr embalmed the body and brought it back to Washington, where he then contacted Mr. Dwight, demanding $100 for its release. [5]

Dwight wasn’t the only person to complain about the nefarious actions of this new breed of funeral professional. On 9 January 1865, General Ulysses Grant responded to the chorus of grievances by withdrawing all embalmers’ permits and ordering them beyond the lines. In March 1865, the War Department issued General Order Number 39, entitled “Order Concerning Embalmers,” which allowed practitioners to act only under a special license, and made provisions for regulating prices. But by then, the war was nearly over.

Holmes’s continued to offer his services till the bitter end. By the time General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, the surgeon had embalmed approximately 4,000 soldiers. The war—or more accurately, the terrible death toll of the war—had made Thomas Holmes a very rich and famous man.

Ironically, before his death in 1900, Holmes requested that his own body would not be embalmed.

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1. Owen Edwards, “The Death of Colonel Ellsworth,” Smithsonian Magazine (April 2011).
2. Kimberly Largent-Christopher, “Embalming Comes in Vogue During Civil War,” The Washington Times (April 2009).
3. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), p. 96. I’m hugely indebted to Faust for information found in this article, and highly recommend her book to anyone seeking further reading on this subject.
4. George A. Townsend, Rustics in Rebellion: A Yankee Reporter on the Road in Richmond, 1861-1865 (1950), pp. 121-22. Qtd in Faust, This Republic of Suffering, p. 96.
5. Faust, This Republic of Suffering, p. 96.