Underground Truths: Sweeney Todd, Cannibalism, and Discourse Control
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This chapter connects issues of power and discourse control in Sweeney Todd and the Anatomy Act. It explores the idea of medicine and/as monstrosity through the narrative’s characters, spaces, and their correlation to narratives of medicine and/or murder and/or cannibalism—fictional and non-fictional—that already belonged to Victorian London’s culture and spaces. The concept of truth introduced in the previous chapter addresses here dynamics of inclusion and exclusion of a constituency from certain discourses, that is, the notion of ‘taboo’ discourse, which in this case regards the disposal of the paupers’ bodies in Victorian London. The chapter also introduces the concept of ‘vertical space’ as an intrinsic feature of Victorian London’s space, and deeply interwoven with medicine in the metropolis.
On the 21st of November 1846, the weekly issue of Lloyd’s People’s Periodical and Family Library featured the first instalment of a series innocently titled The String of Pearls. Under the title, a broad illustration showed a weeping girl sitting at a kitchen table, in the company of a gentleman. The gentleman’s expression is concerned, and a little dog anxiously looks at the distressed girl. The domestic scene is carefully crafted to attract the reader’s attention, hinting at an exciting story behind the girl’s tears. Yet, nothing transpires from the illustration, or the title, about the lurid story of human flesh-pies better known to us as Sweeney Todd, The Demon-Barber of Fleet Street. The disappearance of the string of pearls from the title of subsequent rewritings and adaptations is unsurprising, as the jewel soon ceases to have a key role in the story, overcome by the striking presence of one of Victorian popular fiction’s most formidable villains: the ‘demon’ barber Sweeney Todd. Similar to other penny blood villains, the barber is a murderer, a robber, and a cunning cheater; what singles him out, making his callousness transcend humanity and become demonic, is his role as the facilitator and chief supplier of a ghastly business partnership with his pie-maker neighbour, Mrs. Lovett. In this chapter, I explore how this partnership reflected the discourses and spaces of the Anatomy Act, and the imaginary—and not-so-imaginary—horrors of bodily disintegration in the Victorian metropolis.
The barber murders his customers, the ones who will not be immediately missed, such as merchants or sailors, and who happen to be in possession of sums of money or valuables. Todd drops them in his cellar through a mechanical chair mounted over a trapdoor, breaking their necks; if they survive, he ‘polishes them off’ with his razor. The bodies are then butchered and transformed into ‘pork’ and ‘veal’ steaks, which are stored in Lovett’s cellar and there turned into meat pies by a cook unaware of the origins of the material. When the cook realizes he is a prisoner in the cellar, and perhaps starts suspecting where the ‘meat’ comes from, Lovett and Todd ‘dismiss’ him and get a new cook. The series relates the end of this partnership, following the murder of Mr. Thornhill, a sailor who, unlike Todd’s previous victims, has friends who come looking for him. The search also involves beautiful Johanna Oakley—the weeping girl of the illustration—whose fiancée, Mark Ingestrie, should have returned from his travels at sea, and was the reason why Thornhill was on land at all. He was meant to give Johanna a token from Mark, the eponymous string of pearls, and to bring her the news that the young man was lost at sea. Johanna impersonates a young boy, Charles, to take service at the barber shop when the police and the sailor’s friends start focusing their investigations on the barber. The place of barber assistant has been vacant since Tobias Ragg, Sweeney Todd’s previous apprentice, was shut away in a mad-house after he started suspecting his employer of murder. Tobias will finally manage to escape his prison, as will the current cook at Lovett’s, Jarvis Williams. Williams, starving and destitute, applied for a job at the pie-shop in Bell Yard, and his timing was perfect: Lovett needed to replace her cook, and Williams took his place in the basement. After a while, though, he pieces together the truth behind the pie-making business and plans a daredevil escape. He mounts on the platform that hauls up the pies into Lovett’s shop by way of a windlass, hiding under the tray of freshly cooked pies. As he reaches the top, he jumps up and screams the terrible truth to the customers: they are gorging themselves on human flesh. Mrs. Lovett dies, not because she is unable to cope with the events, but because Todd had poisoned her a few hours earlier. Conscience was starting to take its toll on the pastry-cook, which prompted Todd to make sure that she never compromised his cover. Finally, Todd is hanged, and Johanna is reunited with Mark Ingestrie, who is revealed to be Jarvis Williams. The story closes on Lovett’s last living customer, an old man who still needs a drop of brandy when he remembers how much he loved his ‘veal’ pies.
The countless rewritings of this story make it probably the only penny blood to be famous outside academic circles, and in scholarly circles, Sweeney Todd is still an object of analysis and debate. Its authorship, for instance, is still controversial: traditionally, the text was attributed to Thomas Peckett Prest and, while Helen Smith has produced convincing evidence in favour of Rymer, other scholars remain sceptical. 1 Crone takes yet a different stand, arguing that any debate around the authorship of penny bloods is pointless, unless it is aimed at highlighting the genre’s fundamental homogeneity. 2 I do not completely agree with her point: as I have discussed in previous chapters, casting light on penny blood authors may open new perspectives for analysis of the narratives. However, it is not my purpose here to add to the authorship debate, but rather to analyse the role of this highly successful penny blood as a vehicle of discourses connected with the world of medicine and dissection.
In Chapter 1, I have explained how there is a consensus among literary scholars that Sweeney Todd was deeply rooted in the socio-historical context of the mid-nineteenth-century, and that it elaborated anxieties specific to the lower section of the social spectrum, which Lloyd’s productions explicitly addressed. Significantly, scholarship on this narrative tends to highlight the connection between the theme of cannibalism and working-class concerns about physical integrity after death in the Anatomy Act era. 3 Indeed, while the medical discourse is more elusive in this than in the other penny bloods examined in this book as there are no doctors amongst the characters, this very elusiveness is crucial to chart the medical discourse in Sweeney Todd, a story in which the impossibility of speaking about certain topics is the key to understanding the power dynamics between characters. London was already familiar with popular myths of butchery and cannibalism before the narrative was serialized. 4 Still, the presence of a barber cutting corpses into pieces in an underground space is meaningful in a historical context of underground dissection rooms and anxieties about the butcher-like procedures that characterized medical education and practice. Popular conscience likened the work of surgeons and anatomists to butchery, and the burkers’ incidents literalized the concept of retailing the human body as if it were butcher’s meat. The combination of these elements triggered a set of anxieties about cannibalism, the idea of cooking and consuming human flesh, related to the anatomy world. Furthermore, as early as 1948, Turner noticed the ‘grim double-entendre’ of the Sweeney Todd plot 5 ; this double-entendre, which characterizes particularly the speech of the murderous couple Todd-Lovett, can be examined against the background of the obscure and complicated language of the Act. Finally, the murderous couple is a model of industrial, indeed Utilitarian, efficiency that resembles the way in which the Anatomy Act put the powerless members of society in a position comparable to that of a portion of meat for a grinder, while benefiting chiefly, if not entirely, the more powerful echelons of society.
The use of cannibalism as a metaphor for heartless treatment of the pauper was already part of British reading culture: in 1729, Jonathan Swift’s satirical pamphlet A Modest Proposal suggested that the Irish pauper should start, not only selling their children as choice meat to the rich, but that the population should start breeding them with precisely that purpose. ‘A young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food’ he argues, 6 and the system would reduce poverty, promote marriage, motherly love, and make husbands more loving of their pregnant wives. 7 The String of Pearls plays on a similar representation of a brutalized, bestial society where people who will not be missed become cattle for the butcher’s knife to solve the problem of the rising number of the destitute. Todd and Lovett’s business, like the Anatomy Act, was a perfect solution: they both ensured that nothing was wasted, minimized the costs while maximizing the income, and were, in their efficiency, perfectly soulless.
In this chapter, I suggest that Sweeney Todd reiterated anxieties about the underground space in relation to anatomical practice in the metropolis, especially if we consider that the Anatomy Act did not solve the intrinsic unfairness of the body trade. This matter, as Powell and Crone point out, was decidedly relevant to the readership of the narrative. Simultaneously, the narrative proposed an alternative, cathartic solution to the unfair system: instead of the secrecy and obscurity that characterized the language of the Act, 8 and the proceedings of the medical fraternity, the truth is seen, uttered, and believed, and the system that concealed the truth is dismantled.
1 A Monstrous Partnership: Burking, Dissecting, and Pie-Making
Todd and Lovett, the managers of the narrative’s monstrous production system, seldom appear together in the original series, which, unlike later adaptations, did not suggest in any way a romantic connection between them. Yet, they are undeniably a couple, the couple: their business relationship propels the action in the plot, and they were the chief medium the original narrative used to convey the double-entendre Turner noted. While later adaptations, particularly Bond’s theatrical adaptation, 9 tended to humanize Todd and Lovett, turning the slippage of meaning in their speech almost into a joke between the murderous duo and the audience in the theatre, the original 1840s penny blood was an altogether different matter. The element that emerges most forcefully throughout the whole narrative is that there is nothing human in Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett with which the reader can empathize. Whereas the intrinsic humanity of the theatrical Todd and Lovett creates a guiltless complicity between spectator and characters, the original narrative leaves for the reader clues to the truth that produce an uneasy, unwelcome proximity to the couple’s unspeakable crimes.
As in Manuscripts and Varney, the concept of monstrosity in Sweeney Todd implies lack of humanity, departure from nature. As with Varney, the heroes in the story play second fiddle to the monstrous villains, who are the undisputed centre of the narrative. Unlike Varney, however, Sweeney Todd has no redeeming qualities to speak of, and Mrs. Lovett, though in part a victim of the demon barber herself, does not awaken the reader’s sympathies. This repulsion originates in the fact that the couple commit several unpardonable sins at once: they are serial killers who also involve other people in an act of cannibalism, which simultaneously contaminates the community and wipes away their victims’ identity. It is therefore unsurprising that Sweeney Todd later acquired the sobriquet of ‘demon barber’: the couple is repeatedly characterized as diabolical and, although neither of them is an actual supernatural monster, they display several physical and behavioural traits typical of preternatural figures.
The conspicuous eeriness of Todd and Lovett’s physical aspect is the first clue the reader receives to solve the mystery of the narrative. The description of Sweeney Todd is not flattering: he is ‘a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth’ and his ‘huge hands and feet’ make him ‘quite a natural curiosity’. 10 The narrator ironically notes that, considering his profession, the barber’s most extraordinary feature is his hair, which resembles ‘a thickset hedge, in which a quantity of small wire had got entangled’. 11 This description purposefully frames the barber’s body as disproportionate, a deviation from nature. 12 The adjective ‘ill-put-together’ suggests an artificial breach of the natural composition of the human body, as if Todd has been assembled, rather than born. Moreover, the emphasis on the disproportionate size of Todd’s frame gives his figure an ogreish quality, particularly the ‘immense mouth’, which ominously suggests the need for commensurate meals. His features seem planned to trigger the idea of the monstrous in the mind of the reader, connecting the barber’s body to that of the widely popular figure of Frankenstein’s Monster, a connection that is even more evident than the one found in Varney. In Frankenstein , descriptions of the Monster emphasize his ‘gigantic stature’ and disproportionate frame. 13 Frankenstein’s Creature’s aspect is deformed and ‘more hideous than belongs to humanity’, 14 which automatically identifies him as an alien, and Todd’s ‘ill-put-together’ body reiterated this characterization. It is worth nothing that the Monster is intrinsically linked to the world of anatomy and body traffic, being the result of the assemblage of parts from different fresh bodies stolen from cemeteries, and this trait of the Monster’s bodily history resonates in Todd’s monstrous physicality. The barber’s awkward body looks as if it has been inexpertly pieced together, and his daily activity consists in dismembering human bodies in a cellar with the purpose of destroying them completely. The idea of ‘ill-putting-together’, and the apparently inevitably destructive tendency of the inaptly constructed subject seem to belong to the Creature’s and Todd’s body alike.
The unnatural quality of Sweeney Todd’s physicality emerges also in his voice and eyes. Todd’s peculiarly un-natural laugh is ‘short’, ‘disagreeable’, ‘unmirthful’, and ‘sudden’, possibly triggered—the narrator suggests—by the memory of ‘some very strange and out-of-the-way joke’. 15 The narrator compares it to the bark of the hyena, and claims it left the listener under the impression that it could not have come ‘from mortal lips’, so that they looked ‘up to the ceiling, and on the floor, and all around them’. 16 While what they expect to see is not specified, it is assumed to be something supernatural and malignant, and thus the inarticulate, but spontaneous sound of his laugh gives a glimpse of the barber’s inhuman nature: Todd is at his most natural when he sounds most unnatural.
Todd’s physical description closes on the observation that ‘Mr. Todd squinted a little to add to his charms’. 17 Victorian readers of popular fiction would be used to a reference to the eyes in characters’ descriptions. Some of the most famous Dickensian villains’ eyes match their nature, like Daniel Quilp’s ‘restless, sly and cunning’ eyes, 18 or Artful Dodger’s ‘little, sharp, ugly eyes’. 19 Penny blood authors adopted the same strategy and, usually, something odd in the gaze gave away the villains, in the same way the eyes of the heroes and heroines mirrored their goodness. Johanna’s eyes, for instance, are ‘of a deep and heavenly blue’. 20 Sweeney Todd’s eyes ‘squint’. Primarily, this means that he is affected with strabismus; secondly, it suggests that he does not look directly at people or things. Hence, his eyes are simultaneously deformed and impossible to decipher, they can look without returning the gaze. They are, in brief, ‘simply wrong’. 21
Mrs. Lovett’s wrongness also surfaces in her body and eyes. At first sight, the pastry cook is as sensual and charming as her pies. The inviting look and delicious taste of the pies and Mrs. Lovett’s beauty are one thing, because, muses the narrator, ‘what but a female hand, and that female buxom, young and good-looking, could have ventured upon the production of those pies [?]’. 22 Mrs. Lovett’s body is sensual and, although it is not explicitly stated, her customers imagine that by eating her pies, they are partaking of that sensuality. The pies themselves are described as peculiarly sensual, meaning that they gratify the senses, primarily as culinary delicacies, but also and more subtly as an extension of Mrs. Lovett’s sensuality. The ‘construction of their paste’ is ‘delicate’; the ‘small portions of meat’ they contain are ‘tender’; they are ‘impregnated’ with the delicious ‘aroma’ of their gravy; the fat and meagre meat are ‘so artistically mixed up’ that eating one of Lovett’s pies is a ‘provocative’ to eat another. 23 This description is constructed so as to be positively mouth-watering; yet, most of the adjectives, if taken out of context, are applicable to female beauty, as smallness, tenderness, delicateness, and proportionate appearance are highly appreciable qualities in the Victorian female body. Moreover, the ‘impregnated aroma’ and the ‘provocative’ trait of the pies would not be out of place in a boudoir scene. Lovett’s pies are manufactured to be as captivating as is their cook: all of Mrs. Lovett’s young customers, the clerks and law students from the Temple and Lincoln’s-inn, are ‘enamoured’ of her, and they toy with the thought that Mrs. Lovett made the pie they ‘devoured’ especially for them. 24 The implicit suggestion is that they are actually fantasizing about devouring the pastry-cook herself, in the more unchaste meaning of the word. 25
This wantonness, though, is soon framed as something eerie, as the narrator explains that Lovett exploited her admirers’ appreciation to induce them to buy more pies, smiling more often at her best customers. This game was ‘provoking to all except to Mrs Lovett’, while the ‘excitement’ (yet another ambiguous word in an ambiguous context) it generated ‘paid extraordinarily well’, inducing the most exuberant customer to consume pies ‘until they were almost ready to burst’. 26 At this point, the narrator adds a darker layer to the picture, remarking that other customers, who were only interested in the pies, judged Lovett’s smile to be ‘cold and uncomfortable—that it was upon her lips, but had no place in her heart—that it was the set smile of a ballet-dancer, which is about one of the most unmirthful things in existence’. 27 Others still, while conceding the pies were excellent, ‘swore that Mrs Lovett had quite a sinister aspect, and that they could see what a merely superficial affair her blandishments were, and that there was “a lurking devil in her eye”’. 28
The comparison of Mrs. Lovett to a ballet dancer could be extended to her whole physicality. The beautiful pastry-cook is performing a dance for her customers, made of ritualized, rehearsed movements, each one devoted to selling more pies. As the description of Mrs. Lovett grows darker, the concept of artificiality, of something ‘ill-put-together’ that resembles humanity but fails to fully succeed, surfaces in the body of Todd’s business partner. The eyes are the only place where something of Lovett’s true nature can be guessed, and what they show is peculiarly un-natural. Mack notes that, besides being reminding of such works as Byron’s Mazeppa , the phrase ‘a lurking devil in her eye’ was typical of character description in Gothic fiction. 29 Therefore, Lovett’s sensual and amiable façade disguises an evil soul.
I would add a further layer of analysis to the concept of ‘evil’ in the characters of Todd and Lovett by examining their connection with the supernatural. The two are no vampires, and yet, the narrative hints at something preternatural about them, which, if it does not correspond to their actual nature (in the end, they are both human), is definitely something the two characters very closely resemble. Mrs. Lovett’s behaviour and some of the adjectives used to describe her connect her to the figure of the witch. With her smiles, she charms her customers into eating more pies, keeping control over them and her invoices simultaneously. One of her customers even calls her ‘charmer’, 30 which is meant as a compliment on her beauty, but also defines her effect on people. She casts her spell by exploiting her victims’ lust, using her sex-appeal to encourage her customers to eat more, giving the process of eating a sensual connotation. The malignity of the spell is announced: Lovett’s customers gorge themselves on the pies until ‘they are almost ready to burst’, as if the meat in the pies has preserved its cadaverous chemistry and emanates explosive gases. 31 As the victims of a spell in a fairy tale, they end up ruining themselves through the unchecked, sensual consumption of food that goes on in Lovett’s premises. Since both the food and the cook are sensual, the sickness that ensues is doubly shameful: the customers yield to both gluttony and lust. The image of the ‘devil’ lurking in Mrs. Lovett’s eyes seals her characterization as a witch, a dangerous and essentially monstrous character whose enchantment manages to deceive even those customers who, although claiming to be immune to her charming looks, are not immune to the charm of the pies, and become unwitting participants in Lovett’s ghastly cannibal istic banquet.
As for Sweeney Todd, the barber becomes increasingly vicious as the narrative progresses, until he is explicitly likened to the devil. In a moment of malicious happiness, Todd resembles ‘some fiend in human shape, who had just completed the destruction of a human soul’. 32 The use of the word ‘fiend’ in this passage is meaningful. This ancient term basically means ‘enemy’, which connotation also relates to the world of supernatural forces and magic, acquiring the definition of ‘demon or evil spirit, the devil itself as the enemy of mankind, and, finally, a person of supernatural wickedness’. 33 The image of the ‘destruction of the human soul’ reinforces Todd’s connection with the demonic in Christian sense. Not only does he perform mischief, but he enjoys it, as a devil would. Furthermore, Todd’s characterization as enemy with the meaning of ‘devil’ becomes explicit after the reader has been given enough clues to suspect him of murder. 34 He becomes ‘the arch-enemy of all mankind’ in the eyes of Tobias, behind whose shoulders he stands, unseen, making ‘no inept representation of the Mephistopheles of the German drama’. 35 Even his witch-like business partner, towards the end of their relationship, identifies him as the destroyer of her soul, exclaiming bitterly: ‘Oh. Todd, what an enemy you have been to me!’ 36
Todd and Lovett’s characterization, therefore, includes elements of the devil and the witch, two interrelated figures of Christian folklore. This adds a further degree of monstrosity to their partnership, as if to mark the peculiar viciousness that comes with being a commercial association based on murder: Todd and Lovett are inhuman because they are disconnected enough to commit multiple murders and to recycle their victims as food. The couple’s inhumanity emerges in all its devilishness as soon as it becomes clear that Lovett’s pies are filled with the flesh of Todd’s victims. This moment coincides with the scene in which the local tobacconist’s wife, Mrs. Wrankley, asks Lovett’s permission to put up in her pie-shop a bill asking for information on the disappearance of her husband. The man has been killed by Todd, who listens ‘impenetrably’ as Lovett reads the bill. 37 Then, the barber comforts the woman and suggests that she buy a pie and eat it, ‘lift[ing] off the top crust’, declaring that she would ‘soon see something of Mr. Wrankley’. 38 Although the widow (for that is what the narrator calls her, although she has not yet been notified of Mr. Wrankley’s death) recoils from Todd’s ‘hideous face’, she accepts the pie because it is ‘very tempting’, and Todd’s words even raise her hopes. 39 The scene shows the full extent of the barber’s monstrosity: by playing this macabre prank on the widow, of which only he, Mrs. Lovett, and the reader can be aware, Todd enjoys raising Mrs. Wrankley’s hopes as he feeds her, quite possibly, her own husband. Mrs. Lovett, who but a few moments earlier protested that she hated her business partner, does not refrain from selling the pie to the widow. Powell argues that, although Lovett’s active involvement in the actual killing remains uncertain, she ‘knowingly and ruthlessly’ sells the final product, which diminishes her womanliness. 40 Lovett’s lack of womanly qualities such as love, tenderness, and compassion emerges clearly in her involvement in the cruel joke Todd makes at Mrs. Wrankley’s expense, which emphasizes her monstrosity.
Todd and Lovett’s characterization as a murderous couple, a commercial partnership, can be related to the commercial partnerships formed by the Edinburgh and London burkers, which was also devoted to the commodification of dead bodies and had attracted the attention of the press between 1829 and 1832. In both cases, the men worked in couples, and had female partners whose degree of involvement in the murders remained uncertain. The news coverage of burkers’ cases was massive, occurring almost daily in the month in which each case broke, which contributed to making burkers and bodysnatchers a substantial, and sensational, part of the life of the British public. The ‘Italian Boy’ case, particularly, was sometimes the subject of two, or even three articles in the same issue of a newspaper, 41 besides inspiring ballads 42 and even a ‘genuine edition’ of the trial by Pierce Egan. 43 Such was the resonance of the cases that, about a decade later, in 1841, Burke’s trial for the Edinburgh murders occupied nineteenth pages of The Chronicles of Crime, or: The New Newgate Calendar by Camden Pelham (a pseudonym), ‘of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-Law’. Pelham’s account of the murders and trial, a mixture of almost-accurate facts and plain inaccuracies, as it was usual with the Newgate Calendar genre, focuses on Burke, as he was the only one to undergo death sentence, but he never spares Hare his disdain and represents him as cunningly coward in his betraying Burke by turning king’s evidence.
In the months that followed the discovery of the London homicides, newspaper reports of corpse-stealing or attempted burking abounded, tapping into the public’s outrage and fear. In December 1831, right after the London burkers were discovered, the Times published an article about a spectacular cadaver theft in Dublin. A whole gang of resurrectionists allegedly broke into a first-floor apartment and stole the body of an old woman right in front of her mourners. The article claimed that they made it downstairs before any of those present could stop them, and disappeared into the night, shamefully dragging the corpse by the shroud on the mud of the street. 44 Richardson connects the daredevil quality of this theft to the increase in prices paid for corpses, which made the resurrectionists more daring 45 ; however, the way the article itself is constructed is significant. The detailed description of each trait that might contribute to portray the bodysnatchers as sacrilegious and disrespectful, such as the ‘revoltingly indecent’ element of the body being dragged in the mud by the shroud, suggests that the piece aimed to stir up animosity towards resurrectionists. 46
The press also contributed to spreading the idea that burking was practised by ‘clapping’ pitch plaster over the mouth and nose of the victim to suffocate them, the so-called pitch plaster myth. Sometimes, pitch plaster aggressions were made in jest. 47 In other instances, victims, especially children, reported having been attacked, usually by one or two men who placed plaster over their faces, as in the case of young Charles White, in November 1831. 48 Notably, White stated that one of his assailants wore a smock-frock; analysing the article, Wise observes that the smock-frock was the detail of Bishop and Williams’s outfits on which the newspapers focused their attention, creating a connection between these garments and burking in the popular mind. 49 I would add that this attests to the pervasiveness of the press campaign against bodysnatching and burking, which portrayed the people engaged in the body traffic as demons disguised as common people. Crone notes that penny bloods tended to provoke a frisson in the reader by making their villains familiar, everyday figures, 50 as is the case of Sweeney Todd, the barber. Although illustrations tend to represent Todd wearing an apron, rather than a smock-frock, Sweeney Todd catered to the idea, consolidated in the public’s mind by the news coverage of the burkers’ cases, that a monster bent upon making money out of murdered bodies could have the outward appearances of a common worker.
The female presence in the burkers’ cases added to the repulsion they generated. In January 1829, the Times contemptuously described Helen M’Dougal, Burke’s common-law wife, as ‘utterly destitute of shame and common prudence, as she [was] of humanity’, and defined her relationship with Burke a ‘hideous sympathy’. 51 The article also emphasized the Hares’ status of married couple and the reporter did not disguise his certainty that both husband and wife were guilty. The press, therefore, represented both Helen M’Dougal and Margaret Hare as the accomplices of their partner’s crimes. Even Pelham’s historically doubtful account of the trial in the Chronicles of Crime echoes the harsh judgement the press gave of the Edinburgh burkers’ wives more than a decade earlier: he describes Helen M’Dougal as a ‘polluting presence’ 52 and, as regards Mrs. Hare, he focuses on the fact she went to give her evidence holding a baby in her arms, a detail that had attracted attention at the time. Whatever reasons had Margaret Hare’s for doing this, it did not help her case. Mr. Cockburn, part of the counsel for Helen M’Dougal, declared to the court that her face displayed ‘every evil passion’ and, as for the ‘miserable child in her arms’, rather than receiving ‘a look of maternal tenderness in his distress’ was treated with ‘harshness and brutality’. 53 He declared that Mrs. Hare, in fact, ‘eye[d] it in such a way as added to her malign aspect’. 54 Lutenor’s portrait of Mrs. Hare echoes this same impression: Margaret Hare’s brow is knitted, the lips thin and tense, her expression halfway between malevolent defensiveness and cunning that is not made to be attractive. The infant in her arms has a long, serious face and sits stiffly in his mother’s arms, with every impression of being uncomfortable. 55 These previous portraits emerge in Pelham’s account of Mrs. Hare in the witness box: he frames her as a peculiarly unloving mother, one who looks at her child ‘ill of hooping-cough’ (sic.) with ‘aversion and hatred, shaking it and squeezing it […] with the expression of a fury in her countenance’, while ‘even the tigress’ would show ‘maternal tenderness […] for her whelps’. 56
As for the London burkers’ wives, Sarah Bishop and Rhoda Williams, there is comparatively little newspaper material on them, 57 and what there is shows that they were relatively cooperative. When they appeared before the magistrate on November 11, 1831, both women released statements, although they were informed that these could be used to incriminate them. 58 When Rhoda was apprehended as an accessory to the murder of Fanny Pigburn, she wept ‘bitterly’ upon hearing the charges and, though again she was informed that her statements could be used against her, she fully cooperated. 59 The press represented Sarah and Rhoda as quite docile, even scared, and did not ascribe to them the negative moral qualities that characterized the portrait of Helen M’Dougal and Margaret Hare. The public’s judgement, however, was harsher. After the trial, Sarah and Rhoda moved to the neighbourhood of Paradise Road; this was, Wise points out, particularly unattractive, and yet the arrival of ‘the kin of burkers’ was cause of deep concern, and the newspapers reported that mothers would forbid their children to play outside as long as Sarah and Rhoda resided there. 60
The female presence in the burkers’ cases might have contributed to the creation of the image of the criminal couple in the public’s mind, which made it easier for the audience to accept Todd and Lovett’s murderous partnership. Mrs. Lovett is a peculiarly un-loving, unwomanly woman, a trait that characterized also the burkers’ companions, especially in the Edinburgh trial, and becomes melodramatically exaggerated in the fictional character. Cold, calculating Mrs. Lovett cannot be a wife, nor can she be a paramour: her relationship with the devilish Todd is pure business.
The idea of business partnership is key to the connection between the burkers’ cases and the narrative of Sweeney Todd. The element that singled out burking was that, for the first time, homicide was committed as a commercial transaction. It put a price on the human body, equalling the individual to livestock. John Adolphus, speaking for the prosecution during the London burkers’ trial, stated that ‘[n]othing but the sordid and base desire to possess themselves of a dead body in order to sell it for dissection had induced the prisoners […] to commit the crime for which they were now about to answer’. 61 Similarly, Rosner notes that, while murder in Edinburgh was a relatively uncommon occurrence, and mostly passion-related, the Burke and Hare murder generated panic because they were conspicuously not driven by passion, and suggested that there was ‘literally a price […] upon every head’. 62 Burking practically performed that ‘commodification’ of the human body that, Powell convincingly argues, industrial economy performed metaphorically on the body of the workers. 63
The public was not easily distracted from the fact that the medical community was at the other end of the commercial transaction. The fact that Robert Knox was never tried for the Edinburgh murders was bitterly regretted, and indignation was voiced in several quarters. Sir Walter Scott, for instance, declined the requests of the surgeon’s friends to be part of the committee appointed to prove Knox’s innocence. Scott declared that he would not help to ‘whitewash this much to be suspected individual’. 64 The newspapers too, though not mentioning him directly, expressed outrage at the fact that Knox did not stand trial, thus increasing suspicions in the public’s mind regarding the role of medicine in the murders. The Times emphatically proclaimed: ‘what tales still remain untold! Bodies, never interred, have been purchased without question or scruple. Is this also to pass without further investigation?’. 65 Likewise, the title of the Times article reporting the trial, ‘The late Horrible Murders in Edinburgh, to Obtain Subjects for Dissection’, 66 reminded the public that burking and anatomy were directly connected. Two years later, the London burkers’ incident linked medicine and murder again. The medical community’s position with respect to the homicides was not as ambiguous in this case—in fact, as soon as he suspected the corpse he was being offered could be a murder victim, Richard Partridge went for the police. Yet, the case rekindled the debate around the shortage of subjects for anatomy courses and revived the fear that criminal individuals may resort to killing to provide the commodity. From the press to cheap serialized fiction, the step was short. In 1841, the Newgate Calendar published the first edition of Murderers of the Close, the account of Burke and Hare’s crimes in Edinburgh. In 1846, the first episode of The String of Pearls, a story about a murderous couple cutting homicide victims into pieces to sell them, was issued.
Sweeney Todd, being simultaneously a barber and a butcher of human flesh, summarizes the popular representations of the surgeon. His detachment doubles as an extreme interpretation of the inhumanity that surgeons and anatomist s considered necessary to perform their tasks. The demonic barber Sweeney is as dystopic a figure as the medical students in Heath’s cartoon, one that embodies the frightful possibilities of the commodification of the human body for dissection purposes. A further element that reinforces this trait in Sweeney Todd are the ‘heads and bones’ of his victims, which the police finds in the catacombs below St. Dunstan’s. 68 These resemble the ‘disintegrating bone, brain, trunk and decomposing flesh’ that were left of a human body after dissection. 69 The figure of the devilish barber, therefore, tapped into popular images of medicine and butchery, which explains the absence of medical characters in Sweeney Todd: the figure that relates to the world of medicine and its discourses in the narrative is actually the demon-barber himself.
If Todd’s figure tapped into popular images that satirized the figure of the surgeon-anatomist, while simultaneously revealing the concerns it generated in the wider public (especially in the working class), then the Todd-Lovett couple embodied the mechanism that provided the surgeon-anatomist with bodies for dissection. Starting from Powell’s and Crone’s interpretations of Sweeney Todd as a metaphor of working-class anxieties about the effects of the Anatomy Act, I would move on to consider more specifically the system implemented by the murderous couple in the light of the Act itself, and the Utilitarian philosophy that underpinned it. As emerges from Heath’s print, representations of the Anatomy Act as a cannibalistic system pre-dated its being voted in, were widely popular, and surface in the processes of killing, butchery, and cannibalism around which the plot of Sweeney Todd revolves.
Todd and Lovett’s is a lucid and terrifying scheme in which both partners are committed to personal gain. Todd provides the commodity and rewards himself with his victims’ possessions, which he hoards in his house. Lovett applies herself to increasing the sales of the final product to make the most from the commodity, while simultaneously achieving the crucial purpose of eliminating the victims’ bodies. The system of feeding them to hungry customers tallied perfectly with London underworld’s practicality, according to which the cows of London dairies were fed ‘spent mash from the breweries’ and ‘market sweepings’, 70 and animals ‘awaiting slaughter’, a pamphlet asserted, were fed ‘cag-mag’, a mixture of rotten meat and meat of diseased or otherwise second choice animals. 71 It is possible to detect in these dynamics, in the determination not to waste anything and devote everything to a useful purpose, an element of Utilitarian philosophy. As we have seen, that same Utilitarian philosophy eventually turned its attention to the problem of body supply for anatomy schools, individuating the perfect source of subjects in those human bodies that were perceived to represent a cost to the community. The Anatomy Act was an expression of this philosophy, indeed it was a masterpiece of Utilitarian thought. If not explicitly connected with the Anatomy Act in the narrative, Todd and Lovett’s ultimate recycling enterprise, which disposed of ‘unknown’ people who would not be missed and turned them into food, concretized the anxieties expressed in Heath’s print.
In the narrative, the pies produced through the monstrous recycling system are consumed by a whole community that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that something is amiss in the neighbourhood, even when a suspicious smell of decay starts rising from below the pavement of their own church. Their indifference in effect endorses the killing and butchering that go on in the subterranean space of Todd and Lovett’s shops, echoing the indifference to the Anatomy Act’s impact on the pauper that characterized the spirit of the legislation, and the lack of effective opposition to its passing. The key element underpinning community endorsement in Sweeney Todd is the hiding and tabooing of the truth. The transmission of information is carefully policed by the two murderous partners, whose business stands on a solid basis of doctored information and silence.
2 Truth, Taboos, and Dénouement: Discourse Control and Power
It could be stated that Sweeney Todd is essentially a narrative about truth: as the action unfolds, truth is concealed, ignored, and discovered, while characters and readers are made privy to different bits of truth. Most of all, truth in Sweeney Todd is unspoken: insofar as it is not stated out loud, it is invisible and intangible, even though palpably there. As Turner’s observation on the double-entendre characterizing the story suggests, language plays a crucial role in this dynamic. Todd and Lovett manage to hide the truth about their partnership for a long time through careful control of language, both their own and that of people around them. Notwithstanding their precautions, though, the whole narrative leads, unavoidably, to the final dénouement, when truth is finally spoken.
Todd and Lovett assert control firstly by preventing their interlocutors from understanding the real meaning of their statements. As with characters in Varney’s Bannerworth saga, Todd and Lovett’s interlocutors can only suspect that the two are withholding information, but lack sufficient elements to ascertain this. Todd’s speech is as maliciously ambiguous as Varney’s, although the barber lacks all the charm the vampire baronet possesses. This ambiguity surfaces in Todd’s words for the first time when the captain of the ship on which Mr. Thornhill served comes to Todd’s barber shop to inquire about the missing sailor. When asked if he has ever seen the gentleman in question, Todd answers: ‘Oh! to be sure, he came here, and I shaved him and polished him off’, at which the two exclaim: ‘What do you mean by polishing him off?’ But Todd innocently replies: ‘Brushing him up a bit, making him tidy’. 72 Like Varney, Todd is aware of his power over his victim’s friends, and enjoys exercising it. The double-entendre that characterizes the barber’s speech emerges in all its maliciousness in this exchange: as the reader well knows, the statement ‘I polished him off’ means that Todd has killed Thornhill. However, the barber easily modifies the sense of his words by deploying a slippage of meaning, in the same way Varney does to provoke Henry Bannerworth about Flora. As he speaks, Todd modifies the rules of communication based on his exclusive knowledge of the truth, of which he selects bits and pieces that are deprived of a finite meaning, disorienting the other characters and keeping control of the situation.
Mrs. Lovett uses a similar technique, as she blurs the meaning of her sentences to such an extent that she gives the impression of speaking in riddles. When Jarvis Williams, alias Mark Ingestrie, is hired as the new cook at Lovett’s, she tells him that the old cook ‘has gone to see some of his very oldest friends, who will be quite glad to see him’. 73 She adds that, should he accept the position, he must ‘live entirely upon the pies’ and ‘agree never to leave the bake house’, unless it is ‘for good’. 74 She also assures Mark that she ‘never think[s] of keeping anybody many hours after they begin to feel uncomfortable’ and that ‘everybody who relinquishes the situation, goes to his old friends, whom he has not seen in many years, perhaps’. 75 She is telling the truth, in a way: there is only one way to leave Lovett’s basement, and that is death, which comes shortly after the moment in which a cook understands the truth. Therefore, the ‘old friends’ Mrs. Lovett alludes to are the ones that await the cook in the hereafter. However, she carefully phrases her information so that what appears is that the former employees leave to go back to their families and friends.
This dynamic bears remarkable similarity to how the relationship between the Act, the institutions, and the poor worked. Mark says that he is entering Lovett’s basement out of ‘poverty and destitution’ 76 ; his situation is as desperate as were the circumstances that compelled the poor to apply to the workhouse, which, after the passing of the Anatomy Act, made them candidates for the anatomist’s slab. Moreover, Lovett’s enunciation of the contractual clauses resembles the Act notices that were hung in the workhouses: while they summarized the Act’s prescriptions, they were not explicit as to their meaning, which prevented the poor from understanding the full extent of the contract to which they were agreeing. Mark, the ‘unknown poor’, is being locked up and his name put down as a candidate for Lovett’s meat grinder without him realizing it, because while she conveys the terms of the contract she manipulates the language, and Mark is not aware of this. Somehow, however, he perceives that she is not telling the whole truth. Noticing Lovett’s cryptic phrasing, he wonders: ‘What a strange manner of talking she has! […] There seems to be some singular and hidden meaning in every word she utters’. 77 Being almost starved, Mark ignores his impressions, but his comment is a red flag for the reader: as with the reader of Varney, Sweeney Todd ’s reader gradually receives enough clues to guess the truth, which puts them in a far worse position than that of Varney’s reader. They become the unwilling accomplices of the demon-barber, as they suspect the truth but are prevented from revealing it. Eventually, Mark understands the truth, but the pastry-cook and the barber have their methods to prevent the spreading of knowledge.
To control the diffusion of truth, Todd and Lovett create taboos for the other characters. This expedient can be explained with the Foucauldian concept of ‘procedure of exclusion’, that is, a strategy the person or persons who control discourse deploy to exclude other parties from power. 78 Foucault maintains that we are aware of the taboos placed on certain topics and argues that ‘[i]t does not matter that discourse appear to be of little account, because the prohibitions that surround it very soon reveal its link with desire and with power’. 79 Conforming to this principle, the first thing Todd does as soon as Tobias enters his employment, indeed his very first action in the series, is to dictate that the boy is not to speak a word about ‘anything [he] may see, or hear, or fancy [he] see[s] or hear[s]’ in the shop, or he will ‘cut [his] throat from ear to ear’. To this, Tobias replies: ‘Yes, sir, I won’t say nothing. I wish, sir, as I may be made into veal pies at Lovett’s in Bell-yard if I as much as says a word’. 80 Unsurprisingly, the barber’s ‘huge mouth’ drops open, as he ‘look[s] at the boy for a minute or two in silence, as if he fully intend[s] swallowing him’, giving the reader a first glimpse of the truth. 81 The attempt to create a taboo for Tobias sees the boy accidentally coming dangerously close to the truth. The scene, particularly the detail of Todd’s ‘huge’ open mouth and the suggestion that he intends to eat Tobias are the very first pieces that build the narrative’s underlying discourse on cannibalism, the unspoken truth the barber strives to conceal. It is also the first clue the readers receive, which allows them to start immediately piecing together the truth. Tobias’s simple remark casts a new, sinister light on the already eerie figure of the barber, creating an uncanny connection between the pies, the barber, and cannibalistic eating as if the spoken word, by virtue of some creative power of its own, could make truth real for the listener.
Of course, the barber cannot let this happen. From this moment onwards, Todd makes sure to prevent his apprentice from uttering the truth again, no matter how unwittingly. Firstly, he reduces Tobias to silence with physical violence. Then, he blackmails him, claiming to have witnessed Tobias’s mother committing theft and threatening to report her to the police. It is noteworthy that even in this case Todd is twisting the truth: Mrs. Ragg caught him stealing from the house where she worked, and she talked him into giving back what he took and did not report him. 82 Twisting the facts gives them the sound of truth, and Todd manages to seal Tobias’s lips. ‘You may think what you like, Tobias Ragg, but you shall only say what I like’, he states, and Tobias exclaims: ‘I will say nothing—I will think nothing’. 83 He is true to his word. When the captain and the Colonel, Thornhill’s friends, interrogate the boy, all they get from him is: ‘I know nothing, I think nothing’, and ‘I cannot tell, I know nothing’, a frightened ‘Nothing! nothing! nothing!’ and a final ‘I have nothing to say […] I have nothing to say’. 84 Todd has successfully managed to assert control over Tobias: the boy’s tongue is bound, his speech is completely annihilated, and he is deprived of volition. The meaning of his own language starts slipping: he claims he ‘cannot tell’, which means both that he does not know, which is a lie, and that he is not allowed to tell, which is the truth he cannot utter. Deprived of speech, Tobias is utterly powerless. Finally, however, when the awareness that Todd is a murderer becomes too heavy a burden for him, he resolves to tell the police. Then, Todd takes the ultimate step towards silencing him beyond recall: he shuts Tobias in a madhouse, a place where truth, however loudly it is screamed, is never believed.
Confinement, as well as exclusion from knowledge, is the technique Todd and Lovett adopt with Mark Ingestrie as well. Being the cook, he is the person who lives the closest to the truth; therefore, Lovett and Todd’s policy prescribes his confinement to the basement, where he is doomed to die, eventually. Although he is a prisoner from the moment he sets foot in the cellar, he is not aware of his situation. Only when he becomes restless does he receive a note that officially informs him of his prisoner status, and the moment Mark is told he is a prisoner, he knows it. Again, it is the power of the actual words, though in written form, that makes incarceration true for him. Until then, only Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett knew his true status and deciding when to reveal it was their prerogative. Mrs. Lovett points out as much to Mark when she hires him. All will be well as long as he will be ‘industrious’, but, should he become ‘idle’, he will ‘get a piece of information which will be useful, and which, if [he is] a prudent man, will enable [him] to know what [he is] about’. 85 What Lovett disguises as an exhortation to industriousness contains a death threat that Mark cannot grasp. The ‘piece of information’ is that he is no longer master of his own destiny, and that his life is at stake unless he obeys. In a plot that works according to the synonymous nature of knowledge and power, Todd and Lovett sit right on top of the characters’ hierarchy, preceding Foucault’s theorization of the connection between knowledge and power by more than a hundred years. Their exclusive access to truth, their control over the act of turning it into spoken or written words, assert the murderous couple’s power over the other characters. Locking Tobias and Mark away, Todd and Lovett turn them into a lunatic and a prisoner respectively, a change of status which is consistent with Foucault’s theory that truth belongs to the outcast of society.
Similar techniques of discourse control and exclusion marked the passing of the Act, and can be summarized in John Abernethy’s statement that ‘the Act is uninjurious if unknown’. 86 An exemplary instance of how these strategies were deployed is the ‘Nattomy Soup’ case. 87 In May 1829, a new inmate of St Paul’s workhouse, in Shadwell, managed to sneak in a newspaper reporting parliamentary discussion of the Anatomy Bill. He read it to the other inmates, who grew alarmed; then, at mealtime, he voiced his ‘suspicion’ that the soup might contain ‘human as well as animal remains’. 88 The troublesome inmate was sentenced to a House of Correction, which punishment, Richardson underscores, was administered, not on the basis of the accusations he made against the Anatomy Bill, but because he distressed the other inmates and made false claims about ‘the workhouse broth’. 89 In short, the court never even mentioned the Anatomy Act. As with Tobias and Mark in Sweeney Todd, the troublesome inmate who disturbed the status quo, alerting the other inmates to frightful possibilities and challenging the system by making uncomfortable statements, was isolated, while the topic of anatomy was ignored. In pre-Act England, as in Todd and Lovett’s London, the topics of human dismemberment and cannibalism were taboo.
The taboos Todd and Lovett create highlight the most conspicuous feature of truth in Sweeney Todd, which is its being unspoken. A feeling that truth simply cannot be uttered marks passages in the plot in which characters blatantly ignore the truth, even when this is, quite literally, under everybody’s nose. This is most evident in the episode titled ‘The Strange Odour in Old St Dunstan’s Church’. St. Dunstan’s congregation is peculiarly ‘pious’, a word repeated several times in the episode, and which clashes with the hypocritical behaviour of the members. As a ‘strange and most abominable odour’ 90 slowly but steadily fills the church, people complain and protect their noses with a variety of aromatic contrivances, but otherwise remain peculiarly inactive. While they ‘generally agre[e]’ that the stench ‘must come […] out from the vaults beneath the church’, the problem does not ‘acced[e] any reply’. 91 The ‘pious and hypocritical Mr Batterwick’ reasonably argues that ‘the present books’ ‘satisfactorily prov[e]’ that no one has been buried in the vault of late, and therefore he excludes that ‘dead people, after leaving off smelling and being disagreeable, should all of a sudden burst out again in that line, and be twice as bad as ever they were at first’. 92 Of course, official records can shed no light on the actual problem: the smell arises from the bodies of Sweeney Todd’s victims, which the barber discarded in the vaults under St. Dunstan’s. Mr. Batterwick’s insistence on the official records mocks the want of firmness on the part of London’s authorities—be they governmental or parish authorities—in similar circumstances: as there are no official records of recent burials, nor there is an official reason that should prompt an inspection of the vaults. The narrator explicitly criticizes this dynamic, stating that the problem of St. Dunstan’s smell ‘began to excite some attention’ only after several months, because ‘in the great city of London, a nuisance of any description requires to become venerable by age before anyone thinks of removing it; and, after that, it is quite clear that that becomes a good argument against removing it at all’. 93
relieve themselves with a pork or a veal pie, in order that their mouths and noses should be full of a delightful and agreeable flavour, instead of one most peculi-arly and decidedly the reverse. 97
While the upper floor of Enon Chapel was used for masses, its vault was used as a burial place and, as the fictional St. Dunstan’s, emanated a noxious smell. The minister who managed the chapel speculated over burial fees, crowding into the limited space a quantity of coffins far exceeding its capacity. He would remove old (and not very old) bodies to make room for fresh ones, employing cartmen to dismember the remains and move them or flush them away through a sewer that conveniently ran under the vault. Perhaps later he decided he could dispense with the services of the cartmen, as he took to removing the remains himself and burying them under his kitchen, which communicated with the vault through a door. In August 1844, the new owner of the house decided to lower the kitchen floor, as the ceiling of that room was strangely low. The man employed to do the job had a nasty surprise, finding under the upturned flagstones the bones of Enon Chapel’s dead. After several Sundays of work, he gave up, finding ‘the less destructible portions of this army of dead, although passive in their resistance, “beyond his management”’, and the bubble of silence around Enon Chapel finally exploded. 100 Dr. George Walker devoted a considerable part of his campaign against intra-mural burial to denounce Enon Chapel. He widely discussed it in his report The Grave Yards of London (henceforth Grave Yards), which he presented before the House of Commons, published in 1841, and he addressed it repeatedly in his later writings. In Second of a Series of Lectures, which contains a summary of Walker’s work on Enon Chapel, he wrote that the ‘lower part, kitchen, cellar, or “DUST HOLE”’ was ‘devoted to the dismemberment and desecration of the dead’. 101 Mr. Burn, the master cartman, bore witness to the offensive state of the chapel and the freshness of some of the bodies he removed. He also declared himself certain that the sewer was regularly used to dispose of the bodies. 102 Whittaker, an undertaker who appeared before a Select Committee, also vouched for the freshness of the bodies removed from Enon Chapel, and he also testified to the use of quick-lime on the bodies to accelerate decomposition. 103 A cabinet maker named Pitts insisted on the dreadful smell of the place, especially over summer, when it became strong enough to provoke headaches. 104 It took sixteen years for the case to be discussed, which confirms Sweeney Todd’s narrator’s observation that nuisances in London became ‘venerable by age’ before anyone addressed them, especially if they concerned poor neighbourhoods.
Mismanagement of burial grounds reserved for the poor was widespread: an article from 1846 titled ‘Desecration of the Dead’ reported the case of the overcrowded burial ground behind St. Giles’s workhouse, which was unearthed during the works to enlarge the building. The scene was similar to that Enon Chapel presented: bodies in all stages of decomposition were unearthed, some pits containing as many as ‘14 [coffins]’. The coffins and their ‘ghastly occupants’ could ‘be traced within 13 or 14 inches from the surface’, and the reporter expressed his concern about the ‘fearful results to the sanitary condition of so densely crowded a neighbourhood [that] will follow the opening of the loathsome pit now exposed to view’. 105
The exasperated proximity to death and the dead that characterized the mid-Victorian city did not impact on all classes equally, and poor people’s bodies were disposed of differently than the ones of the members of the middle and upper class. Almost every church in the city of London had its own (severely overcrowded) burial ground, 106 which made the sight and smell of the dead commonplace. When new bodies were to be accommodated, the coffins of the poor were disinterred, the corpses broken with a spade and shovelled in a hole dug nearby. Anything that could be recycled, such as the nails, was resold, while the chopped coffins would be used as fire wood. 107 The denizens of poor neighbourhoods were more exposed to the sights and smells of death, and the dwellings surrounding the overcrowded cemeteries were unprotected against pollution from the decomposing matter that saturated the ground. The inferior standards of care that were reserved for the tombs of the poor emerge in the ‘St Dunstan’s’ episode, which shows that the perception of the very real problem of cemetery overcrowding, and its characteristic smell of decay, decreased as the individual’s spatial and social distance from poverty increased.
Considering the absence of the figure of the surgeon, which connects truth to sight, and considering the primeval nature of cannibalism, which constitutes the chief discourse in the narrative, it is unsurprising that smell should be the litmus test of truth in Sweeney Todd. Smell was a powerful component of Victorian London life, and it influenced its literature. Analysing smell descriptions in novels from the 1860s, Janice Carlisle argues that, not only were smells part of the code through which Victorians constructed class, but also that Victorians, preceding twentieth-century scientific studies on smell, ‘accepted as common sense’ the fact that smell had ‘less to do with thought than with feelings’. 108 They inferred its ‘inescapable materiality’, de facto sanctioning its condition as a lowlier sense than sight (the sense of the medical man) and hearing. 109 She also observes that the ‘stench of the poor’, a mixture of ‘disease and death’, typical of 1840s novels, all but disappears in 1860s novels, which fact she connects to the mid-nineteenth-century process of sanitation and its attempts to ‘sanitize and deodorize public and private life’. 110 Indeed, Flanders notes that by mid-century, the destitute had turned into an ‘alien race’, 111 and were progressively isolated in circumscribed neighbourhoods that were constantly subjected to works of ‘improvement’ and ‘ventilation’, that is, they were destroyed to build rich ones. 112 The euphemistic term ‘ventilation’ is particularly meaningful, considering that the poor neighbourhoods were the places that produced the actual stinks: the powerful slaughterhouse stench, 113 the reek of pigs kept in the house, 114 and the nauseous odour of unmaintained privies, 115 were typical slum smells, as well as the ghastly stench of overcrowd ed cemeteries. Furthermore, as Stephen Halliday notes, according to the miasmatic theory of contagion that prevailed for the best part of the nineteenth century, ‘disease was caused by inhaling air that was infected through exposure to corrupting matter’. 116 The conception of poor neighbourhoods as unsanitary spaces extended to the very air that could be breathed within their boundaries. 117 The ‘great unwashed’ were perceived as a group naturally characterized by stink, which was also considered the chief channel of contagion, and were consequently isolated and subjected to the moral judgement of the middle and upper classes. Therefore, it is unsurprising to hear St. Dunstan’s ‘pious congregation’ expressing concern about the smell of death and decay impregnating their church: the smell of poverty par excellence had moved to their respectable parish, curtailing their spatial and social distance from the poor. Their refusal to acknowledge the presence of something as unrespectable as stink underscores their hypocrisy, and their unresponsiveness to the powerful, but ‘lowlier’, stimuli that reach their noses allows the murderous Todd-Lovett partnership to operate undisturbed in their neighbourhood. Furthermore, by failing to acknowledge the truth their instinctive olfactory response to the stench suggests them they get involved, though unwittingly, in the crime perpetrated. Their attempts to protect their social status by ignoring, that is, not speaking about, the smell of death and decay in their church aggravate the problem; it is only when the smell is brought into the powerful world of the spoken word that truth finally emerges.
The isolation to which the Victorian poor were subjected, and the moral judgement that accompanied this isolation, facilitated the passing of the Anatomy Act and its sanctioning of the connection between dying in poverty and dissection. The very expression that indicated the eligible bodies in the Act, ‘unclaimed’, implies distance, separation. Anonymity made it easier for the middle and upper class to relinquish any sense of responsibility for the exploitation of the bodies of the pauper, which on paper was devoted to the higher purpose of the common good, but in reality implemented a service that only benefited the wealthy. The pious St. Dunstan’s parishioners complain about the awful smell of decay, though not taking any concrete action about it, and then rush to Lovett’s in Bell Yard to feast upon the pies produced with the same matter rotting under their church. Likewise, the middle and upper class alienated the ‘great unwashed’ and the unappealing smell of their bodies, houses, and neighbourhoods; yet, quite ironically, the same bodies that could not be touched in life were to be touched in death by the apprentice surgeons perfecting their skills in view of exercising them on the patients who could pay for the service.
Ladies and Gentlemen – I fear that what I am going to say will spoil your appetites; but the truth is beautiful at all times, and I have to state that Mrs Lovett’s pies are made of human flesh! 118
In this crucial dénouement, the pies are finally made of something. Nobody questions the authority of this ragged stranger accusing the best pie-maker in London of unspeakable crimes. He speaks the words and, as in the case of the bishop, the word is all-powerful: once uttered, it alters reality, and the ghastly flesh-pies become real. All of Lovett’s customers feel sick simultaneously and spit the ‘clinging’ portions of the pies. 119 Only afterwards does the policeman who is there to arrest Mrs. Lovett corroborate Mark’s statement.
Such a spectacular conclusion fits very well the sensational style of the penny blood genre: a man secretly kept captive, gory deeds, ghastly poisonous food, all combine to create the perfect ending to the Sweeney Todd series. The marriage of Mark and Johanna is the comforting happy ending that Crone identifies as typical of penny bloods. 120 Yet, I would see Mark’s statement that ‘the truth is beautiful at all times’ as the narrative’s attempt to go beyond the comforting ending, indeed as an attempt to leave readers a prompt for reflection, as an aftertaste, on the importance of knowing the truth. As the troublesome inmate of Shadwell’s workhouse believed, knowing the truth, no matter how unsavoury, is crucial to be able to act in one’s own best interest, in order not to participate in an involuntary act of cannibalism, neither as the eater, nor as the food.
Throughout the narrative, truth consistently ‘emerges’, that is, rises from below the ground. The space below the pavement of Bell Yard, St. Dunstan’s, and Fleet Street is where the truth is hidden, the place from which it tries to escape. Truth in Sweeney Todd inhabits the underground, conforming to the urban configuration of the Victorian city: London’s subterranean space was deeply rooted in the mind of its population as the space of darkness, monsters, fear, and truth.
3 The Dreadful Fall: Death and Survival in the Subterranean Space
Contemporary novelist Neil Gaiman observed that, although the details of the different versions of the story of the demon barber change, each version is invariably ‘very location specific’. 121 Mack expanded on Gaiman’s comment, noting that the narrative displays an obsession with the ‘exceptionally heightened and narrow representation’ of London’s space. 122 All versions and adaptations of the Sweeney Todd story consistently limit the action to an area of Fleet Street that encompasses ‘Temple Bar, St Dunstan’s, Bell Yard, and the Precincts of the Inner Temple to Temple Stairs on the river’, and stretches ‘along Fleet Street from just beyond Chancery Lane in the west, to Fetter Lane in the east’, a degree of geographical precision, Mack observes, that increased the impression of realism in the story. 123 He also notes that Fleet Street was a peculiar spot in the Victorian city: it was the beating heart of the press business and city gossip, was placed in a strategic geographical position where the ships coming up the Thames and the City met, and the ‘labyrinthine series of courtyards and alleyways that spread […] around it’ promoted the encounter of people from very different social backgrounds to a degree that was not to be found in other areas of the city. 124 Moreover, this geographical and social intersection had its own market and prison, 125 and was not very far from the infamous Smithfield Market, with the adjacent St Bartholomew’s Hospital, as well as from Enon Chapel, as we have seen.
We can better understand how Sweeney Todd’s steep, circumscribed geography relates to London’s geospace, and consequently better navigate it, by considering David L. Pike’s theorization of a ‘vertical model’ for representing the landscape of the Victorian city. 126 Pike notes the impact of the increasing social and spatial distance between classes on the separation strategies adopted to face the logistic and sanitary challenges posed by the confluence of individuals from different social backgrounds in the space of the metropolis; the result was a new ‘vertically divided space’ that came to define the shape of the urban space. 127 In this new model, ‘the underground’ came to be identified with concepts related to non-visible spaces, which in London concretized in a ‘discourse’ on the ‘disposal of waste’. 128 Within this discourse, anything that was perceived as refusal was ‘flush[ed] out of sight’, including any remains of ‘precapitalist social structures’, which, Pike contends, instead of being effaced, were empowered by their new outcast condition, both ‘as allure and as threat’. 129 While he explains this process partially by embracing Stallybrass and White’s psychoanalytic model that reads the subterranean space as society’s ‘unconscious’ and the ‘locus of truth’, Pike emphasizes that the new vertical structure must not be understood as solely related to the middle class. 130 Any understanding of the nineteenth-century conception of the subterranean space must account, he argues, for two elements: firstly, the ‘mythic component of the descent to the underworld in search of truth’, and secondly, the lower echelons of society, who experienced filth in a counterintuitive way, forever torn between aspiration to ‘middle-class respectability’ and ‘underground criminality’, and who likewise contributed to the ‘production of the nineteenth-century city’. 131 In the 1960s, Gaston Bachelard used a similar approach in his vertical model of ‘psychological space’, represented as a house that polarly opposes the ‘rational’ space of the attic to the ‘irrational’ space of the cellar. 132 In Bachelard’s model, cellars are the spaces where unsightly sights are chased—the ‘buried madness’ whose ‘marks […] we prefer not to deepen’. 133 These subterranean spaces are also extremely active: underground, ‘secrets are pondered, projects are prepared’ and ‘action gets under way’. Bachelard views the cellar as peopled with its own darker, mysterious inhabitants and, like Pike, he contemplates a descent of our unconscious in its depth, so that we can explore it ‘with a lighted candle’ and confront its terrors. 134 By applying Pike’s and Bachelard’s readings to Sweeney Todd’s glaringly subterranean world of cannibalism and dark forces, this emerges as a space in which working-class readers could confront their anxiety about annihilation in a savage underground world, and vicariously concretize (through the characters) their aspiration to emerge from such space empowered by the awareness of their position and the capability of changing it. While in Varney and Manuscripts the movement between subterranean and surface spaces occurs chiefly upwards, the eminently downward movement of the precipitous fall through the trapdoor in the barber shop characterizes Sweeney Todd. This is suddenly overturned by Mark’s final, triumphant ascent, through which the reader achieves catharsis. To understand this relationship between subterranean and surface space in Sweeney Todd, it is first necessary to consider the geospace of the Victorian city itself and the city dweller’s perception of it.
Boundaries between above and below were constantly disrupted in nineteenth-century London. The overcrowd ed cemeteries spilled the content of the graves on the surface, and what did not resurface sometimes leaked through the cemetery walls in the form of liquid decaying matter. 135 Public works contributed to fuel anxieties about this uncanny inversion in the urban space. Wise notes that the ‘Metropolitan Improvements’ of the 1840s uncovered the eerie hidden roots of the city, increasing the Londoner’s ‘urban paranoia about subterranean spaces’. 136 This concern pivoted on the popular image of the innocent person, possibly new in town, disappearing in the subterranean world, in which the burgeoning city is pictured as a monster that swallows up newcomers as if absorbing them through the ground. If the dead resurfaced from their tombs, after all, why could not the living take their place under the earth? Sweeney Todd’s customers, disappearing through the trapdoor on which the barber’s chair is mounted, reiterated this type of anxiety. The trap-door chair fits naturally in an urban landscape that popular lore represented as a place where ‘the pathways on the streets [were] full of trap doors which dropd [sic] down as soon as pressd [sic] with the feet and sprung in their places after the unfortunate countryman had fallen into the deep hole […]’. 137 The poet John Clare, new to London, believed this murky portrait of the city his artist friend Rippingille pictured for him, and behaved accordingly. He kept ‘a constant look out’, imagining every woman on the street to be a prostitute ready to lure him ‘into a fine house were [sic] I should never be seen agen’. 138 This must have been wonderfully entertaining for Rippingille, who, Wise suggests, was probably enjoying teasing his friend. 139 Yet, it is noteworthy that his joke specifically framed the underground space as threatening and voracious.
As Mack notes, Dickens, the narrator of Victorian London par excellence, makes a similar representation. 140 As soon as Tom arrives in London in Martin Chuzzlewit , he wishes ‘to have those streets pointed to him which were appropriated to the slaughter of countrymen’. 141 Later, when he realizes that he is late for an appointment, he is sure that his friend will think that he has ‘strayed into one of those streets where the countrymen are murdered, and that [he has] been made meat pies of’. 142 The narrator, however, reassures the reader that ‘Tom’s evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalistic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis’. 143 Although it is tempting to read in these lines proof of the demon barber’s existence, 144 Mack suggests that they rather attest to the fact that the conflation of the burgeoning and ‘rapacious’ urban space with fears about annihilation of one’s individuality were a substantial component of the 1840s ‘urban zeitgeist’. 145 Notably, the fears that according to Mack underpinned the Londoners’ relationship with the underground space also included disappearance through ingestion. 146 Rippingille informed Clare that after falling into the trapdoor, the countryman ‘woud be robd and murderd [sic] and thrown into boiling cauldrons kept continualy [sic] boiling for that purpose and his bones sold to the docters’. 147 In this very detailed explanation surface the anxieties about subterranean space, cannibalism, and medicine that the city’s geospace generated, and which emerge forcefully in the narrative space of Sweeney Todd’s London.
but lightly […] in fact, he seems to have but little on him except a shirt and a pair of loose canvas trousers. The sleeves of the former are turned up beyond his elbows, and on his head he has a white night cap. 148
[i]s it possible that even in the very heart of London I am a prisoner, and without the means of resisting the most frightful threats that are uttered against me? 152
Apparently, it was. In 1842, four years before the first episode of Sweeney Todd was issued, a Select Committee heard the witness of a workhouse inmate who was unjustly committed to forty-eight-hour imprisonment in a windowless cell, or ‘Black-hole’, together with five more people. 153 It was August, and the temperature soon grew unbearably hot; when the prisoners complained, the workhouse staff nailed their air hole shut. 154 Such stories fuelled anxieties about anonymity and disappearance in the urban space of the city, where it appeared that the sheer numbers of the population prevented anyone noticing—or caring—if someone disappeared. Surgeon George Guthrie capitalized upon this point in his 1829 open letter to the Home Secretary, in which he protested the allegation that anatomist s were secretive about dissecting-room proceedings. He wrote that the doors of ‘every dissecting room in London [were] always open’ to the public, but that laypeople did not concern themselves about ‘what [was] going on’: ‘in London’, he stated, ‘[…] no one knows or cares what is going on, unless he is interested in it’. 155 Although Guthrie’s claim about the openness, practical and metaphorical, of London’s dissection rooms is debatable, as Wise notes, 156 his statements confirm the idea of a burgeoning urban population generally indifferent to what did not concern them personally. Guthrie was right only in part: the existence of cautionary tales indicates that at least a portion of the population may not have been entirely unreceptive, or unconcerned, about what went on in the city’s underground space.
Rippingille specifies that one who fell underground would have his bones boiled and ‘sold to the docters’. The meat and the pies, and consequently the dead cook in Lovett’s basement, stemmed from the idea that had developed in the popular mind during the first decades of the nineteenth century according to which ‘the notion of boiling, cooking and consuming had become intermingled with the notion of dissection and anatomy’. 157 In this respect, Wise brings in example the case of Caroline Walsh, an elderly woman who accepted the invitation of a neighbouring couple, Eliza Ross and Edward Cook, to occupy a bedroom in their house. Cook was known to be a resurrectionist, and Walsh’s granddaughter, Anne Buton, warned her against accepting the invitation: ‘If you go to stay at the Cooks, they’ll cook you!’. 158 Soon after she moved in with the Cooks, Walsh disappeared. Buton then started searching for her grandmother and the newspapers took interest in her case, alleging that her grandmother had been ‘burked for the base object of selling her body for anatomical purposes’. 159 Twelve days before the ‘Italian Boy’ case exploded, Eliza Ross was arrested and charged with murder. Her twelve-year-old son stated that his mother had single-handedly smothered the old woman, put her in a sack, and sold her to the London Hospital in Whitechapel. Ross was found guilty of murder and hanged. 160
one room [in which there] were the operators, and in another room a sort of back kitchen with a water pipe and sink, where the bodies were washed. In this sink there was generally a body lying, and the water running upon it. 164
The bodies, usually ‘a dozen’, had been ‘stolen from churchyards or bought on the sly’, and alongside them were ‘a number of amputated limbs, such as heads, arms & legs, &c. in various stages of scientific preparation [sic]’. 165 As is to be expected, the student was ‘always glad when [he] got at the top of the ladder’. 166 This description contains all the elements that appear both in Rippingille’s mocking cautionary tale and in Sweeney Todd. There is an underground environment, a trap door, and mutilated dead bodies lying in a kitchen, which compose a frightful museum of horrors that seemed to have been conjured out of a nightmare. Moreover, as discussed above, laypeople associated anatomy and dissection with butchery, and butchery, for practical reasons, was partially performed below the ground of the Victorian city, as was dissection.
Discussing the controversial space of Smithfield Market, Wise highlights the show of bloodshed that characterized the spot, as well as the habit of keeping (and butchering) cattle underground. 167 Flanders observes that Clare Market, though small compared to others, hosted twenty-six butchers, who slaughtered several hundred animals each week both above and below the market’s ground; next to butchers, there may be a tripe boiler. 168 Boiling was also part of the activities of knackers’ yards, where old or diseased horses were killed and butchered to produce cat food. 169 The process of boiling, therefore, was associated with butchery and medicine alike, making the step from anatomy to butchering-boiling-cooking and, henceforth, consuming a short one. Additionally, the secrecy the medical fraternity insisted on keeping about their practices reinforced the idea that something awfully wrong went on in dissection rooms. Butchery and dissection thus fuelled the Londoner’s anxieties about the underground, turning it into a space where a good person may disappear to be hacked into pieces and used as an anatomical subject by fiendish doctors and medical students. The dark subterranean space of Sweeney Todd hypostasized this self-sustaining set of fears.
The basement of Lovett’s pie shop communicates with Todd’s basement and with St. Dunstan’s vaults. This maze of connected subterranean spaces tapped into the Victorian paranoia that pictured the subterranean space of the city as a labyrinth of tunnels used by criminals to move unseen through the urban space. Wise observes that the London burkers’ cottages in Nova Scotia Gardens, later known as ‘burkers’ hole’, were rumoured to be connected to one another through a tunnel. 170 Discussing the dramatic potential of the ‘irrational’ space of the cellar, Bachelard notes how its walls ‘are buried walls […] that have the entire earth behind them’. 171 The cellar is a buried/burial place and finding oneself in this space means being at one removal from being entombed alive. The increase of fear this situation triggers allows to imagine horrors in the cellar’s depths. 172 Bishop and Williams’ cottages therefore become ‘cellar-spaces’, or ‘holes’, which the collective imagination pictures as a subterranean maze through which the murderers, immediately relegated to the depths of the underworld, can be imagined moving and committing their crimes. This operation simultaneously casts these crimes into the imagined depths of the city, out of sight. Bachelard also notes how representations of underground mazes, especially when the location is a city, reflect fantasies of ‘dominating in depth the surrounding cellars’. 173 I would venture that Sweeney Todd mingles this concept with the Victorian tendency, noted by Pike, to remove the repulsive-fascinating ‘filth’ produced by the creation of the new social order to a subterranean space that was both geographical and metaphorical. 174 Sweeney Todd ’s subterranean labyrinth reflects the equally labyrinthine space above the ground in a way that allowed the reader to project into the imagined space terrors imagined in the geospace of the city. Dissection rooms were brick-and-mortar locations in the urban landscape, although the crossing of their threshold was, not only tacitly forbidden, but also undesirable. Accounts such as the one the art student gave to the Penny Satirist pictured the space of the dissection room as the stuff of nightmares, and cases such as that of Catherine Walsh and the ‘Italian Boy’ fuelled a grim picture that became part of the city’s collective memory. The ‘nattomy soup’ case conveys the terror the perspective of dissection raised and the fear of cannibalism it generated. The story of the demon barber, which is one of annihilation through mutilation and ingestion, includes both the trauma and the recovery from it.
In the basement, the victims of Todd’s trap-door-chair are butchered, and their bodies are cut into lumps and steaks. The human flesh is undistinguishable from animal meat, and Mark exclaims: ‘I never could tell the pork from the veal myself, for they seem to me both alike’. 175 When asked about the source of the meat, Mrs. Lovett answers: ‘that is no business of yours’. 176 Something’s, or someone’s provenance is irrelevant below the ground: butchery effaces individual identity, exactly as dissection turned the individual’s body into an anonymous subject, a piece of meat on the dissecting table. After being cut, the human flesh is cooked in Lovett’s pie factory ‘beneath the pavement of Bell-yard’, where ‘gleaming lights seem to be peeping out from furnaces’, and a ‘strange, hissing, simmering sound’ hints at the cooking of pies (or perhaps at unseen horrors whispering in the dark), as a ‘rich and savoury vapour’ impregnates the air. 177 Although fire, and not water, is the core element of this hellish representation, the markedly underground location, and the ‘kitchen’ connotation of the environment connects this space to the one the art student described for the Penny Satirist. Furthermore, Lovett’s customers both relish the pies for their rich flavour, and attribute to them healing powers. One asserts that, since his stomach is upset from overeating, he will have a pie ‘to settle’ it, 178 while another considers them a good omen for the birth of his child. His pregnant wife ‘won’t fancy anything but one of Lovett’s veal pies […] to have the child marked as a pie’. 179 This detail was likely meant to shock the reader, who could guess the truth by now and understand that the pregnant woman, and therefore her child, have developed a craving for human flesh. The narrative is suggesting, not only that a new cannibalistic society is developing, but also, and more subtly, that the eater attributes healing properties to the act of cannibalism. Mutilated bodies can cure those who can access the cure they produce. This was a tangible reality in the context of the 1840s, in which the Anatomy Act and its aftermath attested to a recent past of burking, resurrectionism, and (still technically active) body traffic. Specifically, as the ‘nattomy soup’ incident demonstrates, 180 Sweeney Todd ’s working-class readers imagined themselves more as potential mutilated bodies, than consumers of the cure.
The circumscription of the action to a limited space that precisely matches the geospace of the city allowed the removal of the fear of the subterranean space to an imagined underground in which horrors can happen. The high degree of geographical precision keeps the reader simultaneously safely distant and dangerously close to the action, to the mechanical chair, to the meat cleaver and the grinder, allowing them to imagine themselves as both the pie and the eater. At the same time, when Mark Ingestrie leaves the claustrophobic, suffocating subterranean space through the windlass, the reader can participate in his freedom, which is both verbal and spatial. Mark’s spectacular apparition, theatrically springing up and sending pies flying all around, reminds one of the theatrical device of the diabolus ex-machina and contributes to the staged feeling pervading the whole plot, which perhaps favoured its swift adaptation into a theatrical performance. However, Mark is no demon: as Varney, he is a revenant that emerges from the underground world of death and mutilation to haunt the living with the truth. Mark’s presence in the world above the ground after his journey in the subterranean world is disruptive, but the narrative also presents it as necessary. Pike argues that the underground can be defined a ‘spatial heuristic’ where are relegated the unspeakable, ‘unpalatable’ truths that do not fit in the rational organization and discourses of the world above; the ‘vertical framework’ thus formed makes the truth visible, but it does not make it real, so that any mysteries that may emerge can be solved ‘only in underground commonplaces of plot, never in aboveground apportionment of responsibility’. 181 The conclusion of Sweeney Todd disrupts this vertical scaffolding; Mark’s upwards movement through the windlass challenges the downwards look, the one-way gaze from the ‘mainstream ideology’ viewpoint that Pike identifies as the weakness of the vertical structure. 182 Truth leaves the subterranean world, allowing the literally unpalatable truth of cannibalism to meet the rationality of the world above and be solved. To an extent, it is certainly true that, as Crone argues, penny bloods tended to console their readership with the belief in the existence of a ‘larger moral order’, rather than inciting them to revolution. 183 Nevertheless, I would argue that the catharsis Mark’s escape provided may have been meant to alert the readers about the possibility of saving themselves from the cannibalistic dungeon by seeking and learning the truth about their position in the vertical social space.
Todd and Lovett hypostasize a set of fears deeply rooted in the English cultural heritage as well as inherent to the specific historical-geographical context of the Victorian metropolis. As monstrous bodies that draw from the mythical-folkloric figures of the devil and the witch, they synthetize anxieties related to the threat the new order of the industrial era posed to the physical body and the intellectual and spatial freedom of the lower-class individual. The loose physicality of the demon-barber can therefore be read as the physical manifestation of Victorian society’s monstrous self: as Frankenstein’s Monster is composed of different parts of decomposing bodies, so Sweeney Todd is an assemblage of all the ideas, philosophies, and people that mainstream society discarded in the process enacted by the industrial revolution. Todd’s ability to move through the underground and the surface and to put the two worlds in connection, trapping and killing the unaware underground, represent the monstrosity of the system in place: through his huge mouth, Todd assimilates people gone astray, whose absence will not be noticed, and who represent everything that mainstream society (i.e. the middle- and upper-class) find encumbering. Todd and Lovett’s narrative bespeaks the dread of annihilation through mutilation and ingestion that certainly stemmed, as Powell, Crone, and Mack note, from the exploitation to which the industrial economy subjected the bodies of the workers. I would argue, however, that it also originated in the threat that dissection, in the sense of breaking the body in its distinct parts, posed to the paupers’ bodies both before and after the Anatomy Act.
Sweeney Todd , a post-Act popular narrative, appears in a context in which law itself ratified such physical threat, concretizing concerns related to seizing and controlling power. The narrative embraces this topic through the sensational elements of mutilation and unwitting cannibalism, discussing issues of discourse and power within the safe space of the fictional narrative. Furthermore, anxieties of annihilation and body consumption related to the monstrous new urban space produced within the city’s geospace an imagined, equally monstrous underground. The narrative space of Sweeney Todd safely removed the experience of mutilation and annihilation to the imagined underground, while simultaneously bringing it closer to the reader through the detailed replication of the city’s geospace. I would venture, therefore, that the Sweeney Todd narrative, while invading the urban geospace and becoming the glaringly ‘London’ story Mack and others celebrates, constructed a relatively safe space where the reader could enact and face unspoken terrors, and where taboo topics such as the use of the bodies of the pauper under the Anatomy Act could be tackled.
Although, as Mack observes, not many nineteenth-century narratives can match Sweeney Todd’s geographical precision, 184 G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London certainly shows an equal degree of obsession, not only for the accurate representation of the Victorian city’s geospace, but also for the representation of a labyrinthine and threatening underground world of trapdoors and tunnels to match the maze of the grim London slums. In the next chapter, I will explore the world of Mysteries, a narrative as rambling as the convoluted streets where middle-class characters lose themselves and meet a monster that almost matches Sweeney Todd’s malicious cunning. Perhaps thanks to his trade, which makes him as much a part of the world of the living as of that of the dead, Anthony Tidkins, the Resurrection Man, is as dangerous above the ground as he is below it.
For an analysis of the debate, see Robert L. Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd—The Life and Times of an Urban Legend (London: Continuum, 2007), 145–48.
Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians—Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), 170.
Sally Powell, ‘Black Markets and Cadaverous Pies: The Corpse, Urban Trade and Industrial Consumption in the Penny Blood,’ in Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation, ed. Andrew Maunder and Grace Moore (London: Hashgate, 2004), 45–46; Crone, Violent Victorians, 189; Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 41–43.
In ibid., 159–61, and ibid., 170–72, Mack lists, besides the story of Sawney Bean, a few similar narratives from France and even from Italy among the possible antecedents of the London story. The most famous French version, which appeared in the monthly magazine The Tell-Tale in 1824, was set in Paris and related the murderous partnership between a barber and pastry-cook. It included also the detail of the dog, which in Sweeney Todd belongs to Mr. Thornhill and puts his friends on the barber’s trail. The Italian version, instead, was recorded in Anthony Pasquin’s Life of the Late Earl of Barrymore, 1793. In this version, a murderous pastry-cook in Venice makes pies out of children, dropping their bodies in his cellar through a trapdoor.
Edward Sackville Turner, Boys Will Be Boys—The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton et al., 3rd ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 42. Turner’s emphasis.
Jonathan Swift, Selections from the Journal to Stella, A Tale of a Tub, Personal Letters and Gulliver’s Travels; Together with The Drapier’s Letters, I; Sleeping in Church; A Modest Proposal (New York: Doubleday, 1902), 113.
See Elizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine—English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 28.
See Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 262–73.
James Malcolm Rymer, Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, ed. Robert L. Mack (London: Oxford University Press, 2007), 4.
Anna Gasperini, ‘Anatomy of the Demons—The Demoniac Body Dealers of the Penny Bloods,’ Journal of Supernatural Studies 2, no. 2 (n.d.): 136.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. Marilyn Butler, 2008th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1831), 56.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 4.
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, 1994th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, n.d.), 22.
Dickens, Oliver Twist, 53.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 12.
Gasperini, ‘Anatomy of the Demons,’ 137.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 30.
For further analysis of the language of cannibalism and desire in Sweeney Todd, see Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 25–26.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 30.
Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 126.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 278.
In Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London—The Victorian Fight Against Filth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), 116, Jackson discusses corpses explosions in nineteenth-century cemeteries, explaining that ‘sextons and undertakers’ usually ‘“[tapped]” coffins in church vaults, drilling a hole to prevent them breaking open with explosive force’.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 142.
Gasperini, ‘Anatomy of the Demons,’ 140.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 163.
Ibid. Rymer’s italics.
Powell, ‘Black Markets and Cadaverous Pies,’ 53.
The Times issues of November 22 and 26, 1831 included two and three articles on the case respectively, while the issue of December 5 included two articles and the advertisement of Egan’s edition of the trial.
The Times issue of December 6, 1831 advertised ‘The Poor Italian Boy—A Pathetic Ballad.’ Although in Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy—Murder and Grave-Robbing in 1830s London, Pimlico 20 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 90, Wise explains that Italian boys were a common sight in London and attracted the pity of the public, considering the time frame and the proliferation of prints and images celebrating Carlo Ferrari, the Italian Boy, after his murder, I would state that, with a fair degree of certainty, the ballad advertised in the Times concerned him. See also ibid., 240–46.
‘The Murder of the Italian Boy—To-Morrow Will Be Published…,’ The Times, December 5, 1831, 4.
‘An Affair Took Place in the Public Street on Tuesday Night Week, on the Arrival of the Regulator Coach, Which Has…,’ The Times, 1831, 3.
Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 102.
‘An Affair Took Place in the Public Street on Tuesday Night,’ 3.
In ‘Police,’ The Times , February 16, 1829, 6, is reported that a man clapped some treacle on the mouth of another who was in the habit of getting him to pay for his drinks and, as his latest request was refused, called him a bodysnatcher. Later, in ‘Police,’ The Times, November 12, 1831, 4, William Burns was fined 50s. for scaring a little boy by applying a piece of tarred sack on his mouth. Burns only meant to take a small revenge against the neighbourhood urchins, who liked to torment him. He was harshly reprimanded, as he was ‘old enough to know that such practical jokes, at a time like the present, were calculated to rise the most serious alarm’. See also Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, 194.
‘On Tuesday Evening, Between 8 and 9 o’ Clock, as Charles White, a Young Lad About 13 Years of Age, Was,’ The Times, November 24, 1831, 2.
Wise, The Italian Boy, 144.
Crone, Violent Victorians, 183.
‘The Edinburgh Murders,’ The Times, January 3, 1829, 3.
Camden Pelham, The Chronicles of Crime, or: The New Newgate Calendar: Being a Series of Memoirs and Anecdotes of Notorious Characters Who Have Outraged the Law of Great Britain from the Earliest Period to the Present Time. Vol. 2 (London: Thomas Tegg, 1841), 182, https://doi.org/10.15713/ins.mmj.3.
Anon., West Port Murders; or an Authentic Account of the Atrocious Murders Committed by Burke and His Associates (Edinburgh: Thomas Ireland, Junior, 1829), 90.
Pelham, The Chronicles of Crime, or: The New Newgate Calendar, 175.
See Wise, The Italian Boy, 277.
‘Murder of Frances Pigburn, and Apprehension of Rhoda Head Alias Williams, as an Accessory,’ The Times, November 30, 1831, 3.
Wise, The Italian Boy, 276–77.
The Trial, Sentence and Confessions of Bishop , Williams and May (London: Steill, B., 1831), 191.
Lisa Rosner, The Anatomy Murders (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 24.
Powell, ‘Black Markets and Cadaverous Pies,’ 45.
Rosner, The Anatomy Murders, 254.
‘Edinburgh Murders,’ The Times, January 1829, 3.
‘The Late Horrible Murders in Edinburgh, to Obtain Subjects for Dissection,’ The Times, December 1828, 4.
Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 87.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 281.
Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine, 67.
Judith Flanders, The Victorian City—Everyday Life in Dickens ’ London (London: Atlantic Books, 2013), 207–8.
Anonymous pamphlet ‘Smithfield and the Slaughterhouse,’ 1847. Quoted in Wise, The Italian Boy, 127–28.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 24.
Michel Foucault, ‘The Order of Discourse,’ in Untying the Text—A Post-Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), 52.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 6.
J. Abernethy, The Dissector October 1827, 27. Quoted in Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, 219.
See ibid., 221–22.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 149.
Walter Thornbury and Edward Walford, Old and New London—A Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places (London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1879–85), 31.
In Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 182–84, Mack lists the episode as one of the possible historical precedents for the narrative of Sweeney Todd, and underscores that the episode was part of the ‘“Shock-Horror” literature of the period,’ ibid., 182.
George Alfred Walker, The Second of a Series of Lectures … on the Actual Conditions of the Metropolitan Graveyards (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1847), 18. In Thornbury and Walford, Old and New London, 31, Walford gives a different version of the ghastly discovery of the ‘modern Golgotha’, as something that was discovered during the construction of a new sewer under the chapel.
Walker, The Second of a Series of Lectures…, 15. Walker’s emphasis.
‘Desecration of the Dead,’ The Times, October 16, 1846, 7. Especially in pauper’s graves, and in the burial pits of workhouses and hospitals, it was common to find multiple coffins in the same pit, which contributed to exposing the corpses of the poor to the danger of being seized by resurrectionists. In the ‘Report from the Select Committee for Anatomy’ (London, 1828), 72, anonymous bodysnatcher A.B. stated that the bodies ‘of poor people buried from the workhouses’ were a favoured prize, ‘because, instead of working for one subject, you may get three or four’.
Flanders, The Victorian City, 219.
George Alfred Walker, The First of a Series of Lectures… on the Actual Conditions of the Metropolitan Graveyards (London: Longman, Brwon, Green and Longmans, 1849), 16. I will examine in greater detail Walker’s discussion of the recycling of funerary paraphernalia in Section 3 of the next chapter.
Janice Carlisle, ‘The Smell of Class: British Novels of the 1860s,’ Victorian Literature and Culture 2901, no. 1 (2001): 3–4.
Flanders, The Victorian City, 182.
See ibid., 132–33 and ibid., 138–39.
See ibid., 208.
See ibid., 206–7; Jackson, Dirty Old London, 69–70.
Stephen Halliday, ‘Death and Miasma in Victorian London: An Obstinate Belief,’ BMJ: British Medical Journal 323, no. 7327 (2001): 1469. For a detailed history of the miasmatic theory, see also Stephen Halliday, The Great Filth—The War Against Disease in Victorian England (Chalford: Sutton Publishing, 2007), 52–87.
In ibid., 64, Halliday explains that during the 1840s cholera epidemics, the German doctor Max von Pettenkofer developed the ‘Telluric’ theory of contagion according to which cholera originated from decomposing diseased bodies and faeces saturating the soil and releasing noxious miasmas. This reinforced the connection between stink and disease in the popular consciousness: members of communities visited by cholera were ‘all too familiar’ with the smell of ‘raw sewage and decaying bodies.’ Ibid.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 280. Rymer’s emphasis.
Crone, Violent Victorians, 182–83.
Quoted in Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 83.
Which were respectively relocated and demolished in 1848. See Flanders, The Victorian City, 76.
David L. Pike, Subterranean Cities—The World Beneath Paris and London 1800–1945 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005), 196.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Kindle (New York: Penguin Books, 1964), Chapter 3.
In Flanders, The Victorian City, 221, Flanders notes that such was the case in the Portugal Street cemetery.
Wise, The Italian Boy, 287–88.
John Clare, John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings, ed. Eric Robinson (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 132.
Wise, The Italian Boy, 137.
Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 148–49.
Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. P.N. Furbank (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968), 568.
Which, as Mack observes, Peter Haining did in his 1993 study. In P. Haining, Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (London: Boxtree, 1993), quoted in Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd , 149–50, Haining argued these were obvious hints to Todd’s real story and that Dickens was not more explicit out of delicacy towards those relatives of the victims who might have been among his readers. Mack, in ibid., 50, emphatically rejects these speculations, observing that their chief fallacy is that Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewitt long before the first instalment of The String of Pearls was issued.
Clare, John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings, 132.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 93.
Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, 20.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 92.
Crone, Violent Victorians, 186.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 176.
Flanders, The Victorian City, 172.
The episode, discussed by Flanders, ibid., is reported in Walker, First of a Series of Lectures, 30. The name ‘Black-hole’ may bear connection with a 1756 incident: when the ruler of Bengal captured the city of Calcutta, the Europeans who tried to defend it were imprisoned in the claustrophobic Black Hole, Calcutta’s prison for petty offenders, and about twenty of them died as a consequence of the imprisonment. See ‘Black Hole of Calcutta,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2014, http://academic.eb.com/EBchecked/topic/67952/Black-Hole-of-Calcutta.
Quoted in Wise, The Italian Boy, 175.
Quoted in ibid., 172. ‘Mysterious Disappearance’, Globe and Traveller 28 October 1831.
In ibid., 173., Wise notes a few obscure points in the case, particularly the incongruity of Ross’s son claim that his mother sold the corpse to the London Hospital. Walsh disappeared in mid-August 1831, and anatomy courses usually stopped for the summer, since the heat accelerated decomposition. Indeed, in ‘Further Examination of the Partes Charged with the Murder of Mrs. Walsh,’ The Times, November 4, 1831, 3, Doctors Luke and Hamilton from the London stated that no corpses were brought or purchased in the days indicated by the defendants, nor in the rest of the month. Moreover, the lecturing and dissecting rooms were under repair. Furthermore, in the Old Bailey Proceedings, Buton described her grandmother as healthy and strong. Walsh was therefore an old woman with no interesting deformities, a subject hardly tempting enough for a surgeon to undergo the disadvantages of performing dissection during summer.
Wise, The Italian Boy, 174–75.
‘A Dissecting Room,’ The Penny Satirist, no. 186 (1840): 1.
Quoted in Elizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine—English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 86.
Wise, The Italian Boy, 133.
Flanders, The Victorian City, 132.
Wise, The Italian Boy, 280 Wise’s analysis of the imagined labyrinthine underground space in Nova Scotia Gardens will be examined in more detail in relation to the Mysteries of London, in the next chapter.
Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Chapter 3.
Pike, Subterranean Cities, 196.
Rymer, Sweeney Todd, 174.
For further information on lower-class protest against the Anatomy Act, see Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, 219–38.
Pike, Subterranean Cities, 18.
Crone, Violent Victorians, 191.
Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd, 89.
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