The author Peter Haining has written what purports to be a true life history of Sweeny Todd, the murderous barber who has been the source of plays and stories and even an opera. The character is well embedded in popular culture and the book examines the history of his portrayal over the years – this was fascinating. The book then looks at the historical Sweeny and what might have made him a killer, how exactly he undertook his crimes and what happened to him.
I was happily reading about the childhood of the murderer and how he developed the partnership with the woman who turned the corpses into pies when I realised that the author had written this book without footnotes – most factual books are littered with footnotes that show you where the author sourced the information. I turned then to the back of the book to see the index, notes and bibliography – there were none. I realised that, when reading the text, I had no idea and the author wasn’t telling me, where details about his parents, his date of birth, how his barber’s shop looked or how the crimes were carried out had been found. If you are writing a serious book of history, which this book purports to be, then you really need to provide these details so that the reader can be sure that there is some basis in fact for what you are saying. Further research (Amazon reviews) shows that I am not the only person to notice this lack and that the book is not highly regarded.
The story that the author tells is of a man who was abandoned by his family, turned to petty crime and then to murder. He was not well regarded and was suspected of ill doing by neighbours who then became very suspicious when customers began to enter his shop and not to leave. The author points to tunnels which existed under this area of London and connected the cellars of shops and also the crypt of a nearby church where bodies were found. He states that the evil duo made away with several hundred people having robbed them and then turned their flesh into pies. Todd was eventually hanged at Newgate for his crimes.
I rely on those writing history of all sorts including true crime which this is to show their workings. This author fails completely to do that and points to no contemporary references to the life and death of the barber. I have no idea if the man really existed or if the author made up everything in this book. I fear, therefore, that I really can’t recommend this book as fact and feel that we can’t know reliably from it whether the man of legend and nightmares existed at all.