The String of Pearls

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The String of Pearls
Sweeney Todd, o barbeiro demoníaco de Fleet Street.jpg
Page from The String of Pearls; or, The Sailor’s Gift, 1850
AuthorUnknown but probably
James Malcolm Rymer
and/or Thomas Peckett Prest
Working titleThe Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectSweeney Todd
Set inLondon
Published1846–47 by Edward Lloyd
1850 as a book
Media typePrint (Penny dreadful)
Pages732 pp (Book)
LC ClassPR5285.R99
TextThe String of Pearls at Wikisource

The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance (alternatively titled The Sailor's Gift) is a fictional story first published as a penny dreadful serial from 1846–47. The main antagonist of the story is Sweeney Todd, "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street". The story was the character's first literary appearance.

Todd is a barber who murders his customers and gives their corpses to Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime, who bakes their flesh into meat pies. His barber shop is situated in Fleet Street, London, next to St. Dunstan's church, and is connected to Lovett's pie shop in nearby Bell Yard by means of an underground passage. Todd kills his victims by pulling a lever while they are in his barber chair, which makes them fall backward through a revolving trapdoor and generally causes them to break their necks or skulls on the cellar floor below. If the victims are still alive, he goes to the basement and "polishes them off" by slitting their throats with his straight razor.


The story is set in London during the year 1785. The plot concerns the strange disappearance of a sailor named Lieutenant Thornhill, last seen entering Sweeney Todd's establishment on Fleet Street. Thornhill was bearing a gift of a string of pearls to a girl named Johanna Oakley on behalf of her missing lover, Mark Ingestrie, who is presumed lost at sea. One of Thornhill's seafaring friends, Colonel Jeffrey, is alerted to the disappearance of Thornhill by his faithful dog, Hector, and investigates his whereabouts. He is joined by Johanna, who wants to know what happened to Mark.

Johanna's suspicions of Sweeney Todd's involvement cause her to dress as a boy and becoming Todd's employee after his last assistant, a young boy named Tobias Ragg, has been incarcerated in a madhouse for accusing Todd of being a murderer. Soon, after Todd has dismembered the corpses of his victims, Mrs. Lovett creates her meat pies from leftover flesh. While the bodies are burning in the oven, a ghastly and intolerable smell reeks from the pie shop chimney. Eventually, the extent of Todd's activities is uncovered when the dismembered remains of hundreds of his victims are discovered in the crypt underneath St. Dunstan's church. Meanwhile, Mark, who has been imprisoned in the cellar beneath the pie shop and made to work as the cook, escapes via the lift used to bring the pies up from the cellar into the pie shop. Here he makes the following startling announcement to the customers of that establishment:

"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!"[1]

Mrs. Lovett is then poisoned by Sweeney Todd, who is subsequently apprehended and hanged. Johanna marries Mark.

Literary history[edit]

The String of Pearls: A Romance was published in 18 weekly parts, in Edward Lloyd's The People's Periodical and Family Library, issues 7–24, 21 November 1846 to 20 March 1847. It is frequently attributed to Thomas Peckett Prest, but has been more recently been reassigned to James Malcolm Rymer;[2] other names have also been suggested. The story was then published in book form in 1850 as "The String of Pearls", subtitled "The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance". This expanded version of the story was 732 pages long, and its conclusion differs greatly from that of the original serial publication: Todd escapes from prison after being sentenced to death but, after many further adventures, is finally shot dead while fleeing from the authorities. In later years, there were many different literary, stage and eventually movie adaptations which renamed, further expanded and often drastically altered the original story.[1]

A scholarly, annotated edition of The String of Pearls was published in 2007 by the Oxford University Press with the title Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, edited by Robert Mack.


Penny dreadful stories were often written carelessly and contained themes of gore and violence. The String of Pearls is not any different. Its style of writing makes it a perfect example of a penny dreadful, having a sensational, violent main topic. The success of the stories results from the reaction people have to it: themes like murder and cannibalism equally scare and interest people. The theme of cannibalism, though unknowing, contributes to the horror of the story.

Industrialisation is a theme that contributes to the story. Sweeney Todd owns a barber shop in the middle of one of the busiest industrial parts of the growing city of London. Industrialism resulted in an increasing crime rate, which was exploited by the penny dreadful stories.

Historical background[edit]

While the author of String of Pearls is unknown, there are many theories surrounding its influences. During the 19th century, when this story was first written, a semi-common trade was what was termed a barber-surgeon. Barber-surgeons were medical practitioners trained not by schooling but by apprenticeship, and they were sometimes illiterate. Surgery eventually became an established profession of its own and the two were separated legally by King George II in Britain during 1745.[3]

Speculated influences[edit]

Le Theatre des Antiquites de Paris[edit]

The 1612 French historical nonfiction book Le Théâtre des Antiquités de Paris by Father Jacques du Breul [fr] contains a section titled De la maison des Marmousets (From the house of the Marmousets) that mentions a "murderous pastry cook" who incorporates into his pie the meat of a man he murdered due to its alleged dietary benefits.[4]

Historical basis for Sweeney Todd[edit]

It has been speculated that, "Joseph Fouché, who served as Minister of Police in Paris from 1799 to 1815, had records in the archives of police that explored murders committed in the 1800s by a Parisian barber".[5] Fouche mentioned that the barber was in league with "a neighbouring pastry cook, who made pies out of the victims and sold them for human consumption".[5] There is question about the authenticity of this account, "yet the tale was republished in 1824 under the headline A Terrific Story of the Rue de Le Harpe, Paris in The Tell Tale, a London magazine. Perhaps Thomas Prest, scouring publications for ideas, read about the Paris case and stored it away for later use."[5]

Sweeney Todd's story also appears in the Newgate Calendar, originally a bulletin of executions produced by the keeper of Newgate prison, the title of which was appropriated by chapbooks, popular pamphlets full of entertaining, often violent criminal activities.[6] Despite this there is no mention of Todd's trial or execution in official records, and thus no real evidence that he ever existed.[6]

No public records prove any existence of a London barber by the name of Sweeney during the 18th century or of a barber shop located on Fleet Street. There were many word-of-mouth, true crime and horror stories at the time however, reported in "The Old Bailey" section of the London Times as well as other daily newspapers. News also commonly travelled by word of mouth as the majority of the population was still illiterate, and could become embellished in the retelling from person to person. Such news might still be assumed factual because there was no way of proving otherwise at the time.[7]

Charles Dickens[edit]

In Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers (1836–37), Pickwick's cockney servant Sam Weller states that a pieman used cats "for beefsteak, veal and kidney, 'cording to the demand", and recommends that people should buy pies only "when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kitten".[8] Dickens expanded on the idea of using non-traditional sources for meat pie in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44). This was published two years before The String of Pearls (1846–47) and included a character by the name of Tom Pinch, who feels lucky that his own "evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis" and worries that John Westlock will "begin to be afraid that I have strayed into one of those streets where the countrymen are murdered; and that I have been made into meat pies, or some such horrible thing".[9][10] Peter Haining suggested in a 1993 book that Dickens was inspired by knowledge of the "real" Sweeney Todd, but that he chose not to mention him, in case some of his victims' relatives were still alive.[6]


Unfortunately Lloyd's business practices did not allow authors to put their name on their published work, due to this there is disagreement over who the author of The String of Pearls is. It is generally accepted that the work was written by either James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Peckett Prest, however other contenders such as George Mcfarren or Edward Lloyd himself have been suggested.[11] Historically the opinion favoured Prest as the true author but recent arguments have been made that Rymer should be considered the true author.[12][13][14] It is commonly noted that the work was most likely cooperatively written and so usually they are both considered co-authors of the piece.[12][13]


  1. ^ a b Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street edited by Robert L. Mack (2007). Oxford University Press: 280
  2. ^ Smith, Helen R. (2002). New light on Sweeney Todd. London: Jarndyce. p. 28.
  3. ^ "Science Museum. Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine." Barber-surgeons. Web.
  4. ^ Mack, Robert L. The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend. London: Continuum, 2007. Print.
  5. ^ a b c "True Criminals". KQED, Inc. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
  6. ^ a b c Welsh, Louise (19 January 2008). "On A Knife Edge". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
  7. ^ Suer, Kinsley. "PCS Blog - The Real Sweeney Todd? From Penny Dreadful to Broadway Musical." Portland Center Stage. N.p., 4 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. <>.
  8. ^ Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Oxford: Oxford Classics. pp. 278, 335
  9. ^ Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. Margaret Cardwell (1982). Oxford, Clarendon Press: 495
  10. ^ Sweeney Todd
  11. ^ Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky (2011). "Boz versus Bos in "Sweeney Todd": Dickens, Sondheim, and Victorianness". Dickens Studies Annual. 42: 55–76. doi:10.7756/dsa.042.003.55-76. JSTOR 44371462 – via JSTOR.
  12. ^ a b Rymer, James Malcolm; Collins, Dick (2010). "Introduction". Sweeny Todd; The String of Pearls. Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 978-1-84022-632-4.
  13. ^ a b Haugtvedt, Erica (2016). ""Sweeney Todd" as Victorian Transmedial Storyworld". Victorian Periodicals Review. 49 (3): 443–460. doi:10.1353/vpr.2016.0027. JSTOR 26166527. S2CID 164738572 – via JSTOR.
  14. ^ Simpson, Jacqueline (2008). "Seeking the Lore of the Land". Folklore. 119 (2): 131–141. doi:10.1080/00155870802056936. JSTOR 40646446. S2CID 162117834 – via JSTOR.

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