Sweeney Todd is the tale of a murderous barber who killed his clients and passed the bodies onto a neighbouring baker to include as spicy ingredients to pies. Made famous by the Stephen Sondheim stage musical of the same name, the roots of the story are acknowledged as being probably apocryphal, but it is taken almost as a given that if he existed he plied his trade in Fleet Street, London.
But perhaps he did exist. Perhaps he wasn't English at all, but French. Could it have been Parisians who first tasted pâté en croûte l'homme, (meat pie) with that certain magic ingredient?
Sweeney Le Todd
In 1816 Joseph Fouché, Duke of Otrano and Minister of Police in France from 1799 to 1815 wrote a book called Archives of the Police. The book revealed the details of the more grisly and sensational cases with which he had dealt. One such concerned a barber called Becque, who had his business premises in a dingy street called the Rue de la Harpe. In 1800, two businessmen on their way to an important meeting stopped by Becque's establishment for a quick shave. When the first businessman had been shaved he headed off to conduct an urgent errand, but promised to return for his friend. When he returned a short time later, he was rather surprised to find his friend had already left. Becque explained that his friend had left hurriedly without saying where he was going. The merchant was suspicious, particularly as his friend had left his dog tied up outside the shop. He settled down to wait in the shop, despite Becque's obvious irritation. As time wore on, with no sign of his friend and the dog becoming increasingly restive, the merchant began to question Becque more thoroughly. At first protesting that he did not know where his friend had gone, Becque finally lost patience with the merchant and threw him into the street.
The merchant began shouting to passers-by that his friend had been abducted by Becque. Parisians, always known for their love of a good dispute, began calling for Becque to come out and explain himself. As the crowd grew, the dog became more and more animated, barking and clawing at the door. Finally the crowd burst in and, led by the dog, began to search the barber shop. What they found shocked them.
In a dark, dusty corner they discovered a hidden set of stairs leading down to a cellar. The walls were flecked with blood and on a table in the centre of the cellar lay a decapitated body. Luckily the police had been attracted by the noise of the crowd and were able to rescue Becque from an immediate lynching. Once the crowd had been cleared, the police were able to examine the room more thoroughly and discovered a hatch in one wall. Upon opening the hatch, they were amazed to find the kitchens of the baker next door. Trails of dried blood made it clear that something had recently been passed through the hatch.
Under questioning, Mornay the baker confessed all. Becque would murder the victims for the contents of their pockets which were split between the two. Mornay disposed of the bodies by mincing up the hunks passed through the hatch and cooking them in his meat pies, pies which were renowned throughout Paris for their full flavour and satisfying zestiness.
The pair were tried and found guilty at the Palais de Justice in 1801. In a punishment seen to fit their crime, they were torn to pieces on the rack rather than executed by guillotine.
However, this is not the only example of barbarous barbers and bakers butchering bodies for booty. Many such tales are recounted as folk lore, suggesting the practice was quite common. One story has its roots in the 14th Century and has been passed down in the form of a ballad called La Rue des Marmouzets, a morbid ditty sung to the tune of Le Jeune Homme Empoisonné
Towards the end of the 14th Century
There lived a sort of demon barber,
Who slit his clients throats at 24 Rue des Marmouzets.
He carried on this horrible trade
And no-one could resist him,
In his cellar he polished them off,
His accomplice a villainous pie merchant next door.
With a 'pie' – with a 'mer' – with a 'chant',
With a pie – mer – chant! Ha! Ha!
This horrid tale also tells us
That he worked with a ferocious female
Fiercer than the fiercest bailiff.
For all the poor devils he killed
His partner converted into pork pies!
And he said of his customers when defunct,
They are gone – 'pork creatures'.
With a 'pork' – with a 'cre' – with a 'ture'.
With a 'pork creature'. Ha! Ha!
The most recent example of murderers disposing of their victims in fast food was Carl Großmann. Carl owned a cold meat and hot-dog stand on a Berlin railway station and did a roaring trade in minced country girls as late as 1921.
Now, would you like fries with your order?