In 1846, The People’s Periodical Family Library published a story titled The String of Pearls. It was a weekly "penny dreadful" written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. It told the tale of a murderous barber, his pie maker accomplice, and their victims, turned meat pies. This was the first literary appearance of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
This story features many of the same characters as Sondheim and Lapine’s musical version. "Sweeney" and "Mrs. Lovett" are present and quite similar to the musical telling. "Tobias Ragg" can also be found in this version. Although still an apprentice, he works for Sweeney in this version, an apprentice to learn how to be a barber. "Johanna" is also present, but she is not Todd’s lost daughter. She is the lover of a sailor, ("Mark," not "Anthony") who has disappeared and is thought to be lost at sea. The title of the story comes from a string of pearls that Mark's friend, "Lieutenant Thornhill" is sent to deliver as a gift to Johanna in Mark’s stead.
The Todd in this story doesn’t seem to have his revenge motive, or any for that matter. But the murders and pies are just as vicious. However, Sweeney’s way of “polishing off” his victims is actually reversed. He still has his fancy chair, and that’s how he initially murders his victims. While he shaves them, he pulls the lever and they go down a shoot to their death by broken neck or skull. If the chair doesn’t work, Sweeney comes down with his razor and finishes the job. And his victims still become meat pies.
"Penny dreadfuls" were a type of British fiction in the 19th century. They were stories told in weekly parts in magazines that cost a penny. Sweeney was not alone in his dark tales. The stories told in penny dreadfuls were often just that: dreadful. Tales of serial killers and romance and all kinds of adventure that was targeted to a younger, less sophisticated audience of the time.
The full version of The String Of Pearls can now be found online for free. Much cheaper than a penny. If you love Sweeney and his history as much as we do, it makes for a very interesting read. Here is the link!