An Eighteenth-Century Sweeney Todd

Skeleton, after Vesalius, 1670, Wellcome Images
Skeleton, after Vesalius, 1670, Wellcome Images

2 January 2015

A human skeleton was an essential ornament to the early modern dissecting room.

Beginning with Vesalius, a number of anatomical textbooks offered instructions for making an articulated skeleton from a dead body, and there was a flourishing clandestine industry in making skeletons and in stealing or otherwise procuring the necessary dead bodies for their construction.  By the 1720s, a guide to London referred to a mythical “Corporation of Corpse-Stealers,” and the London surgeon Nathanael St. André advertised that he could provide skeletons made to order if you did not want to attend his classes and learn how to make your very own.  In the spring of 1718, the London Weekly Journal reported on a pair of enterprising apothecaries in the English town of Lincoln who endeavored to make a skeleton. However, the apothecaries decided to leave most of the dirty work to someone else:

 A Man being hangd there at the last Assizes, within three Days after his Execution; a couple of Apothecaries contracted with a Butcher, for a Sum of Money, to take the Body out of the Grave, and cut off all the Flesh, fit for them to make a Skeleton of.

The butcher, however, turned out to be equally enterprising, as the story continues:

Which Flesh he sold for Venison to an Inn-Keeper; who making it into a Pasty, invited many of his Neighbours to the eating of it.

The innkeeper and his friends remained unaware of what they had eaten for a while;

But sometime after the Villany being detected, the Butcher and the two Apothecaries were committed to the Lincoln Gaol.

No word of their ultimate fate.

The fictional character Sweeney Todd made his first appearance in the 1840s.  I saw the original Sweeney-Todd-Broadway-PosterBroadway production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical in 1979, with the wonderful Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou.