History’s Most Prolific and Deadly Female Poisoner Helped Women get Rid of their Husbands

History’s Most Prolific and Deadly Female Poisoner Helped Women get Rid of their Husbands

Khalid Elhassan - April 18, 2019

In 17th century Italy, most women who did not wish to take up a nun’s habit and enter a convent had only three ways to keep body and soul together: beg, prostitute themselves, or marry. Most women married, but given the state of things and the prevailing patriarchy, those who had the misfortune of ending up with an abusive husband were usually out of luck. Divorce was not an option, and complaints were often met by advice to be patient, submit to their hubbies, diligently fulfill their wifely duties, and try harder to please their spouses in order to avoid more abuse.

Thus, many women had to settle for praying that an abusive husband would mend his way, or barring that, pray for early widowhood. Some, however, were more proactive in bringing about their widowhood. For the latter, a dealer in cosmetics named Giulia Tofana must have seemed like an angel of deliverance, seeing as how she helped many women free themselves from a toxic marriage, with a toxin that was named after her: Aqua Tofana. When she was finally caught and confessed to her deeds, contemporaries were shocked to learn that Tofana had helped poison more than 600 men.

History’s Most Prolific and Deadly Female Poisoner Helped Women get Rid of their Husbands
17th century Rome, by Gaspar van Wittel. Spencer Alley

Background of a Poisoner

For somebody whose crimes were so extensive, and whose track record in dealing death to so many was so long, it is surprising that the historical record is silent about much of Giulia Tofana’s background. Relatively little is known of the woman’s childhood, her early upbringing and youth, or about much of her life, for that matter. She was said to have been exceptionally beautiful, just like her mother, Thofania d’Adamo, but there are no known surviving portraits of her.

What is known is that Tofana was born and grew up in Sicily. Her mother, an apothecary who made and sold perfumes, cosmetics, herbal medicines, and other concoctions, was executed in Palermo on July 12th, 1633, after she was convicted of murdering her husband, Francis d’Adamo. It is unknown whether the husband had been poisoned, but odds are that he had been. Tofana took after her mother in more ways than one, including mastery of apothecaries, in which she had exhibited an interest since an early age.

Tofana is credited with having invented the infamous poison that bore her name, Aqua Tofana, although some sources indicate that it might have originally been invented by her mother, who passed the recipe on to her daughter. Either way, Giulia Tofana perfected that toxin, and began selling it, discreetly, under the cover of cosmetics, or in small vials of what was known as “Manna of Saint Nicholas of Bari” – a devotional object. Her chief clientele were women interested in a speedy end to their marriages via widowhood.

History’s Most Prolific and Deadly Female Poisoner Helped Women get Rid of their Husbands
The Duchess of Ceri, a Roman noblewoman suspected of having used Giulia Tofana’s poison to kill her husband. Mike Dash History

Giulia Tofana was a young widow when she first began peddling her poison, and it is possible that she had tested and perfected the recipe for Aqua Tofana on her own husband. She had a daughter, Girolama Sperla, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined what became a family business of concocting and selling poison. Mother and daughter kept it low-key for decades, as they moved throughout Italy, first from Palermo to Naples, and eventually, from Naples to Rome.

Most of Tofana’s customers were wives seeking widowhood, but not all. She also sold Aqua Tofana to men and women who saw the concoction as a means of settling disputes, eliminating business and romantic rivals, or paying back those who had given them offense. Moreover, not all wives who turned to Tofana for help in murdering their husbands did so in order to escape marital abuse: some were motivated by simple greed, and wanted to come into an inheritance. Indeed, so often was poison used in Italy back then to speed up inheritances, that concoctions such as Tofana’s were nicknamed “inheritance potions”.

History’s Most Prolific and Deadly Female Poisoner Helped Women get Rid of their Husbands
Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade. Wikimedia

The Perfect Poison

The main ingredients of Tofana’s poison, Aqua Tofana, are known: Atropa belladonna, also known as “deadly nightshade”, combined with arsenic, and lead. However, while the chief components are known, the manner in which they were blended has been lost to history. What is known is that the final product was a colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid, which was almost impossible to detect when added to water or wine. Only a few drops were needed, broken into a few doses, to do in a victim.

Once ingested, Aqua Tofana was slow-acting and produced symptoms that mimicked death from natural causes, such as those seen in a steadily progressing disease. The first dose produced symptoms similar to those of the common cold. A second dose, and the symptoms progressed to those of a nasty flu. A third dose, and the victim was seriously ill, complaining of a stomachache, suffering from diarrhea, dehydration, and throwing up. A fourth dose would finish the victim off.

From the user’s perspective, Aqua Tofana was the perfect poison, that almost guaranteed the perfect crime. Given the state of medical knowledge back then, Tofana’s concoction was virtually undetectable in post mortem examinations carried out on its victims’ cadavers. Moreover, the symptoms it produced en route to carrying off its victims resembled the stages of a steadily advancing illness. That was the perfect cover in an era when so many routinely fell ill and died for reasons that physicians could not readily explain.

History’s Most Prolific and Deadly Female Poisoner Helped Women get Rid of their Husbands
A 17th century vial with an image of Saint Nicholas of Bari – the type of vial in which Aqua Tofana was sold. Mike Dash History

As one journal described it: “Administered in wine or tea or some other liquid by the flattering traitress, [Aqua Tofana] produced but a scarcely noticeable effect; the husband became a little out of sorts, felt weak and languid, so little indisposed that he would scarcely call in a medical man…. After the second dose of poison, this weakness and languor became more pronounced… The beautiful Medea who expressed so much anxiety for her husband’s indisposition would scarcely be an object of suspicion, and perhaps would prepare her husband’s food, as prescribed by the doctor, with her own fair hands. In this way the third drop would be administered, and would prostrate even the most vigorous man. The doctor would be completely puzzled to see that the apparently simple ailment did not surrender to his drugs, and while he would be still in the dark as to its nature, other doses would be given, until at length death would claim the victim for its own…

To save her fair fame, the wife would demand a post-mortem examination. Result, nothing — except that the woman was able to pose as a slandered innocent, and then it would be remembered that her husband died without either pain, inflammation, fever, or spasms. If, after this, the woman within a year or two formed a now connection, nobody could blame her; for, everything considered, it would be a sore trial for her to continue to bear the name of a man whose relatives had accused her of poisoning him.

History’s Most Prolific and Deadly Female Poisoner Helped Women get Rid of their Husbands
Campo di Fori, site of Giulia Tofana’s execution, as it appeared in 1740. Wikimedia

Downfall and Legacy

Given her sideline business as a purveyor of poison, discretion was, understandably, extremely vital to Tofana. She was reportedly quite selective in just whom she sold Aqua Tofana to, and accepted as clients only those who had been vouched for by previous satisfied customers. Former clients, who had committed murder by using Tofana’s toxin, risked almost as much as Tofana if their prior business dealings came to light. As such, they had every incentive to vouch only for those in whose discretion they had absolute trust.

Such precautions allowed Tofana, first working solo and then with her daughter, to go undetected for decades. It all came crashing down, however, because a new client got cold feet. Reportedly, a woman bought Aqua Tofana and put it in her husband’s soup, but then had a last-minute attack of conscience, changed her mind, and stopped her hubby from sipping the soup. His suspicions aroused, the husband forced his repentant wife to tell the truth, and then dragged her off to the Papal authorities to tell them what she had told him. The cat was out of the bag, but Tofana was not arrested immediately: warned, she fled to a nearby church and sought sanctuary, which was granted.

Tofana’s sanctuary did not last for long: a rumor spread throughout Rome that she had poisoned the city’s water supply, so a mob stormed the church, and seized her. She was handed over to the Papal authorities, who tortured her until she confessed to poisoning over 600 men between 1633 and 1651. In July of 1659, Giulia Tofana, her daughter Girolama Sperla, and three employees were executed in Rome’s Campo di Fiori. Her corpse was then thrown over the wall into the church that had offered her sanctuary. Some of her clients and accomplices were executed outright, while others were bricked into the dungeons of the Palace of the Holy Office. Others, who were well connected, got away.

History’s Most Prolific and Deadly Female Poisoner Helped Women get Rid of their Husbands
‘The Last Hours of Mozart’, by Henry Nelson O’Neil. Flickr

It is possible that the number of Tofana’s victims was exaggerated – she was tortured during the investigation, after all, and people can say the darndest things under torture to make it stop. Indeed, considering that much of the evidence against her consisted of confessions extracted under torture, it is even possible that Giulia Tofana could have been completely innocent. She might well have simply been a woman dabbling in cosmetics, at a time when a literal witch-hunt mania was sweeping Europe, and women doing anything unusual were suspect.

The legacy of Giulia Tofana and her poison survived long after her death. In 1791, when the composer Amadeus Mozart fell seriously ill, he became convinced that he had been poisoned. As he put it: “I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea … Someone has given me Aqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death“. Mozart was almost certainly mistaken, and historians believe he died of rheumatic fever, syphilis, or from having eaten undercooked pork. His paranoia – shared by many who took ill in those days of poor medical diagnosis – was testimony to the continuing terror inspired by Tofana and her deadly concoction.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Pages – Giulia Tofana Poisoned 600 Men: Beautiful Sicilian Woman and Her Deadly Mission

Medium – Meet the Woman Who Poisoned Makeup to Help Over 600 Women Murder Their Husbands

Mike Dash History – Aqua Tofana: Slow-Poisoning and Husband-Killing in the 17th Century

Ranker – Meet The Woman Who Poisoned Makeup To Help Over 600 Women Murder Their Husbands

All Thats Interesting – Giulia Tofana: The 17th-Century Professional Poisoner Said To Have Killed 600 Men

Vintage News – The Most Prolific Female Assassin in History