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  • Writer's pictureRhiannon Ling

Giulia Tofana: The Poison Angel

"The Love Potion" (1903) by Evelyn De Morgan

I’ve a feeling many of you have attended the tale of Giulia Tofana. “The most successful serial killer whose name you’ve never heard,” the ringleader of an underground gang that poisoned over 600 men in 17th century Italy, hers is a name ensconced in legend and lore. We don’t know much about her—what we do know is speculation—but we’ve record of what she did. Providing her signature aqua tofana to women trapped in unhappy marriages, forced to wed their rapist and/or facing physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, she begs the question of a moral grey area. In a world that denied women basic human rights and protections, did she truly do so wrong?

But first, let’s talk method.

Contemporary historians believe aqua tofana to be a fatal overdosing of arsenic, lead, and belladonna. The mixture was easy to procure at the time: each of the three ingredients were commonly used in women’s cosmetics. Odorless, colorless, virtually undetectable, it was easy to hide amidst bottles of beauty supplies, and simple to enact.

The poison was consumed in three doses, each placed in the husband’s food or wine. The first weakened the immune system. The second, dosed several days later, caused stomach cramps and vomiting, leading the victim to believe he had been struck by natural illness. The third dose, placed several days after, killed the majority of consumers. In essence, their physical system just stopped, poison leaking into their bloodstream via digestion. This slower method was advantageous to its enactors. Not only did it lessen the chance of capture and arrest, but it also gave the killers ample time to repent, thus lessening their spiritual burden in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Now, onto Giulia. A woman of whom no portraiture exists. A woman whose life found its way into no documentation.

Giulia Tofana is thought to have been born around 1620, in Palermo, Sicily. Legend states that she was the daughter of Thofania d’Adamo: an assassin in her own right, d’Adamo was drawn and quartered after poisoning her husband. It is believed that she was the one who invented aqua tofana and passed it down to young Giulia. Regardless of blood relation, Tofana followed a similar path. After she killed her own husband, she and her daughter, Girolama, moved to Naples to evade arrest. There, she began her business.

Tofana had hit upon the zeitgeist. A “criminal magical underworld” had found its footing in 17th century Europe, popular amongst the nobility in Italy and France. This underground market sold services to their wealthy patrons for a hefty fee: whether one wanted to beget a child or be gone of one, whether one wanted a love potion or a cursed spell, whether one desired money or murder, the magicians that walked among the wealthy provided. These included clergymen, alchemists, wise women, “cunning women” (those who provided potions and charms), apothecaries, and more. They were extremely successful, and it is among their kind that Tofana began her business.

She did not only serve the wealthy, however. Upon the founding of her assassination nation, Tofana quickly became known as “a beautiful young widow” who was a “friend to all lower class women.” She was the first suffering women came to; she often eradicated the issue with little complaint. Legend tells us that, at one point, Tofana had over 200 employees beneath her, including “wise women, astrologers, alchemists, confidence men, witches, shady apothecaries, and back street abortionists who between them told fortunes and cast horoscopes, sold love potions and lucky charms, curried toothache, and offered to dispose of unwanted babies and unwanted husbands.” Within their number, as well, were several men of the cloth, procuring the goods for those who sold.

For fifty years, Giulia Tofana sold her poisons. For five decades, she had no inquisitions into her business, and her women were taken care of. Then came 1650.

That was the year a customer finally got cold feet. A young woman stopped her abusive husband from ingesting his poisoned soup: beaten by her spouse, tortured by government authorities, she revealed Tofana’s identity and whereabouts. Tofana received word of this and sought refuge at a church, declaring sanctuary. She was forcibly removed soon after, several of the public accusing her constituency of poisoning the water supply. She, too, was tortured, and admitted to over 600 murders between 1633 and 1650. That number is likely higher than she professed.

The following year, Giulia Tofana was executed alongside her daughter, six assistants, and forty customers in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori…or was she?

This is where the story gets ever more interesting. Accounts of her death differ with astonishing variety. Some claim she died of natural causes a year or so later. Some allege she was executed within the next ten years. And one utterly baffling claimant states that Tofana survived until she was over 120 years old. The only surety we have is that her daughter was dead by 1659, as she was buried with official documentation. We’ve no idea of her mortality or immortality, but perhaps that makes the story even more compelling.

Following Tofana’s death, aqua tofana remained in circulation, living on in the practices of Roman apothecaries. Over a century later, Mozart claimed he’d been poisoned with it shortly before his death. Her fatal legacy has continued in novels, TV shows, and even a forthcoming musical by Jennifer Nettles. We are fascinated by this woman’s wrongs, and it rightfully shows.

One thing I do want to leave you to ponder: Italy of the 1600s did not allow women escape. Many were forcibly married to their rapists. Many were beaten, whipped, assaulted, brought to the brink of death. Many were killed. Divorce was not an option; only widowhood remained. If that was their only escape from a monster, was Giulia Tofana truly a beast herself?

"The Sorceress" (1913) by John William Waterhouse

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