It’s suppertime in an Italian household in the late 1650s. A wife has prepared a special bowl of soup for her husband. He, however, is blissfully unaware that it could be his last, thanks to a deadly secret ingredient.
In the 1650s Italy was at the tail-end of the period known as the Renaissance. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the country experienced a cultural rebirth. It produced some of the world’s greatest art, and embraced science and philosophy.
As culturally progressive as Italian society had become, however, its attitude towards woman was still repressive. Women were often considered to be the property of men. Furthermore, their marriages were often prearranged and aligned with a family’s financial interests. Once married, wives had no recourse if their husbands mistreated them in some way.
To makes things worse for unhappy wives, the one way to end a bad marriage was for one of the couple to die. There was, however, an unconventional solution also gaining traction in the country.
In some parts of medieval and early modern Europe, poison was used by women as a weapon. And it’s in this context that one Giulia Tofana rose to infamy. With her clientele largely made up of abused wives, she spent nearly two decades poisoning men to death. And she evaded the authorities in the process.
Tofana is believed to have been born in Palermo, Sicily, though the year of her birth is unknown. She would go on to become notorious in the country’s capital, Rome. While little is known of her childhood, she was said to be a beautiful woman. However, no actual portraits of her exist.
We do know, however, that Tofana had a daughter, Girolama Spera. And the pair’s fate was inextricably linked. Tofana spent a lot of her time with the local apothecaries. The equivalent of a modern-day pharmacist, they mixed and distributed medical lotions and potions.
There is one other rather interesting fact that we know about Tofana’s life, pre-notoriety. Her mother, Thofania d’Adamo was executed in 1633. Her crime? Killing the man she had married. Italian divorce, it seems, had touched her family as well.
Being a free woman, Tofana found a way to earn a living. She became, by all accounts, a seller of cosmetics. This line of work, inevitably, brought her into contact with numerous women.
Tofana had sympathy for women trapped in troubled marriages. And she became a purveyor of poison as a solution. Historians aren’t sure if she invented the potion, or she worked as a middle-woman, but sell it she did. To hundreds of customers.
Called Aqua Tofana, the poison was a mix of lead, a poisonous plant called belladonna and arsenic. It wasn’t just deadly; it had no color, taste or smell. And if that wasn’t scary enough, it was slow-working. Just a few drops administered over a few days would do the trick, leaving no trace of its presence post-mortem.
Tofana’s poison was successful. And under duress years later she admitted to selling the concoction in Rome between 1633 and 1651. But how, exactly, could she so freely dispense her weapon? And more importantly, how were her customers able to get away with using it?
The answer is simple. Tofana disguised the poison as a powdered makeup. This meant women could easily display the deadly product on dressing tables without attracting suspicion. She even created another poisonous product, known as the Manna of St Nicholas of Bari. This consisted of a small vial, disguised as a healing ointment.
In fact, Tofana’s poison contained ingredients commonly used in facial powers at the time. Indeed, manufacturers used arsenic and lead to lighten the skin. Meanwhile, belladonna, another of the deadly ingredients, was used by women as a beauty product to dilate their pupils. But Tofana understood a crucial difference between her poison and these ingredients used for beauty. They were deadly if ingested.
So, with a little apothecary magic, and some inventive packaging, Tofana had hit upon the perfect delivery system. And with all her clients in on the secret, success – and their silence – would be assured. After all, it was in the interests of both seller and buyer to keep quiet.
Any chain, though, is only as strong as its weakest link. And one night, the aforementioned wife who had served her husband a bowl of poisoned soup was having second thoughts. At the last minute, she prevented him from ingesting the poison, and confessed to her crime. Her husband, meanwhile, swiftly referred her to Rome’s Papal authorities.
The woman was taken to Rome, where she confessed everything. She then named Tofana – and her daughter Girolama Spera – as the source of the poison. The chemist, also living in Rome, fled before she could be arrested and sought sanctuary in a church. Indeed, she had been warned of her impending doom.
The church granted Tofana’s request, however the locals weren’t quite so forgiving. But a rumor then started to circulate that she had poisoned their supply of fresh water. A mob forcibly removed her from the sanctuary and took her to the authorities. And while under arrest, Tofana was subjected to torture.
Tofana confessed to more than 600 murders over a nearly 20-year period during her torture. In 1659 she and her daughter, Girolama Spera, were sentenced to death, along with three accomplices. Her clients fared little better. Some women were executed, while others were sent to prison. A lucky few avoided punishment, claiming they had no idea that Tofana’s products were poisonous.
To this day, Tofana remains one of the world’s most prolific killers. And when she died, the exact method in which her poison was made, thankfully, went with her. Though the basic ingredients are understood, the way they were blended is still unknown to this day.