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Aqua Tofana - Widow Maker in a Bottle

Marriage is a big commitment. Modern marriages are, usually, consensual affairs. Still, unhappy marriages aren't uncommon, and abusive partners are still a dime a dozen.

Picking your own partner hasn't always been the norm. In fact, most of nuptial history has involved involuntary matchmaking and more than a fair share of coercion. It's no surprise then that people have been seeking some way out of their situation.

Divorce has lost much of the surrounding taboo, but in the 17th century, it was a difficult, and in some cases, illegal process. That's where the poisoner comes in. Your husband is getting a bit too handsy? Dose the bastard and reap the benefits of widowhood.

This is the story of Aqua Tofana, one of the most effective and widely utilized poisons in history. Named after the criminal woman who invented the potent potion, Giulia Tofana, one of the most prolific historical poisoners.


Giulia Tofana, the inventor of Aqua Tofana, a criminal woman and one of history's serial killers
Lightning in a bottle

Giulia Tofana - More than a Body Count


The poison business was booming in the early 17th century. Not because a lot of people were consciously producing them, but because a popular industry was the concoction of love potions. Amateurs would brew and sell what would later be known as snake-oil.

Some of these potion makers also sold poison on the side. The most successful was a Sicilian woman named Giulia Tofana. She was, allegedly, the daughter of a convicted peddler of poison - Thofania d'Adamo.

Either way, Giulia ended up either inventing or inheriting the recipe for a deadly brew called Aqua Tofana. The main ingredients of which were Arsenic, lead, and belladonna. Aqua Tofana was a clear liquid that had no taste.

Giulia couldn't sell her poison as a poison. Leaving a paper trail is a bad look when you're a killer. Instead, she sold it as a miracle blemish ointment named “The Manna of St. Nicholas Bari”. Husbands wouldn't question their wives for buying cosmetics, and they wouldn't even notice when they were poisoned.

As is the case with notorious figures of history who happen to be women, Giulia Tofana's history isn't well-documented. The most famous, and sensational, story goes like this. Giulia was born in Palermo, Italy in 1610 to Thofania d'Adamo, and the soon-to-be late, Francesco d'Adamo.

Thofania had been selling poison for a while before she got the idea to try it out on her husband. She was clumsy, though, and would be executed for the crime in 1633. Around the same time, Giulia Tofana appeared in Rome, where she set up her own business selling cosmetics and love potions.

Her poisonous pedigree seems to have been a concoction of a 19th century true-crime enthusiast. Sometimes it's fun to lump criminal women together in a single familial line.

Between 1633 and 1651, Giulia claimed to have sold over 600 doses of her poison, which she could confirm had been used. Most of the victims turned out to be husbands. This makes Giulia the most toxic person of the 17th century.

Jokes aside, she was one of the most prolific female serial killers in history. Her body-count surpasses history's other hated child, Gilles de Rais.

Sources can't seem to agree on the date of Giulia Tofana's death. Some claim that she died of natural causes in 1651, others have her fleeing to a convent and becoming a nun. From the convent, she would continue her role as widow-maker by distributing her “medicinal” potions via a vast network of nuns. Dying of old age much later.

Other sources note that her time at the convent ended in torture and execution. They just can't agree on when this happened. She was either dragged from the convent and tortured to death in 1659, 1709, or at the ripe old age of 110 years old in 1730.


The Myth of Slow Poison


During the 17th century, Europe was abuzz with rumors of slow-poison. The effect of which mimicked a naturally progressing illness, and proved undetectable by the greatest medical minds of the day.

Aqua Tofana was perhaps the greatest of this class of poisons. It turned any woman's toilette into a poisoner's cabinet.

Legend has it that Aqua Tofana was not only potent, but that the death of the victim could be calculated with accuracy. This gave dying husbands enough time to arrange their will and make their peace with their god. Widows would naturally be accused of poisoning their once virile men, and as a reaction the widow would demand an autopsy. This is where Giulia's Aqua Tofana really shone. Doctors would be unable to find any trace of poison, thus clearing the poisonous woman of any crime.

Aqua Tofana was so famous that Mozart blamed it for his own death in 1791. While working on his Requiem for a patron, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fell ill. He wrote the following while on his deathbed:


“I feel definitely that 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 acqua tofana and calculated the precise time of my death”

Conspiracy theorists point to Antonio Salieri as Mozart's rival and killer. There is, however, no proof of this, and yet the myth persists among fools. More likely causes such as syphilis, or his habit of eating undercooked pork, are to blame.

I'll leave you with this excerpt from Chambers's Journal, taken from a fantastic article written by Mike Dash:


Administered in wine or tea or some other liquid by the flattering traitress, [it] 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.
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