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The Most Notorious Woman Killer in History

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Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

Giulia Tofana: The woman who poisoned over 600 men in 17th century Rome.

Giulia Tofana: The woman who poisoned over 600 men in 17th century Rome.

The Background

I feel definitely that I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. Someone has given me Aqua Tofana.”

The above statement was made by the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his deathbed when he claimed that he was being poisoned with Aqua Tofana.

Aqua Tofana was a strong poison invented during the early 17th century by Giulia Tofana, one of history's most notorious poison killers in history. She sold cosmetics in Rome and Naples and one of her special recipes, Aqua Tofana was so potent that it could kill anybody without leaving a trace. And using this she managed to kill more than 600 men and fool the authorities for nearly 50 years.

And while poisoning most likely didn’t kill Mozart but the fact that her deadly concoction was still remembered with fear over a hundred years after her death speaks volumes of her lethal impact on men in 17th century Rome.

But Giulia Tofana did not kill for money or power. She killed to relieve the miserable 17th-century women of their unhappy marriages. In the 17th century, women had no rights to speak of. If a husband ill-treated his wife, abused her, sold her into prostitution, or even forced her into constant childbearing, there was no divorce and no legal protections available for her. The only way for a woman to be free of a bad marriage was widowhood. And Giulia provided the perfect solution to enable them to be rich widows.

And the real genius of Giulia’s poison was that it was untraceable even after death.

As Chambers’s Journal wrote in 1890 of the poison:

“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 new connection, nobody could blame her.”

This was the expertise that made Giulia one of the most notorious hit women in history.

The Story of Giulia Tofana

Not much is known about Giulia’s background. She was born around 1620 in Palermo, Sicily. She became a widow quite early and moved with her daughter to Naples and then later Rome. That was when she started making her lethal concoction of poison.

Soon her reputation as the 'Queen of Poison' started spreading and she also recruited a local Roman priest, Father Girolamo to take part in her activities. It was believed Father Girolamo supplied arsenic and belladonna which were the key components in her infamous poison mix that she named “Aqua Tofana”.

Her brilliance also came in the packaging of the poison that she did in two forms; as a powdered makeup that could easily blend in on a woman’s vanity beside her makeup, lotions, and perfumes and second form as a glass bottle labelled as “Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari,” a special healing ointment that looked like a devotional object. These unique packaging of poison helped her to successfully evade the authorities for nearly 50 years.

And the biggest selling point of her poison was its components; arsenic and belladonna. There might be other components also but unfortunately, Giulia’s exact recipe was never recorded. Arsenic caused its victims to vomit and have diarrhoea, symptoms which can be easily mistaken for other common diseases. Arsenic can also either kill quickly or very slowly depending on the dosage. Additionally, it is even used as a cosmetic to whiten the skin. So it is the perfect poison to kill without leaving a trace.

Belladonna is the other component that Giulia used. Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants in the world. However Renaissance women extracted liquid from the berries and transformed it into a cosmetic. Women would place one drop in each eye to make the belladonna dilate their pupils. So possession of such a liquid would hardly raise any questions.

And besides these lethal components, Giulia had exceptional apothecary skills, making it impossible for the detection of the potion in the bloodstream even after death. Women who bought Aqua Tofana to murder their husbands could always claim it was simply a cosmetic to be used without raising any eyebrows.

The concoction was said to have no odor, scent, or taste, which made it very easy for an unhappy wife to slip a little into her husband’s food or drink. The women usually fed their husbands with the poison in small doses and it would be usually in third or fourth dose, administered over the next several days, the man would meet his fate.

Giulia soon got many loyal admirers who appreciated her service and she became the messiah for unhappy wives who nicknamed her as the ‘queen of poison’.

The Most Notorious Woman Killer in History

The Most Notorious Woman Killer in History

Giulia was Caught Finally

Finally, a bowl of soup caused her downfall.

As the story goes, in 1650, a woman served her husband a bowl of soup laced with a drop of Aqua Tofana. Before her husband could take a spoonful, however, the woman had a change of heart and begged him not to eat it. This made the man suspicious who interrogated his wife until she confessed of attempting to poison him.

The authorities immediately swung into action and arrested Giulia and her daughter. The Papal authorities tortured Giulia Tofana until she confessed to poisoning over 600 men between the years 1633 and 1651. She was executed in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome in 1659 alongside her daughter and three of her helpers. Some of her clients were also punished while some simply feigned ignorance of not knowing about the ‘poison’. But even after this outcome, the mythical legend of Aqua Tofana continued to spread its fear even 100 years after her execution.

While Giulia was a serial killer and deserved her punishment rightly, another perspective can be that she was simply a bad product of her times. Her clients were unhappy wives who were abused by husbands, rendered powerless by laws, and treated with disdain like ‘use and throw’ objects. No wonder, a lot of women wanted to be widows rather than live a miserable life of insecurity, insult, and shame.

We live in far better times now where gender equality is a reality (at least in the eyes of the law) and we need to be thankful for that.

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 16, 2021:

Thanks Misbah for your comments

Misbah from The Planet Earth on April 16, 2021:

This was an interesting read, Ravi. I have never heard of her before. Thanks for sharing it. I enjoyed!!

Blessings and Peace

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 16, 2021:

All, please feel free to comment in this article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 14, 2021:

Thanks Manatita for your kind comments.

manatita44 from london on April 14, 2021:

What a powerful piece, Bro! yes, I agree with Ann that you write well. It is a gift.

She was like A Charles Bronson, I suppose. A vigilante. I cannot condone it but I do deplore the sad and painful way that so many women have been treated for centuries and are still being treated today. An excellent piece!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 14, 2021:

Thanks Bill for your comments.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 14, 2021:

You have the best titles on HP. It's impossible to pass your articles by; the titles almost force us to read the articles. Well done!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 14, 2021:

All please do comment on this article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 14, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 14, 2021:

Thanks Ann for your comments .

Ann Carr from SW England on April 14, 2021:

Interesting story. I'd never heard of her. I suppose she could argue that her motives were good! Bit of a risk though, as anyone could have shopped her!

Thanks for the education. You have a style of delivery that makes for easy reading.

Ann

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 14, 2021:

Wow! Notorious indeed! Sounds like this woman knew exactly how to get rid of men.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 14, 2021:

All ,please feel free to comment.

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