Familiar Taste Of Poison – The Deadly Water Of Giulia Tofana

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Anno Domini
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Palermo, Italy

How armful could a woman have been in the XVII century? You would be surprised to know the answer. Back then, life used to be pretty hard and it’s difficult for us now to imagine how little could it take to be burnt at the stake for no valid reason at all. However, it’s not uncommon to find rebel women through history pages, swans that look peaceful and calm on the water surface while concealing their movements underneath. This was exactly the case of Giulia Tofana, an Italian woman who’s considered to be one of the greatest serial killers ever. 

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Giulia was born in Palermo between the XVI and XVII century on skid row, her mother, Thofania D’Adamo had been executed in 1633 for she was believed to have poisoned her husband. Just like anyone growing up in such an unlucky situation, Giulia relied on her wit and her appearance to survive. While she had to sell her body to put food on the table, she also spent quite a lot of her time researching and experimenting in order to improve the poison recipe her mother used before her.

The potion, later known as “Tofana Water” or “St Nicolas Godsend” (for the liquid was cleverly kept in tiny bottles with the portrait of the saint so nobody would have suspected anything), was a deadly cocktail made with arsenic, lead, antimony and belladonna which were mixed in hot boiling water in order to obtain odourless and flavourless water that could kill someone slowly and without visible symptoms. In fact, those who wanted to try and play the little murderer only had to pour a few drops on the victim’s meal or drink and voilà! In 15-20 days one would begin to feel sick and die so slowly that nobody could ever tell it had to do with poison. 

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St Nicolas' Godsend Bottle - Basilica San Nicola - Bari, Italy
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St. Nicolas' Godsend Bottle portrait, Wikipedia

Thanks to the good Alessandro Ademollo for being the first to publish an important volume on the Tofana Water using the material found in the Roman archives of the famous Roman trial in 1659. What did those papers say? Here it is, with two genuine depositions belonging to one of the women on trial and her servant: "You need to mix water with arsenic and lead, put to boil in a new pot well covered with a lid so that air doesn't come out, then wait until reduced by one inch. The water will be clear and clean; if put in wine or soup will cause vomiting, then fever, and in fifteen to twenty days it will make you die: you only need five to six drops per day to work properly, and it doesn't affect the taste of soup nor wine."

What’s most interesting though is the target audience among which this poison was popular: women trapped in unhappy marriages, in a time where divorce was not even an option. That’s right, females who had enough of the life they were living because of their husbands were now saying no to the abuses they were put up for. It may seem very drastic, and it surely is when you resort to murder, but let’s take a closer look at how relationships between husband and wife used to be in the past. People were forced to get married while they were still helpless children and the union had to mean something in terms of wealth and finance. When we think about daily life back then, we need to consider a woman wasn’t allowed to do much except for taking care of the children, cooking, sewing and keeping the house clean. Also, sexuality was lived in a very repressed way and there really was a thin line between consensual sex and rape. Nobody can tell for sure why Giulia Tofana came up with the idea of hurting men, but the fact that the mother was put to death and her resorting to prostitution to survive, gives us a hint of her hate for the status quo. Sorry ladies, if you thought your family recipe for apple pie was the one key to bring males on their knees, you need to reconsider your skills.

As everyone knows, great ideas run even faster than gossip, and pretty soon everyone wanted a piece of Giulia’s creation. She became ridiculously rich for a single woman with no title and she soon hired another woman, Girolama Spera (records don’t make clear whether she was her daughter or sister) to help her produce the poison. The packaging was getting more and more creative, above any suspicion: the Tofana water was placed in small bottles and sold as homemade cosmetic so that no man could ever go through the poison by accident. Well, speaking of accidents, things got quite messy when a lady who purchased the poisonous water didn’t follow the instructions properly and her husband found out about it all bringing Giulia to the attention of the Inquisition

Giulia fled Palermo in haste, along with her daughter/sister and her new lover, a monk named Girolamo. They got to Rome (yeah, probably not the best location if you wish to escape from the Inquisition) and moved to a nice apartment, for which, of course, Girolamo paid for. She took the chance to study and finally get a grip on what she felt she was missing the most: culture, the deadliest weapon of all. When she seemed to have left the poison years behind, a friend happened to tell her how unhappy she was with her violent husband. It didn’t take long for Giulia to dust off her old tools and start producing Tofana water again. Her business took off very quickly and the countless customers were now accurately selected by Giulia, who didn’t want to risk another snitch.

Unfortunately though, that was exactly what it was about to happen once again. This time, the clumsy client was the Countess of Ceri who was so anxious to get rid of the husband that she poured the entire bottle into his soup for dinner. Needless to say, the man dropped dead immediately and relatives began to be very suspicious of the Countess who cracked like an egg after a while, revealing where she got the poison. Giulia was arrested, tortured and finally executed, along with Girolama and 3 other women, in Campo de’ Fiori in 1659. During the following months, 41 women were either strangled or walled up alive at the Inquisition Palace in Porta Cavalleggeri.   

Before her final hour, Giulia Tofana confessed the poison she produced served death to almost 600 men, making her one of the most dangerous serial killers in history (still, we should consider the poor reliability of confessions obtained through torture). Her poison outlived her and the Tofana water kept on being used for a long time. Records show how Marie-Madeleine d’Aubray, marchioness of Brinvilliers, used it to kill her father, brother and sister so she could inherit the family possessions, of course, her plan wasn’t that brilliant and she was executed for her crimes. Later, both the notorious Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Pope Benedict XIII suspected they were given Tofana water.

What seems to connect all the cases we know through history records, is the extensive popularity and preference for poison as a weapon among women. Maybe what should surprise us most nowadays is how popular, and therefore normal, the idea of killing a male companion was. Even the most unsuspected woman could have been a potential killer and this should explain very well how often there was no such thing as love in a marriage. Whatever the detailed reasons, one thing is for sure: I bet none of you will have soup for dinner tonight. 

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