Abusive husband? Strained relationship? Cheating Spouse? These problems in a woman’s life today mean a trip down to your therapists’ office, filing for divorce, showing up at court, and then being labeled a divorcee.
Now imagine being a woman with the same problems in the medieval age, where women had no rights and were bound to commit to their husbands irrespective of how they treated them. These women were stuck in such marriages only felt relieved when their husbands died. But in the 17th century, an Italian woman named Giulia Tofana changed the lives of many women forever. She provided what could be called an “early Italian divorce” for many unhappy wives. But how did Giulia Tofana manage to make a name for herself in those times when men dominated the world?
Giulia Tofana was born in Palermo, Sicily to Thofania d’Adamo and Francis Tofana. She had lived life like a normal child until the execution of her mother in 1633.
At the mere age of 13, Giulia Tofana found herself all alone in this world after her mother was executed for her crimes. Her mother’s crime? She had murdered her husband and Giulia’s father.
In the times in which Giulia was born, women, once married, were at the mercy of their husbands forever, often trapped in loveless and abusive relationships. But Giulia did not want such a life, so she went on to make a place for herself in this world.
She started spending time with the pharmacists or apothecaries of the time. She mastered the art of how to mix potions, cosmetics, medicines, and perfumes. She put these skills that she had learned to rather unique use later.
She started a new business. It thrived to such an extent that she expanded to other cities in Italy like Naples and Rome. She used to sell cosmetic products including perfumes, creams, and all types of makeup, but these weren’t the success of her business.
The secret that led to the success of Giulia Tofana’s business was a really dark one, a secret that many people knew about but still never disclosed. Why did the people who were aware never disclose Giulia’s secret?
After opening her new business, Giulia started selling her signature concoction, “Aqua Tofana.” Her most special product, the one with which she provided “an early Italian divorce.”
Now, you must be wondering how a makeup product is supposed to that. Aqua Tofana wasn’t just the name of a makeup product, rather it was deadly poison in a very pretty bottle.
It contained arsenic, lead, belladonna, and a cocktail of other chemicals that were all deadly when consumed. The poison was transparent, tasteless, and odorless which made it even more dangerous. Aqua Tofana earned Giulia a very suitable nickname that she was famously known by – “The Queen of Poison.”
But what was so special about this toxic cocktail that Giulia concocted?
Aqua Tofana was the dark secret that led to the success of her business. She sold it to women who were in need of lifelong respite from the shackles of their abusive marriages. She sold it along with other merchandise from the shop so no one would be suspicious.
This dark secret of her business was known to many women, and even a few men in Italy, but no one ever dared to let it out for the fear of their own crimes being exposed leading to them being executed.
Aqua Tofana came in a very pretty bottle that was disguised to look like a perfume or holy healing oil vials of “Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari.”
This allowed it to be easily hidden in a woman’s makeup kit or even placed in plain sight with no fear of suspicion. But how did Aqua Tofana manage to kill so many men without leaving a single trace?
Once the poison was sold to the women, they would look for the perfect chance to add a few drops of Giulia’s signature concoction in their husband’s food or wine. Once the husband consumed the poison, he would fall very ill. The poison would result in exhaustion, stomach aches, extreme thirsting, vomiting, dysentery, and eventually his death.
To save their good name, the women would demand a post-mortem examination. The result would be nothing, except that the woman was able to pose as a slandered innocent, and then it would be remembered that her husband died without pain, inflammation, fever, or spasms.
If, after this, the woman formed a new connection within a year or two, nobody could blame her. The women either found new connections or lived the rest of their lives in peace as respectable widows.
In medieval times, if women didn’t want to enter a convent, they had only three ways to make a living: they married, they begged, or they prostituted themselves.
The last two options had their own obvious shortfalls and would force them to lead unrespectable lives. Still, there were many powerless married women, many of whom were also at risk. Women either died in childbirth or of complications after birthing too many children.
Women were beaten, mistreated, and powerless, and some of them just hated their husbands. With a life like this, it was a much better option to become a widow.
Giulia’s clients were very protective of her. They shared their secret only with people they trusted and no one else. This is how their family business thrived for years. Giulia’s daughter, Girolama Spera, also followed in her mother’s footsteps.
Giulia was still in business when her daughter joined. Some people speculate that the original formula of Aqua Tofana was concocted by Giulia’s mother.
Some people also suspect that Giulia’s mother might have killed her husband by giving him this poison only, but there is no sound evidence to prove this although many people still believe that Giulia’s father was one of the early poisonings.
It is estimated that as the business continued to grow, Aqua Tofana was distributed through a complex underground network built by Giulia. This network had a headcount of almost 200 people including cunning women, astrologers, alchemists, con men, witches, shady apothecaries, backstreet abortionists, and even priests from the Church.
Aqua Tofana, or “A Divorce in a Bottle,” managed to free hundreds of women from unwanted or abusive husbands.
Giulia managed to keep her scheme running for a very long time, but her murderous empire built on secrets and poison did finally come to an end. In the year 1650, a woman who had given her husband poisonous soup got cold feet. When she stopped him from eating it, he smelled a rat.
The husband abused his wife until she confessed to poisoning the food. He immediately turned her into the Papal authorities. Her obvious weak will and natural talkativeness were encouraged by the proximity of torture devices and the expertise of the authorities at that time.
They forced her to expose Giulia Tofana and her poisonous cocktail scheme. But Giulia was beloved by the people, especially the women, both powerful and poor, who she helped. They warned her of her warrant before the authorities came knocking.
She escaped and was granted sanctuary in a convent from where she continued to supply Aqua Tofana through a religious network.
This lasted only until a rumor spread that she had mixed Aqua Tofana in the water supply. An angry mob attacked the convent and handed her over to the authorities. This was when the government stepped in too.
In a confession that was tortured out of her, Giulia Tofana claimed to be responsible for the death of over 600 men between the years of 1633 and 1651, justifying her famous nickname “The Queen of Poison.”
Giulia was eventually hanged in a public hanging in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome along with her daughter and her three assistants. She met the same fate as her mother. Forty of Tofana’s lower-class customers were also hanged, whereas her upper-class customers were either imprisoned or escaped punishment altogether by claiming that they never knew their “cosmetics” were actually poison.
Although there are many versions of the end of Giulia’s poisonous empire, this is the most widely believed. The other versions include people believing that Giulia was hanged when she was a hundred years old, or that she was never caught and died of natural causes.
One of the most remarkable things about the legacy of Aqua Tofana was that on his deathbed, even famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart allegedly blamed his sudden, mysterious illness on Giulia’s creation, exclaiming, “I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea that someone has given me Aqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.”
It is often argued whether or not Giulia Tofana could have had good intentions. Was she just interested in killing men? Did the death of so many men give her pleasure, or was she genuinely worried about women and wanted to save them from being highly abused by their husbands be it sexual, physical, or mental?
Some people agree that divorce was not a choice for women back then, so these helpless women turning to Giulia for help who sold them the deadly poison with which they could put their unsuspecting husbands to an endless sleep was the only option, and so it was justified.
No one today knows the exact recipe of Aqua Tofana, yet these drops of poison have left their lethal mark on history. So many years have passed, and even with much advancement in our resources, we have not been able to find a single legitimate portrait that could show us the face of Giulia Tofana, prolific creator of a widow-making poison.