Despite the fact that true crime podcasts and television dramas of modern day serial killers have grown in popularity, possibly the most prolific killer in history, may be someone most people haven’t heard of. In the 1600’s, an Italian woman by the name of Giulia Tofana was responsible for the agonizing deaths of over 600 men with a highly effective poison.
To better understand Giulia Tofana’s motivations, we need to have an idea of the environment that women of the time faced.
In the 17th century, women were still considered the property of their husbands. With few opportunities available to them, most women married if possible, often to abusive husbands, or turned to sex work. However, if a woman could marry, and her husband died, she would become a widow, which was typically respected and well off due to her husband leaving behind assets or money to care for her. All of that without suffering an abusive relationship could make this an appealing opportunity for a woman to take control of her own life.
Like Mother Like Daughter
Due to the age of the legends, little information is available about the life of Giulia Tofana. She was supposedly born in Palermo, Italy in 1620. In 1633, when Giulia was about 13 years old, her mother Thofania d’Amado was arrested for murdering her husband and executed by public drawing and quartering. Her method of execution? Poison.
It is rumored that Thofania taught her daughter her poison recipe, or maybe Giulia developed her own, but by the time that her mother was executed, Giulia was putting her poison to use. Some say, she even poisoned her own husband, just as her mother had.
Giulia and her daughter Girolama Spara moved around Italy, developing and selling her poisons. Her “cosmetic” business became a success as she befriended mostly lower class women in need and providing them with poisons to help them out of their situations,
Growing her business, she recruited friends, associates, apothecaries and supposedly priests to grow a massive network of over 200 people spanning Sicily, Naples and Rome. Her best selling product: Aqua Tofana.
Aqua Tofana: The Beauty Cream to Die For
Aqua Tofana was marketed as a beauty product, a facial cream or oil to heal the skin. It came in a small glass bottle or a powder with a label featuring an image of Saint Nicholas, and even called “Manna of St Nicholas of Bari”, the name of a popular cosmetic oil at the time.
Aqua Tofana featured some ingredients that were common to many beauty products of the time, like belladonna (deadly nightshade). However it also was said to contain lead, arsenic, mercuric chloride (a mix of mercury and chlorine) and antimony (used in modern times for flame proof materials, paint and batteries). No matter the exact ingredients or their concentrations, consuming this cannot be good for you.
The Ultimate Poison
The success behind Aqua Tofana was due to two main reasons. The first is that it was colorless, tasteless, and completely undetectable. This made it easy to use, and even after death, it was undetectable to physicians or in autopsies.
The second reason is that the poison was slow acting. Aqua Tofana was supposed to be split into a few doses and diluted at first. This would allow its symptoms to come along slowly, which would mimic that of many diseases at the time, reducing suspicion of the husband’s upcoming death. Most importantly, this provided the husband enough time to get his affair’s in order, which often meant creating a will to leave enough for his widow to be taken care of after his passing.
The first dose would be diluted with a liquid, and cause exhaustion and weakness. The second dose would bring about agonizing stomach pain, vomiting and dysentery. By the third or fourth dose, the man would be dead.
The widow may have even requested an autopsy of her late husband, knowing that nothing would be detected, and no one would suspect her.
The Fall of Tofana’s Empire
Giulia supposedly was quite careful in selling her product. Aqua Tofana was only sold to women in need, and only to those that she personally knew or who were vouched for by someone she knew. Despite this, she was still found out.
In 1650, a young woman purchased a bottle of Aqua Tofana to kill her husband. She hid it in his soup and served it to him. As he was about to eat, she panicked and changed her mind, begging him not to eat the soup. He became suspicious and supposedly beat her until she confessed to trying to poison him. He alerted the authorities and she was soon arrested. The woman was tortured until she revealed where the poison came from: Giulia Tofana.
Due to her network, Giulia heard about her arrest warrant before the police could come. She ran to a nearby church and took sanctuary. Soon however, rumors spread that she had poisoned the water supply and authorities stormed the church and arrested her.
Confessions of a Killer
Under torture, Giulia confessed to the amount of poison she had sold and estimated that she was responsible for killing at least 600 men from 1633 to 1651.
Giulia Tofana’s fate is a bit of a mystery, as there are several competing stories to what happened to her.
The most likely scenario is that Giulia was executed, along with her daughter and several of her associates in Camp de’ Fiori in Rome in 1651. Reportedly, dozens of lower class women charged with murdering their husbands with Aqua Tofana were also executed at this time. They say the upper class women accused were either imprisoned or banished, and some avoided punishment by feigning ignorance about the product.
Other sources say that Giulia died of natural causes in 1651 and was never arrested. Some say that she was executed as late as 1659, 1709 or 1730 which is highly unlikely as she was born in 1620 and would have been over 100 years old.
One story says that at the time of her arrest, when she was dragged from the church she had taken sanctuary in, she had been dragged outside and strangled before her body was thrown back in the convent.
Interestingly, one theory claims that Giulia was executed in 1651, but her daughter Girolama continued to run the business until her own execution by hanging in 1659.
Whether her daughter survived her or one of her many associates took up the torch, supposedly the recipe for Aqua Tofana carried on and may have been produced on a much smaller scale after Giulia’s death.
History’s Most Prolific Serial Killer?
The question remains, was Giulia Tofana one of, if not the most prolific serial killer in all of history? Perhaps.
She confessed to providing poison to kill over 600 men. She confessed this under torture, but if someone were facing execution for murder, why would they provide so great a number? Surely they would want to downplay their role in the operation. Regardless, the fact that the confession was dragged from her makes it questionable.
Besides, did Giulia herself actually kill anyone? She may have killed her own husband, but she did not personally poison those 600 men. She only sold the means to do so. However, she was responsible for these deaths, and knowingly sold the poison to hundreds of women.
The Legacy of the Poison Aqua Tofana
Regardless of the actual number of victims, which we will never know for certain, Giulia Tofana’s legacy lives on. In the centuries following her life and death, Aqua Tofana became synonymous for a discrete, slow acting poison. As Mozart was on his death bed, dying of a mysterious illness, his dying words were reportedly:
“I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of the idea… Someone has given me Aqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.”
- Toomer, J. (2021, October 22). Giulia Tofana, The Italian Serial Poisoner Who Became A Legend. SYFY Official Site. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/giulia-tofana-the-italian-serial-poisoner-who-became-a-legend
- McKennett, H. (2020, June 2). Meet Giulia Tofana: The 17th-Century Professional Poisoner Said To Have Killed 600 Men. All That’s Interesting. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from https://allthatsinteresting.com/giulia-tofana
- Wagner, B. B. (2020, August 16). Giulia Tofana: Queenpin of the Criminal Magical Underworld. Ancient Origins. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/giulia-tofana-0014131
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- Dash, M. (2015, April 6). Aqua Tofana: Slow-poisoning and husband-killing in 17th century Italy. A Blast From The Past. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from https://mikedashhistory.com/2015/04/06/aqua-tofana-slow-poisoning-and-husband-killing-in-17th-century-italy/