Meet The Woman Who Poisoned Makeup To Help Over 600 Women Murder Their Husbands
With a concoction known as Aqua Tofana, Giulia Tofana found a creative solution for Renaissance women in need of a divorce
She’s the most successful serial killer whose name you’ve never heard. Giulia Tofana killed hundreds of men in 17th-century Italy when she turned her makeup business into a poison factory, selling a deadly concoction called Aqua Tofana, thought to have been laced with arsenic, lead, and belladonna.
Tofana made it her mission — and her business — to help aspiring widows murder their husbands. During the Renaissance, in an era of arranged marriages that left no possibility of divorce, the only way out of an unhappy union was death. Women were often forced into marriage by their families without having a say in the matter. Once married, husbands had complete control over their wives, and women were often completely powerless. Husbands could beat their wives without facing any punishment or subject them to all kinds of cruel treatments.
No wonder some women wanted to be widows. Aqua Tofana provided a quick, discrete solution.
Tofana was able to murder hundreds of men over the course of nearly 50 years without being caught — until, in a shocking twist, a bowl of soup caused her downfall.
Giulia Tofana made Italian cosmetics using deadly poisons
So, who was Giulia Tofana outside of being the prolific creator of a widow-maker poison? In many ways, one of history’s most prolific serial killers remains a mystery. There are no portraits of Giulia. During the mid-1600s, Giulia sold cosmetics in southern Italy — and her special recipes for Aqua Tofana contained enough arsenic to kill without leaving a trace. Her goal was to keep her poison secret so that she could continue to sell the potent concoction. And she managed to fool the authorities for nearly 50 years.
Giulia was eventually caught because of a bowl of soup
In the 1650s, one of Giulia Tofana’s clients got cold feet. She’d bought the Aqua Tofana from Giulia and taken it home. She’d even gone so far as to put the poison in her husband’s soup. But suddenly she had been gripped with regret. She stopped her husband from eating the soup, and the suspicious man forced her to tell the truth. Then, he turned her over to the Papal authorities in Rome. She finally confessed and pointed the finger at Giulia as the miscreant who had sold her the poison.
Giulia was warned of her impending arrest, and she fled to a church, asking for sanctuary. It was granted, but when a rumor spread through Rome that Giulia had poisoned the water, the church was stormed, and Giulia was handed over to Papal authorities, who tortured her until she confessed to poisoning over 600 men between 1633 and 1651. It’s possible that the real number was even higher. In July of 1659, Giulia Tofana was executed along with her daughter and three employees. They were killed in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, a popular location for execution.
Some of Giulia’s clients were also punished. After her confession, a number of clients tried to feign ignorance and claim their Aqua Tofana was simply for cosmetic purposes. Others were executed or thrown into prison. But the legend of Aqua Tofana continued long after Giulia’s death.
On his deathbed, Mozart said he was poisoned with Aqua Tofana
Aqua Tofana became so famous that in 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart claimed he was being poisoned with Tofana’s invention. The composer was still working on his requiem mass when he fell seriously ill. From his deathbed, Mozart declared, “I feel definitely that I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned.” He went on to claim, “Someone has given me acqua tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.”
While poisoning most likely didn’t kill Mozart, the fact that Giulia Tofana’s recipe was still being discussed more than 100 years after her death is clear evidence that her poison was very popular.
Aqua Tofana could kill in as few as four drops
Aqua Tofana could kill a man with as few as four drops of poison, meted out over a matter of days or weeks to avoid suspicion. It was completely tasteless, odorless, and colorless — making it the perfect poison to mix into a glass of wine or any other drink. The recipe was a mixture of arsenic, lead, and belladonna, all deadly poisonous substances.
Tofana’s real genius, though, was in its disguise: as a typical woman’s cosmetic or even a religious healing oil that no husband would suspect. First, she disguised Aqua Tofana as a powdered makeup. Women could set the small container on their dressing tables next to other lotions and perfumes without raising suspicion from anyone. But her second disguise was even more ingenious. She sold Aqua Tofana hidden in small vials with the image of Saint Nicholas of Bari. The vial claimed to be “Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari,” a special healing ointment that looked like a devotional object.
Giulia Tofana’s mother and daughter were also poisoners
Giulia Tofana wasn’t the only poisoner in her family. She was the daughter of Thofania d’Adamo, who was executed in Palermo, Sicily, in 1633 after being accused of murdering her husband. It’s possible that Thofania even used poison. The family connection didn’t stop there. Giulia’s daughter, Girolama Spera, known as “Astrologa della Lungara,” was also part of the family business. She was executed in 1659 along with her mother.
And maybe Giulia herself did more than just sell the substance. When she started her business, she was described as a beautiful young widow, known to spend a lot of time with apothecaries, watching as they made their potions. This may have helped her develop her own potion, Aqua Tofana. Alternatively, maybe the secret was passed down by her mother.
Giulia Tofana and her female relatives weren’t the only women poisoning people in the Renaissance
Poison was known as women’s weapon of choice when they wanted to murder someone in medieval and early modern Europe. Poison was associated with cosmetics: a number of Renaissance cosmetics contained poisonous ingredients like arsenic, belladonna, and cochineal. Belladonna was popular because it dilated pupils, which fit with the Renaissance standard of beauty. But along with dilated pupils, the lethal nightshade could cause blindness.
Historian Annette Drew-Bear has argued that Renaissance plays featured women applying face-paint on stage to reference women’s false and poisonous nature. So Giulia Tofana wasn’t the only woman associated with poisoning people in the Renaissance — not by a long shot.