1037: Giulia Tofana

Professional Poisoner

Born: c.1620, Present-day Palermo, Italy

Died: c.1659, Present-day Rome, Italy

Giulia is remembered today for the salacious rumor that she helped over six-hundred women poison their husbands to escape their marriages, until finally being brought down by a bowl of soup. Yes, you read that right, six-hundred men.

So how did she do it, and was it all true?

Giulia was a maker of fine cosmetics. In seventeenth century Italy, there was no government oversight to look into what ingredients went into the concoctions women and men put onto their skin in order to alter or enhance their appearance, and this lack of oversight allowed Giulia to strike.

Giulia’s most sought-after product was called Aqua Tofana; a pretty name for a deadly poison. Today, researchers believe the secret ingredients ranged from arsenic, belladonna, and lead, all of which are deadly in the right amounts.

During the Renaissance Period, many marriages were arranged, and once married, women lost all their rights as individuals. They couldn’t own property or be involved or heard in government. Their husbands could beat them without fearing reprisal. And with divorce not an option for various reasons for the vast majority of women, the only escape from their torment on the home front was the convenient death of their husbands. This was where Giulia stepped in.

Some accounts say Giulia was able to poison hundreds of men for over fifty years, but this rumor could hardly be considered true given the fact that most agree Giulia only lived around forty years. The story about the soup is also hard to prove. Supposedly Giulia sold a vial of Aqua Tofana to a woman who went home and put the poison in her husband’s soup. Before the man could enjoy his dinner, however, his wife stopped him from ingesting it. This obviously made the man suspicious and he contacted the authorities, who questioned the would-be widower. After cracking under the pressure, the woman confessed Giulia had sold her the poison and Giulia was arrested. According to this tale, she confessed under torture to having murdered hundreds of men and was later executed alongside her daughter. The rumors didn’t die with her, and supposedly over one hundred years later, Mozart claimed on his deathbed he had been poisoned with Aqua Tofana.

Now, these stories are all well and good, but are they anything other than that, stories?

Unfortunately, little information about Giulia as a person survives today. There are no known portraits of her known to have been painted during her lifetime, meaning her true appearance is lost to history. All of the sources agree on a certain set of facts, meaning the following is most likely the closest to the truth we’ll ever get:

Giulia’s mother was convicted of murdering her husband and executed when Giulia herself was a young teenager. Whether she got the recipe from Aqua Tofana from her mother or not is unknown, but it seems widow-making was the family business. Giulia went on to spend around twenty years traveling up and down Italy, enabling women to murder their husbands through her concoctions before moving on to the next city, long before any suspicion could be arisen.

Giulia also worked with her daughter, and was likely a widow herself. While Giulia’s customers referred to her discrete poison as “Aqua Tofana”, she actually packaged and sold the concoction under the label “Manna of St. Nicholas of Barri.” This label made the poison look even more non-threatening, seeing as another lotion under the same name was being sold at the same time. The poison itself could kill a man with only a few drops, administered over several days. This made the man’s death mimic a slow-acting disease.

Eventually, Giulia and her daughter were caught. Whether or not this actually happened after a poisoned bowl of soup was administered is unknown for certain, but it definitely makes a good story. All of the sources agree Giulia, her daughter, and some of their “coworkers” were eventually tortured and executed. The figure of six hundred men killed stems from this torture, meaning one cannot actually pin that figure on Giulia with certainty. Most individuals would admit to whatever they were told to admit to under duress, and so we may never truly know how many men Giulia killed.

In March of 2021, news broke that the long-time lead singer of the famed band Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles, spent the Covid-19 Lockdown writing songs for a new Broadway musical inspired by Giulia Tofana’s story. As of yet the play doesn’t have a title attached to it, but maybe someday soon the musical will make it to the stage for the public to enjoy, and maybe learn a thing or two along the way.