A popular December 16 2020 post by the Facebook page “Beauty is Inside” discussed Giulia Tofana, a purported “Italian professional poisoner,” who became historically significant for selling a poison called “Aqua Tofana” to women trying to get away from their abusive husbands:
Underneath two paintings (one of which was “The Love Potion” by Pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn DeMorgan) and an image of a bottle labeled “POISON” was a short Wikipedia blurb and a status update:
Giulia Tofana was an Italian professional poisoner. She was famous for selling poison to women who wanted to murder their abusive husbands. She was the inventor of the famous poison Aqua Tofana, which is named after her. [Wikipedia link]
“Giulia was sympathetic to the low status of women and most often sold her poison to women trapped in unhealthy and dangerous marriages. She became known as a friend to the troubled wife and received many referrals.”
As indicated, the post linked to an existing Wikipedia page for “Giulia Tofana.” Citations on the page were thin, and the primary sections were “Biography” and “Death.” The page noted that information about her background was “sparse,” adding:
[Giulia Tofana] was born in 1620 in Palermo and was possibly the daughter of Thofania d’Adamo, who was executed in Palermo on 12 July 1633, accused of having murdered her husband Francis. Tofana was described as beautiful, and she spent a lot of time with apothecaries, was present when they made their potions, and eventually developed her own poison, Aqua Tofana. It is, however, also possible that it was her mother, Thofania d’Adamo, who made the poison and passed the recipe on to her daughter. She began to sell this poison to women who wanted to escape abusive husbands. Her daughter, Girolama Spera, was also active in this. She eventually moved her business to Naples and Rome.
Giulia was sympathetic to the low status of women and most often sold her poison to women trapped in unhealthy and dangerous marriages. She became known as a friend to the troubled wife and received many referrals.
Tofana’s business was finally revealed to the Papal authorities by a customer; however she was so popular that the locals protected her from apprehension. She escaped to a church, where she was granted sanctuary. When a rapid rumour, claiming that she had poisoned the water, tore through Rome, the police forced their way into the church and dragged Tofana in for questioning.
According to the next section of the page, Tofana was tortured and executed in July 1659:
Under torture, she confessed to killing 600 men with her poisons in Rome alone between 1633 and 1651, but this cannot be confirmed owing to the torture and the widespread distribution of the poison. She was ultimately executed in Rome (in the Campo de’ Fiori), together with her daughter (Girolama Spera, known as “Astrologa della Lungara”) and three helpers, in July 1659 … Some of the users and purveyors were also arrested and executed, while other accomplices were bricked into the dungeons of the Palazzo Pucci.
That Wikipedia page was not new in 2020 (when the story became virally popular), and the first entry about Giulia Tofana was published on July 17 2008, with no discernible citations. An entry of similar length for “Aqua Tofana” existed, originally published on September 24 2004.
A live version shared many of the same citations as the entry on Tofana:
Aqua Tofana (also known as Acqua Toffana, Acquetta Perugina, and Aqua Tufania and Manna di San Nicola) was a strong poison that was reputedly widely used in Naples, Perugia, and Rome, Italy. During the early 17th century Giulia Tofana, or Tofania, a woman from Palermo, made a good business for over fifty years selling her large production (she employed her daughter and several other helpers) of Aqua Tofana to would-be widows.
The first recorded mention of Acqua Tofana (literally meaning “Tofana water”) is from 1632–33.
Perhaps an older recipe had been refined by Tofana and her daughter, Girolama Spera, around 1650 in Rome. The ‘tradename’ “Manna di San Nicola”, i.e. “Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari” might have been a marketing device intended to divert the authorities, since the poison was openly sold both as a cosmetic and a devotionary object in vials that included a picture of St. Nicholas. Some of her customers claimed to have used it for its advertised purposes and caused deaths only accidentally . Over 600 victims are alleged to have died from this poison, mostly abusive husbands, in a time where woman did not have any rights or protection. Tofana was arrested and confessed to producing the poison, and she implicated a number of her clients, claiming that they knew what they were buying. She was executed in July 1659.
In addition to the quoted portion above, “citation needed” also appeared next to a claim that Tofana’s prosecution led to “much disquiet throughout Italy,” and the article included the following notation at the top, and again under “References”:
This article needs additional citations for verification.
The most reliable source for the story of Toffana is Vita di Alessandro VII by Cardinal Pallavicini[.]
On February 3 2020, YouTuber Bailey Sarian profiled Giulia Tofana and her “Tofana water” as part of her “Makeup & Mystery” series, during which Sarian combines a makeup tutorial with discussion of a true crime case or other mysterious topics.
Sarian’s video was titled “Giulia Tofana Killed Over 600 Men With Her Poisonous Makeup,” stating in the description that she “wanted to talk about Giulia Tofana and her product Aqua Tofana,” adding that she wasn’t sure whether or not it was true.
In October 2019, a Reddit user shared the Wikipedia page to Reddit’s r/todayilearned:
Its most upvoted comment mused:
Next time to avoid raising suspicion, don’t name the poison after yourself.
A February 2018 Lansing City Pulse item about a play mentioned Tofana and Aqua Tofana, noting that a local, “Williamston Theatre’s stalwart playwright, Joseph Zettelmaier, discovered Tofana’s story in an article, and immediately became feverishly obsessed.” The article referenced, however, was neither mentioned nor linked:
“I completely fell in love with the story,” Zettelmaier said. “I dove headfirst into researching everything I could about her.”
Like a lot of good folk stories, Zettelmaier says, there are just a few definitive things that happened, and very little else. “Aqua Tofana” was the clandestine merchant’s magnum opus, becoming Rome’s marquee widow maker.
Historical References and Mike Dash
It is not uncommon for history to be embellished in viral social media posts, as might have been the case with Giulia Tofana and Aqua Tofana.
But a primary source for both Wikipedia pages was the writing of Welsh historian and journalist Mike Dash, who wrote at length about Tofana and the poison bearing her name in April 2015 in a piece headlined, “Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband-killing in 17th century Italy.”
Dash opened with details about Mozart’s purported belief that he had been poisoned as he ailed before his death, touching on Aqua Tofana before continuing:
The story as it is commonly told is this: Aqua Tofana was the creation of a Sicilian woman named Giulia Tofana, who lived and worked in Palermo in the first half of the 17th century. It was a limpid, harmless-looking liquid, a scant four to six drops of which were “sufficient to destroy a man.” Its principal ingredient was arsenic, and, while its use spread throughout much of southern Italy, it was typically administered by women to their husbands, most commonly in order to come into their fortunes – poisons were often known as “inheritance powders” in those days.
The very existence of Aqua Tofana was, thus, a severe challenge to what was then agreed to be the natural order – a world in which men ruled as petty tyrants over their own families, and even the most aristocratic of daughters were chattels to be auctioned off into often loveless marriages. For this reason, generous allowance needs to be made for contemporary misogyny when we think about this tale; one of the few constants in the various portraits of events is the depiction of Tofana and her gang as hags, and their female customers as faithless Jezebels.
In the course of a career that lasted for more than 50 years (the same accounts generally continue), Tofana and her gang were able to use this poison to dispose of at least 600 victims. Their secret was well-kept for all those years by a widening group of satisfied clients. Indeed, according to the Abbé Gagliani, a worldly-wise gambler and wit who wrote a century or so later, “there was not a lady in Naples who had not some of it lying openly on her toilette among her perfumes. She alone knows the phial, and can distinguish it.”
Dash noted that the lore around Tofana was vague and nebulous and often chronologically dissonant, and added that even the manner of her death was disputed by historians:
There are several problems, nonetheless, with these versions of events. One is that there are two wildly different versions of Tofana’s story. The first has her flourishing in Sicily as early as the 1630s; the second has her still alive in prison a century later. She is supposed to have operated in Palermo, in Naples, and in Rome, and is variously said to have been the inventor of the poison that bears her name, or merely its inheritor. Nor is there any certainty when it comes to the ingredients of her elixir. Most accounts agree that Aqua Tofana was based on arsenic. But some state that it also contained toadflax, Spanish Fly, extract of snapdragon, a solution of pennywort known as aqua cymbelaria, and even madmen’s spittle.
The mysteries multiply when we consider the vexed question of when, and how, Tofana met her end. One source says that that she died of natural causes in 1651, another that she found sanctuary in a convent, and lived on there for many years, continuing to make her poison and dispensing it via a network of nuns and clerics. Several assert that she was captured, tortured and executed, though they differ as to whether her death occurred in 1659, or 1709, or 1730. In one especially detailed account, Tofana was dragged bodily from her sanctuary and strangled, after which “her body was thrown at night into the area of the convent from which she had been taken.”
The latter version in which Tofana was executed and her body defenestrated was stated as fact in the Wikipedia article, which both cited Dash as a source and did not include the supplied information about conflicting accounts of her manner and date of death.
Dash identified a third, larger issue with the well-known Tofana lore — that the very basis of the stories about her, as well as Tofana’s purported invention of Aqua Tofana, was historically implausible:
….Yet the known potions of that period lacked the qualities ascribed to the Tofana poison; they were less reliable, more readily detected, and produced far more violent symptoms than Aqua Tofana was generally reputed to. All this leaves us with a problem. Might a group of poorly-educated poison-makers have somehow stumbled on a secret formula? Or is it safer to conclude that the tales told of Tofana are at best greatly exaggerated, and perhaps nothing but the product of contemporary hysteria and later tall tale telling?
Dash went into great detail about historical accounts of Tofana herself, as well as rival and accomplice poisoners:
Tofana died in about 1651 – probably in her own bed, and apparently unsuspected of any crime – and from then on Spara took over as leader of the gang. She was, Ademollo says, the widow of a Florentine gentleman by the name of Carrozzi, and moved comfortably in aristocratic circles, while De Grandis dealt mostly with less exalted clients. According to one contemporary manuscript, unearthed in a local archive, Spara operated as a kind of “cunning woman” who sold charms and cures to the gentlewomen and nobility of Rome. These activities would not only have introduced her to potential customers, but would also have given her a shrewd idea of which of her clients were happy in their marriages and which unhappy – not to mention which might be desperate enough to seek drastic remedies, and be able to keep a secret.
We have only a handful of clues as to how the members of the gang went about their business. Spara and her confederates, both Italian historians say, took the arsenic supplied by Father Girolamo and disguised it, first by turning it into a liquid and then by bottling it in glass jars that identified it as “Manna of St Nicholas” – a miraculous healing oil that supposedly sweated from the saint’s bones in far-off Bari.
As Dash attempted to stitch together a consistent account based on credible historical accounts, he concluded:
What conclusions may be drawn thus far regarding the Tofana poison? There seems to be no reason to doubt that Teofania di Adamo and Girolama Spara existed, and were executed for the crime of poisoning in 1633 and 1659 respectively. Giulia Tofana, on the other hand, remains a thoroughly shadowy figure, though the existence of the process found by Ademollo, together with a printed warning to the citizens of Rome, containing a detailed description of the symptoms produced by poison sold in the Eternal City during the 1650s, is decent evidence that arsenic was being used in that time and that place.
All this, I think, allows for two conclusions. The first is that we can place the historical Giulia Tofana in the Rome of the 1640s and 1650s, and dismiss reports of murderous “Tophanas” in the Naples of the first third of the 18th century as errors that have muddied waters for two centuries. The second is that the notoriety of the Naples poisoners tells us a good deal about the lasting impression that the real Tofana made in early modern Europe. Her name, it’s clear, became synonymous with poison – not merely in Italy, but well outside its boundaries. To grasp how a single sensational court case dating to 1659 could have a lasting impact, and why Aqua Tofana itself was much discussed and so much feared, we next need to consider the broader reputation of Italians during this period – an era in which it was widely believed that they knew more about poisons, and poisoning, than any other people.
Finally, he indicated there were reasons to suspect historical accounts had been tainted by something as old as human history, but particularly prevalent in 2020 — a “moral panic”:
It does not seem too much – given all this evidence – to suggest that the activities of the criminal magical underworlds of Europe probably did extend occasionally to the provision of arsenic to a desperate or angry customer who had probably already ploughed substantial sums into magical remedies that had not worked. It would be going a good deal further, though, to attempt to make the case that the evidence collected by Ademollo and Salomene-Marino equates to proof that murder by poison was very common in Rome, or that Spara and the members of her gang made and sold a special potion – Aqua Tofana – that was more subtle and more lethal than the ordinary concoctions of the time. There is, in fact, some reason to believe that poison was not nearly so prevalent in Italy as contemporaries believed; a calendar of cases heard by the courts in Tofana’s hometown, Palermo, between 1541 and 1819 lists only seven executions for murder by poison. So it is perfectly plausible, in sum, that some of the deaths attributed to poison in the public records of the time were the result of natural causes, and that the fame of Aqua Tofana itself was largely the product of a moral panic.
In 2017, Dash published a chapter about his research into Aqua Tofana and Giulia Tofana for the book History of Toxicology and Environmental Health; an abstract read:
Aqua Tofana, a poison first developed in Sicily in about 1630, became the subject of a notorious trial that took place in Rome in 1659. Although apparently based on arsenic, it was so notorious by the early 18th century that it began to be ascribed almost magical properties. As such, “Aqua Tofana” became a catch-all term referring to an imagined class of “slow poisons” that were thought to be precise, undetectable, and invariably lethal. Popular belief in the existence of slow poisons remained common well into the 19th century, and the details of the original Aqua Tofana were largely obscured and forgotten.
Tofana was also briefly mentioned in an article in the British Medical Journal in December 1909 [PDF].
In December 2020 (and cyclically during preceding decades), social media rediscovered the story of Giulia Tofana and her infamous Aqua Tofana, a stealthy and reliable poison purportedly used to help hundreds of Italian women escape abusive husbands. Scholarly inquiry into the Tofana tales, however, suggested that many of their elements may have been vestigial urban legends, largely unverifiable at best. Dash’s account indicated that a Giulia Tofana did exist in Sicily in the 1600s, but even the Wikipedia article typically attached to viral posts about Aqua Tofana failed to mention the uncertainty in elements of her lore. Consequently, we have rated this claim Decontextualized — anyone interested in the veracity of the story ought to read Dash’s above-linked work in its entirety in order to better understand the questions about whether much of the claim was embellished or conflated with related history.