Giulia Tofana was born in Palermo, Italy in 1620. Not a lot is known about her early life and much that is known is based on conjecture. There are conflicting stories, but they are so fascinating. (Palermo is almost straight out from the toe of the boot.)
Consider the times—In the 1600’s, a woman was married off early and had no choice or consideration who she would marry. Often, the husband was older and the marriage match was made to further the wealth of both families, with no thought to the character of the husband. Many of these women suffered great abuse with no recourse to leave the marriage. This is why Guilia chose her profession.
Rumor has it that when Guilia was about thirteen, her mother killed her father because of his abuse. Her mother was then put to death. Guilia worked with an apothecary and learned about the various potions and ingredients used to make them. She either developed a formula on her own or learned the formula from her mother to make Aqua Tofana, a deadly poison.
Aqua Tofana was colorless and odorless. A few drops in a glass of wine or a bowl of soup, administered three to four days in a row would ensure the recipient died a fairly painless death. The symptoms were more like a cold or flu. The exact formula for Aqua Tofana is lost, but it is suspected the main ingredient was arsenic, with possible additions of mercuric chloride, belladonna, and lead.
Guilia also made cosmetics for women, which gave the women an excuse to come to her and their husbands would not suspect any wrongdoing. She bottled Aqua Tofana in perfume bottles and sometimes disguised them as healing oils. The small vials would sit on the woman’s dressing table along with her other cosmetic bottles and no one would suspect. Some of the containers showed the image of Saint Nicholas of Bari, a very pious image.
Starting in 1633 until she was caught in 1651, Guilia is suspected of helping to murder over 600 husbands. She was known to counsel the wives in their comportment so they would act the grieving widow and not show their guilt.
In 1651, one of the women who bought Aqua Tofana from Guilia, changed her mind. At the last minute, she stopped her husband from eating the poisoned soup. When she confessed what she’d done, the husband contacted the authorities. They arrested Guilia and, under torture, she confessed to over 600 deaths. (They are unsure is this is a true number or if she said this because of the torture.)
|The Campo del Fiori|
In 1659, Guilia was put to death at the Campo de Fiori and subsequently tossed off the wall of the church. (She was rumored to have sought sanctuary in the church at the time of her arrest, but the crowds feared she would poison the water supply and broke in to take her to the authorities.) Guilia’s daughter, Girolama Spera and three helpers, were also put to death. There are also stories of some of Guilia’s clients being arrested and put to death while others were bricked up behind a wall.
This is a horrible story, and so very sad. However, I think you have to consider the plight of women in this time period and the abuse they were subjected to. Perhaps they saw no other way out of their situation. Such a terrible tale can make us thankful for the resources we have today. What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on Guilia’s story.
Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.