In 17th century Italy, most women who did not wish to take up a nun’s habit and enter a convent had only three ways to keep body and soul together: beg, prostitute themselves, or marry. Most women married, but given the state of things and the prevailing patriarchy, those who had the misfortune of ending up with an abusive husband were usually out of luck. Divorce was not an option, and complaints were often met by advice to be patient, submit to their hubbies, diligently fulfill their wifely duties, and try harder to please their spouses in order to avoid more abuse.
Thus, many women had to settle for praying that an abusive husband would mend his way, or barring that, pray for early widowhood. Some, however, were more proactive in bringing about their widowhood. For the latter, a dealer in cosmetics named Giulia Tofana must have seemed like an angel of deliverance, seeing as how she helped many women free themselves from a toxic marriage, with a toxin that was named after her: Aqua Tofana. When she was finally caught and confessed to her deeds, contemporaries were shocked to learn that Tofana had helped poison more than 600 men.
Background of a Poisoner
For somebody whose crimes were so extensive, and whose track record in dealing death to so many was so long, it is surprising that the historical record is silent about much of Giulia Tofana’s background. Relatively little is known of the woman’s childhood, her early upbringing and youth, or about much of her life, for that matter. She was said to have been exceptionally beautiful, just like her mother, Thofania d’Adamo, but there are no known surviving portraits of her.
What is known is that Tofana was born and grew up in Sicily. Her mother, an apothecary who made and sold perfumes, cosmetics, herbal medicines, and other concoctions, was executed in Palermo on July 12th, 1633, after she was convicted of murdering her husband, Francis d’Adamo. It is unknown whether the husband had been poisoned, but odds are that he had been. Tofana took after her mother in more ways than one, including a mastery of apothecaries, in which she had exhibited an interest since an early age.
Tofana is credited with having invented the infamous poison that bore her name, Aqua Tofana, although some sources indicate that it might have originally been invented by her mother, who passed the recipe on to her daughter. Either way, Giulia Tofana perfected that toxin, and began selling it, discreetly, under the cover of cosmetics, or in small vials of what was known as “Manna of Saint Nicholas of Bari” – a devotional object. Her chief clientele were women interested in a speedy end to their marriages via widowhood.
Giulia Tofana was a young widow when she first began peddling her poison, and it is possible that she had tested and perfected the recipe for Aqua Tofana on her own husband. She had a daughter, Girolama Sperla, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined what became a family business of concocting and selling poison. Mother and daughter kept it low key for decades, as they moved throughout Italy, first from Palermo to Naples, and eventually, from Naples to Rome.
Most of Tofana’s customers were wives seeking widowhood, but not all. She also sold Aqua Tofana to men and women who saw the concoction as a means of settling disputes, eliminating business and romantic rivals, or paying back those who had given them offense. Moreover, not all wives who turned to Tofana for help in murdering their husbands did so in order to escape marital abuse: some were motivated by simple greed, and wanted to come into an inheritance. Indeed, so often was poison used in Italy back then to speed up inheritances, that concoctions such as Tofana’s were nicknamed “inheritance potions”.