When we hear stories about serial killers, we imagine characters similar to famous movies like Ted Bundy, the psycho maniac, or even the legendary Hannibal Lecter.
But did you know that a woman is one of the most prolific serial killers in history? Yes, it's true, and this person's name is Giulia Tofana. Her weapon? Poison.
Acqua tofana: The perfect poison
Her name was most likely Giulia Tofana (other sources say Toffana). She was born near Palermo and was probably the daughter (or niece) of the famous poisoner Thofania d'Adamo. Her mother was accused and sentenced in 1633 for killing her husband. Thanks to her, she learned the recipe for the perfect poison because it was odorless, devoid of color and taste, and did not leave any traces detectable at that time.
What was the killer substance? The main ingredient was arsenic, to which she added a herb called cymbalaria, as well as lead and belladonna. These gave a lethal mixture causing diarrhea, vomiting, weakness, muscle aches, convulsions, and death.
Giulia Tofana, although illiterate and earning money as a prostitute at that time, must have had a stout mind and an entrepreneurial spirit. She decided to spread the poison and sell it. For this purpose, she used tears, allegedly with healing properties. They were dripping from the tomb of Saint Nicholas of Bari. In fact, the bottles contained this deadly drug, called by Giulia Tofana "aqua tofana."
A way to get out of marriage
Giulia soon became a wealthy widow. After the death of her husband, she moved to Rome, where she started a cosmetics business.
Women wanted to beautify and decorate, so cosmetics were a relatively lucrative trade. Who would look for poison among perfumes, powders, and creams? Yes, she also had a special offer for well-off ladies, and it wasn't exactly a cheap affair.
Aqua Tofana - water without color, taste, and odor, in a small decorative bottle with a picture of St. Nicholas did not attract any attention. She could have been lying on the dressing table for weeks, and no one would have imagined the danger. But only 4-6 drops were enough.
However, Giulia also offered a more sophisticated poison - in the form of a powder. All you had to do was powder your face and ask your husband for a kiss.
The poisoner's clients were women who wanted to avoid discomfiting husbands or lovers. And given the way marriages in 17th-century Italy, many were dissatisfied. Marriages were primarily a business - arranged in advance. The couple often did not know each other, and the woman brought considerable property (dowry) to him. Lack of love and attention was only a tiny problem, and hot-blooded Italians often resolved family disagreements by force.
Women did not have many ways to escape such a union. No wonder widowhood was a tempting dream for many of them, especially if they came from wealthier strata. And Giulia Tofana helped them with this. Looking at it from this perspective, in a way, Giulia Tofana was a heroine who risked her own life to save others.
Clients were given precise instructions on how to use the preparation. Tofana recommended gradually giving a tiny dose. This slowly aggravated the health problems of the unfortunate victim and eventually led to death. The doctors of that time were unable to do anything about it nor to confirm that it was about poisoning.
Giulia Tofana confesses poisoning over 600 men
Giulia Tofana's trade was going brilliantly, and she soon became a very wealthy person. Her influence extended to Naples and Rome as well. However, numerous deaths of men in their prime could not but arouse suspicions.
Although Giulia Tofana was clever and cautious, she fell into power when the viceroy Wirich Philipp von Daun took power in Naples. The poisoner hid in a convent, where she should theoretically be safe. But the ruler's soldiers violated the holy asylum and took Tofana to prison, to the Egg Castle.
Surprisingly, this sparked riots and protests all over Naples. It is difficult to judge to what extent it was caused by the aversion to the Habsburgs and to what extent by the influence of Giulia Tofana's wealthy clients. The fact is, however, that Cardinal Francesco Pignatelli interceded for Giulia, outraged by the violation of the rules of asylum in the monastery, and even threatened the viceroy with ex-communication.
But von Daun turned out to be a trickster. He spread the rumor that Tofana would poison the water in all the wells in the city and kill all the inhabitants. The Neapolitans believed and stopped protesting, while Giulia Tofana was subjected to cruel torture, after which she began to confess the names of more clients. Apparently, she admitted to poisoning over 600 men in Rome alone!
A fear struck among women in the city. Poisoners tried to hide in churches and monasteries, but many were caught, and some were killed. The commoners were hanged in public, and the aristocracy was secretly strangled in prisons, sparing them from shame.
Eventually, Giulia Tofana was sentenced and executed in public. She was hanged, along with her daughter Girolama and several henchmen. This took place at Campo de 'Fiori in Rome, where Giordano Bruno was burned.
The execution date is not certain: it is said to be 1659, but some sources say a date half a century later, 1719.
Giulia Tofana: the exceptional serial killer
It is difficult to say how accurate the story of Giulia Tofana is. Let us remember that it was an extremely unfavorable era for women. Witches, healers, and midwives were burned at stake all over Europe.
It is impossible to believe the testimonies forced by torture. But Giulia Tofana was defended by the Church, so it wasn't about magic. Perhaps she was just a victim of the fears of poisoning that were common at that time, especially in Italy and France? Or maybe she really had many poisoned men on her conscience?
The fact is that Tofana and her poison aqua tofana have become deeply embedded in the collective memory. She is mentioned, among others, by Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo and Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is said to have had a mortal fear of aqua tofana.
In any case, the story of the Italian serial killer Giulia Tofana ended at Campo de 'Fiori in Rome. When it comes to the number of victims, no killer can come before her if her testimony is true.