Giulia Tofana, the renaissance serial killer who allegedly poisoned 600 men to help women seeking a divorce

Also known as the 'Queen of Poison' she turned her make-up enterprise into a poison factory and killed at least 600  men for over a period of 50 years in the mid 17th century


                            Giulia Tofana, the renaissance serial killer who allegedly poisoned 600 men to help women seeking a divorce
(Getty Images)

Serial killers have become an imminent part of popular culture since the mid-1970s, and the fascination still persists as the media focus their divided attention towards them. Even entertainment for that matter produces content that centers around serial murderers, be it documentaries or feature films.  We get hooked onto the details of the gruesome killings and the extensive investigation that eventually led to the culprit being captured. 

We're familiar with various sensationalized murderers, who've gone down in the books of history as being among the most dangerous creatures to ever exist. These comprise both men and women with the psychopathic tendency and urge to kill people to satisfy some motive or a sick need for enjoyment. And while the 1900s have reportedly had innumerable serial killings, the 'trend' only began to pick up in the latter part of the 20th century.

People were both horrified and entranced by these stories - no matter how much the fear of being a serial murderer's next victim had them gripped, it fascinated them in a twisted way. 

Giulia Tofana is a woman that most people may have never heard of.  But if you were flip through the pages of Italian renaissance history, you would find her name right there among the list of people that became prolific murders of the time. Tofana was what you would now call a beauty influencer, and created her own line of makeup. But it was no ordinary make-up business for she turned into a poison factory and killed at least 600 men for over a period of 50 years in the mid-17th century without being caught - until she got snitched on.

A sympathetic entrepreneur

(Wikimedia Commons)

One of history's most prolific serial killers, to some extent, she's still a mystery because there is no portrait evidence of her appearance. Tofana hailed from the city of Palermo and established a regular make-up business to cater to the beauty needs of her fellow renaissance women. But when she realized that women had been yearning for a way out of their unhappy marriage, she turned her cosmetics into the ultimate lethal weapon and satisfy the one desire of every aspiring widow.

The Renaissance was an era where women were forced into arranged marriages by their families and they had no say in who they were marrying, neither was there a possibility of getting a divorce. As the vows said, 'till death do us apart' - the only way out of a bad marriage was death. As patriarchal and male-dominated as a society it was back then, thousands had absolute control over their wives, who were often left vulnerable and powerless, subjected to domestic abuse and other cruel treatments.

Of course, men never faced any backlash for their cruelty. Why women wanted to be widows is obvious, and Tofana's little invention was a quick, ingenious, and discrete solution.

Aqua Tofana

Aqua Tofana (Wikimedia Commons)

Tofana, created the 'Aqua Tofana', a deadly colorless and tasteless liquid concoction that was possibly laced with arsenic, lead, and belladonna. She had a wide-clientele of unhappy women, and sold the poison in little vials or incorporated them in her cosmetic products that were cleverly embellished with the portrait of Saint Nicholas of Bari. The first recorded evidence of Aqua Tofana is dated somewhere between 1632 and 1633. She sold her cosmetics across southern Italy - across Naples, Perugia, and Rome.

The recipe for the poison contained enough arsenic to kill without leaving a trace, thanks to Tofana's brilliant apothecary skills, making it impossible to be found in the bloodstream. So she kept the poison secret only selectively disclosing it to women in need that approached her for it and continued to sell the potent concoction while keeping the authorities fooled for almost five decades.

While her practice was lethal, she had many admirers who appreciated her service, nevertheless, and she earned the nickname 'Queen of Poison'

The women fed their husbands with the poison in small doses, so as to not arouse suspicion that comes with sudden death. 

Her downfall 

(Wikimedia Commons)

So there you have it, this was a renaissance serial killer, whose identity had been shrouded in mystery. Tofana had managed to stay under the radar for a long time until one of her clients basically fed her to the wolves. In the 1650s, a client that bought Aqua Tofana from her intending to poison her husband suddenly decided against his murder. She's already added the concoction to his soup, but just as he was about to eat of it, she stopped him as the feeling of regret began to weigh down on her.

Her husband who got increasingly suspicious of her for stopping him from eating the soup forced her to confess and then took her to the Papal authorities in Rome where she came clean about where she obtained the poison from.

Tofana hadn't been arrested by fled her home to seek sanctuary in a church, which didn't last long. A rumor then spread around Rome about her posing the water supply in the city with Aqua Tofana and a mob stormed the church, immediately taking her in custody and handing her over to the Papal authorities. She was tortured until she confessed to poisoning over 600 men between 1633 and 1651, although the numbers could have been much higher. 

Tofana was publically executed for her crimes, alongside her daughter Girolama Sperla (who was her accomplice) and three of her employees in Campo de' Fiori, a popular site of execution. Her corpse was thrown over the wall into the church that had offered her sanctuary. Some of Tofana's clients and other accomplices were also executed, although they tried to feign ignorance and pass Aqua Tofana off as a cosmetic product.

Some were bricked into the dungeons of the Palace of the Holy Office, and others who were well connected and influential managed to get away unscathed. 

Mozart claimed to be poisoned by Aqua Tofana

Death of Mozart (Wikimedia Commons)

The legacy of Giulia Tofana and her Aqua Tofan lived on years after she met her tragic end. In 1791, over 100 years after Tofana's execution, the composer Amadeus Mozart fell gravely ill, and he claimed that he had been poisoned. He said, “I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea … Someone has given me Aqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death."

Mozart, who passed away at 35 may have been mistaken by the cause of his death. Centuries later historians traced back to his death and said they believe he may have died of rheumatic fever, syphilis, or from eating undercooked pork. However, his paranoia was pretty much akin to the ones shared by many that feel out of the blue in those days, but that just went to show that Tofana's deadly concoction still managed to incite terror long after she was gone.

Tofana's apothecary skills were possibly passed down to her from her mother, who had been accused time and again of killing her husband with one of her concoctions. However, another uncanny fact to note is that Tofana herself was widow, catering to the needs of aspiring widows.

If you have a news scoop or an interesting story for us, please reach out at (323) 421-7514