Giulia Tofana was mysterious and deadly – a fitting profile for a serial killer. “Aqua Tofana” was the name customers gave to her poisonous elixir, disguised as a harmless skincare product. This underground “toiletry” was the weapon of choice amongst battered women looking for freedom. Although her total body count is unconfirmed, she is suspected to have played the vital part in 600 male deaths in 17th century Italy.

Societal Expectations of Women

In order to understand the story, one must understand the female lifestyle during the 17th century. Women were second-class citizens with no financial or social power and left with very few options. The most-traveled path was to enter into marriage, although it was very likely the union would be loveless. If a woman insisted upon staying single, her only way to survive would be through sex work. The last and likely happiest option was to become a widow, though one would have to go through marriage first.

From birth women were seen as property, first owned by their fathers and then “auctioned off like objects” to whichever husband promised the highest benefits. Their role as a wife was to cook, clean, and keep pushing out babies. Childbirth was significantly more dangerous in the 17th century, and death due to complications with delivery weren’t uncommon. 

Additionally, a husband could beat, rape, and be unfaithful to his wife with no repercussions. Women had to either live out their life in misery or take initiative, since divorce wasn’t an option.

The Rise of Giulia Tofana

Enter Giulia (pronounced “Julia”) Tofana. Though unconfirmed, the belief is she was born in Sicily year 1620. Her mother’s name was Thofania d’Amado. In 1633, the accusation that Thofania was the cause of her husband’s death led to her execution. Though it can’t be proven nor disproven, the speculation is she poisoned him.

Pick Your Poison

Tofana went on to work in apothecaries as she matured, learning to mix her own products. It’s unclear whether “Aqua Tofana” was a recipe passed down from her mother or if Giulia created it herself. This poison was a mixture of arsenic, lead, and belladonna, which was a common ingredient for cosmetics at the time. “Aqua Tofana” was genius because it was colorless, tasteless, and deadly enough that just a few drops would do the deed. The best application of the poison was to slip it into food or drink. 

However, the poison was also slow to kill. The first dose prompted weakness and exhaustion. A second dose brought about stomachaches, extreme thirst, vomiting, and dysentery. A third or fourth dosage would always result in death. Breaking up the dosage over time allowed for the victim’s steady decline to mimic disease, which was believable since everybody of this era was dying of the flu. It also allowed for the victim to write a will, his last-minute attempt at Heaven, to ensure his soon-to-be-widow care and stability.

Let’s Get Down to Business

It wasn’t long before Tofana opened up her own cosmetics counter with her daughter and a few employees. They sold real cosmetics and special products (wink). To cover her tracks, Tofana marketed her “Aqua Tofana” as a face serum so that it could be hidden in plain sight. Since belladonna was so common, marketing under that ingredient wouldn’t be a lie or suspicious. The product was contained in a small glass bottle with an image of Saint Nicholas on the front. She even made labels detailing how to “apply” the product (1-2 drops per night; wink wink). 

When it came to customers interested in the “Aqua Tofana,” Giulia was very selective. The interested party must undergo a background check and have somebody trustworthy to vouch for them. Though she did sell to a few men, her clientele mostly consisted of abused wives looking to off their husbands. The future killers received coaching on how to act after purchasing the poison. They needed to appear the perfect grieving wife after death and had to demand an autopsy. The poison was undetectable even post-mortem. This was just a ploy to erase any further suspicion. 

The Downfall of Giulia Tofana

Giulia Tofana managed to fool authorities for many, many years. People who used her services didn’t want to rat her out because there was a good chance Tofana’s customer list would go down with her. 

However, in 1650, “Aqua Tofana” no longer remained secret. One night, a customer who bought the poison tainted her husband’s soup, prepared to give him his first dose. Right as he lifted the bowl to his lips, she had a change of heart and begged him not to drink it. Enraged, he beat her until she admitted to poisoning it before turning her in to authorities. 

Giulia Tofana heard word they were coming to find her and fled to a local church. However, a false rumor that she poisoned Rome’s water supply ran rampant and eventually led to her capture. In captivity, Tofana admitted being an accomplice in an estimated 600 deaths between the years of 1633-1651. Tofana, her daughter, and three employees were all executed afterwards. Some of her client list was executed or imprisoned, however many avoided sentences and got away with murder.

To this day, there is very little information about Giulia Tofana. No portraits or specific documents remain to tell us her whole tale. In the end, she remains just as inconspicuous as her “Aqua Tofana.” 

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