Imagine a world where the simple act of opening a letter or accepting a drink could be a fatal mistake.
In 17th-century Italy, Aqua Tofana became the infamous poison of choice for those looking to kill their enemies discreetly. It gained its reputation as a deadly and, more importantly, virtually undetectable poison. Because of this, Aqua Tofana became a popular form of murder and played a large part in many mysterious crimes.
But how was such a lethal brew created, and why did it leave behind such a mysterious legacy?
The Deadly Poison, Aqua Tofana
Aqua Tofana was a deadly poison that gained notoriety in Italy during the 17th century. Believed to have been created in southern Italy around the time of 1630, its quiet origins soon gave way to infamy.
The first recorded mention of Aqua Tofana dates to around 1632-1633. The first mention of it revolved around the trial of two women, Francesca la Sarda and Teofania di Adamo, who were accused of poisoning others. The poison eventually gained its namesake from a woman named Giulia Tofana, who may have been the daughter of the woman in the trial, who continued to manufacture and distribute the poison in Rome.
Colorless, odorless, and tasteless, it was all too easy to slip into food or drinks completely undetected. As a result, the poison became the weapon of choice for many Italian women and wives of the day, seeking to rid themselves of abusive husbands, bad marriages, or unwanted suitors.
Despite its deadly reputation, the exact number of victims claimed by Aqua Tofana is unknown. However, its use became so widespread that the poison was eventually banned by authorities.
Composition and Preparation
Aqua Tofana was a cleverly-composed, deadly solution, whose recipe was passed down through generations, and was tweaked and adjusted over the years.
The exact blend used to mix it is lost to us, but some ingredients are still known. Likely, Aqua Tofana was mostly made up of arsenic, antimony, and lead, with the possible addition of other elements like mercuric chloride or belladonna.
Primarily used as a poison that could be slipped into an unsuspecting glass of water or wine, it was also sometimes deviously marketed as a face cream or oil that Italian ladies could use to preserve their youth.
For a time, the mixture was carefully disguised in a bottle or powder case labeled as “Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari,” a popular healing ointment for blemishes, making it easy to blend in on a woman’s nightstand and avoid suspicion from authorities.
Aqua Tofana’s Subtle and Deadly Effects
Aqua Tofana’s deadly effects weren’t immediate, but rather, slow and progressive, making it quite difficult to detect, or for the victim to even realize that something was wrong at first. And even though the clear and tasteless poison was slow-acting, only a few drops were enough to kill.
The poison had many symptoms when taking effect. With the first dose, simple cold-like symptoms would begin. These would progressively worsen to include burning sensations in the stomach and throat, diarrhea, extreme thirst, and vomiting. Eventually, upon the third or fourth dose, the symptoms would progress to death.
However, Aqua Tofana was considered a relatively “gentle” poison because it didn’t cause as much vomiting as other poisons of the era. Still, victims would suffer immensely and their eventual death would be most unpleasant. While there is no known antidote for Aqua Tofana, sometimes a concoction of vinegar and lemon juice would be ingested.
However, there is little evidence to suggest this actually worked. All of the reported symptoms are indicative and incriminating of arsenic poisoning, the fatal brew’s main ingredient.
The Infamous Creator, Giulia Tofana
But why is it called the ‘water of Tofana’ and who was its infamous namesake, Giulia Tofana?
Giulia Tofana was an Italian woman who was a key figure in the production and distribution of Aqua Tofana in the 17th century. While it is possible that she was the daughter of the aforementioned Teofania di Adamo, the likely true creator of Aqua Tofana, the poison is most famously associated with Giulia.
After her mother’s death, Giulia Tofana and her associates established a poison ring, concocting and selling the poison across Rome. According to investigations, Tofana’s gang obtained the arsenic from a priest at a local church who had access to the lethal ingredients.
The deadly drink was often disguised and sold as “Manna of St. Nicholas” and it was often distributed to mostly women clientele who sought to kill their abusive or undesirable husbands.
Giulia Tofana died peacefully in her sleep in 1651, having grown her criminal ring to great heights. She was responsible for making many young women into widows, all without gaining an ounce of suspicion on her part.
Aqua Tofana and the Criminal Underworld
After Tofana’s death, her closest accomplice, Girolama Spara, took over as the leader of the gang. Spara was the widow of a Florentine gentleman and socialized in aristocratic circles. Another associate, Giovanna de Grandis, dealt with clients from the lower social classes, giving the crime ring access to all rungs of society.
In the end, the notorious gang was finally caught by authorities in Rome in 1658 and investigated for 46 murders, although some historians expect the true number of victims to be closer to 600. Five of the ringleaders, including Spara and de Grandis, were executed in July 1659, along with six accomplices and more than 40 of the gang’s lower-class customers who were imprisoned for life.
After the Aqua Tofana gang’s arrest, the poison continued to be used by other criminal rings. Across mid-17th century Rome, an extensive underworld existed that provided many illegal services – poison included, with Aqua Tofana becoming the most notable and in demand.
The community was estimated to be at least 200 members strong and included wise women, astrologers, alchemists, ‘confidence men’, witches, shady apothecaries, and back-street abortionists. Together, they offered services such as fortune-telling, horoscope-casting, love potion-selling, and lucky charm-selling, as well as darker, more criminal, and unspeakable services.
Aqua Tofana’s Legacy: A Symbol of Fear and Fascination
The legacy of Aqua Tofana is one of fear and fascination. As one of the most notorious poisons in history, it was responsible for countless murders and became a symbol of female empowerment and vengeance.
Its notoriety and mysterious origins have captured the imagination of many, leading it to crop up across literature, media, and pop culture. From Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to the more recent TV show “Borgia,” Aqua Tofana continues to fascinate and inspire all who learn of it and its complicated, dark history.
Dash, Mike. “Aqua Tofana.” Toxicology in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 2017, pp. 63–69., https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-809554-6.00006-8. Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.
Toomer, Jessica. “Giulia Tofana, the Italian Serial Poisoner Who Became a Legend.” SYFY Official Site, SYFY, 22 Oct. 2021, https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/giulia-tofana-the-italian-serial-poisoner-who-became-a-legend.