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  • michellebennington

Aqua Tofana: The Touch of a Deadly Woman

In the 1945 Sherlock Holmes movie, Pursuit to Algiers, Holmes states “Poison is a woman’s weapon.” This idea is repeated in Game of Thrones by both Grand Maester Pycelle and Ned Stark. In Shakespearean plays, poison is most often delivered by a woman’s hand. That poison is a woman's weapon, in fact, is not true. Men are not only more likely to murder, they are just as likely to use poison.

However, though I have no proof, I could well believe women might have been more likely to murder with poison in a time prior to the invention of guns, toxicology forensics, and protection for women against abusers.

While not true, there might be a real basis for this misconception about poison in the person of Guilia Tofana, who was certainly not the first professional poisoner, but she created a certain mystique. She and her ring of poisoners struck fear into the hearts of people—especially men—throughout the Western world with Aqua Tofana. Tofana was certainly one of the inspirations for my recent book Widow’s Blush.

First a little about the woman—or women—behind the poison.

The first mention of Aqua Tofana is found in the Compendio di diversi successi in Palermo dall’anno 1632 by Baldassare Zamparrone. The poison is first attributed to Thofania d’Adamo (also sometimes called Teofania di Adamo or La Tofania). I don't know when she was born, that's a common problem among commoners back in the old days. But because she was a criminal, we do know when and how she died: Execution. July 1633.

I don’t know how old she was at the time of her death or how long she had been in operation. It’s difficult to get much information about commoners from the old days. Apparently, she was operating with at least one other woman, Francesca La Sarda. Both women were accused of selling poison in Palermo and were executed for their crime.

Legend has it that Thofania d’Adamo had a daughter, Giulia, who ran away from Palermo to Rome after her mother’s execution. Like mother, like daughter, she opened a new business selling poison in Rome and named the poison after her mother, Aqua Tofana, meaning Tofana’s water.

In reality, Giulia Tofana’s real name as Giulia Mangiardi. She left Palermo for Rome in 1624, not 1633. While she did establish a business selling poison in Rome, there’s nothing to indicate that Thofania d’Adamo was Giulia’s mother. However, she might have been one of her associates. This makes sense. How else would she have been aware of Thofania’s name to make it her surname? And for Giulia to change her name from Mangiardi to Tofana, does seem like an honorific of sorts.

Once in Rome, Tofana hired a ring of associates and quickly rose to prominence in the underworld as the key figure in the production and distribution of Aqua Tofana. By all accounts Giulia Mangiardi was described by contemporaries who met her in Rome as "a nasty, ugly woman" and "unpleasant and raggedy."

Her primary patrons were women who wanted to kill their husbands. Some wanted to escape abuse. Some wanted to quickly inherit or be free of an unhappy marriage. Some wanted freedom to live with their lovers. Whatever the problem, Aqua Tofana presented a surefire solution.

Aqua Tofana was colorless, tasteless, and odorless. The exact recipe has been lost, but it’s believed to contain arsenic (middle), lead (left), and belladonna (right). It’s rumored the people in her gang obtained their arsenic from a priest at a local church who had access to the lethal item.

Aqua Tofana was masked in a simple bottle that might easily blend with a woman’s cosmetics. Sometimes, it was bottled as a devotionary with a picture of St. Nicholas of Barri on the bottle or powder case.

It was called The Manna of St. Nicholas of Barri, which was likely a marketing device intended to divert the authorities. Sometimes, it was mixed into cosmetics or advertised as a cosmetic.

This aspect of the legend particularly inspired my story Widow’s Blush. I don’t want to say more for fear of giving away an important part of the story! However, the liquid was easily slipped into food and drink.

Further, because the poison was slow-acting, it could easily mimic known illnesses. The first does would produce cold-like symptoms. By the third dose, the victim would appear to be in the grip of a bad and strange influenza with symptoms including vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, and a burning sensation in the digestive system. By the third or fourth dose, the victim would die. Lemon juice and vinegar was the common antidote, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it worked. From what I’ve learned, there isn’t a known antidote.

Some sources say Giulia Tofana was captured and executed. However, other historians believe she died peacefully in her sleep in 1651, while her poisoning ring was at its height. After her death, her closest associate Gironima Spana took over as leader of the gang. Another associate, Giovanna De Grandis, dealt with clients from the lower social classes, giving the crime ring access to all rungs of society.

Spana, born July 5, 1615, to a wealthy family. Her father, Niccolo Spano provisioned Spanish galleys and oversaw expenditures of Palermo's Ospedale degli Spagnol (Spanish hospital). Because she was born to a prominent family, we know a little more about her than her associates.

She has also been called Girolama Spara, Girolama Spala, L’ Astrologa, La Profetessa and L'Indovina, but Gironima Spana was the spelling she herself used in court documents.

After Gironima's father died, her stepmother remarried in 1624 to the well-off real estate investor Cesare Ranchetti (1564-1654). Unfortunately, he spent money extravagantly and threw the family into poverty. As a result, in 1624, the family fled to Gironima's maternal uncle in Rome, Andrea Lorestino, who was a cleric and astrologer.

In 1629, at the age of 14, Gironima was encouraged or forced to marry Niccolo Caiozzi (d. 1657), a Florentine grain speculator, who an adulterous spendthrift. He left Rome in 1655 to escape his creditors. Interestingly, for reasons unknown, the census doesn't list him as living in the house with her after 1640. Gironima established herself as a professional astrologer and a distributor of herbal medicine, while her stepmother became a professional marriage maker on the surface--as she continued her poisoning business in the shadows.

Gironima seemed to have gained great popularity as an astrologer in Rome, where Roman aristocracy hired her to predict the future and find missing objects. Further, she dressed and conducted herself in a manner that made her acceptable in aristocratic salons. She had gained such popularity that her rich clients often sent their carriages for her or allowed her to borrow them.

Meanwhile, her stepmother, Giulia, instructed the girl how to manufacture and sell the Aqua Tofana poison. Together, the two women trafficked deadly poison with a specialty in helping married women relieve themselves of unwanted husbands. It seems the two women had a strong bond. Gironima described her stepmother as "una brava donna" ('a good woman').

Her associate, Giovanna was born in Rome and was working as a laundress when she was recruited by Gironima. Giovanna was an important member of Gironima Spana's organization: she had direct contact with Spana and was one of the few associates Spana most trusted to not only sell, but to manufacture poison. Giovanna and Spana manufactured the poison using arsenic acquired by the priest Don Girolamo, since apothecaries did not sell arsenic to women.

On January 31, 1659, Giovanna was arrested in the act of selling poison and imprisoned in the Papal prison Tor di Nona where she was interrogated. She confessed on February 1 and named her accomplices and clients. She named Gironima as the central figure. Other women she named were Maria Spinola, Graziosa Farina, and Laura Crispoldi.

We don't know much about the other other women, but there are a few details. Maria Spinola was born in Palermo and emigrated to Naples then to Rome in 1627. She was married four times and lived in poverty. We don't know how she met Gironima, but she was soon recruited to Spana's organization to traffick poison. She was an important associate who had direct contact with Spana and recruited clients to Spana's astrology business, while also bringing poisoning business. Since she was one of the few direct contacts with Spana herself, Spinola proved an important witness.

Graziosa Farina was born in Rome and was recruited to Spana's ring. She didn't have direct contact with Spana, but was a saleswoman. She was described as a beggar woman an recruited clients among the women in the many churches she visited as a beggar. When she was arrested she was found with a box of poison-making supplies left to her by De Grandis. After De Grandis named her, Farina was arrested on February 7. Farina was tortured, confessed the next day and named many people including Elena Gabrielli Cassana, Angela Armellina and Elena Ferri. They were all accused of poisoning their husbands, tortured and exiled, though Cassana was allowed to return in 1671.

Laura Crispoldi, described as a ruthless and wicked woman by many of her clients, had been named by Maria Spinola. She was also born in Rome and recruited to the Spana ring. Spinola indicated her as the seller of the poison that was used by Anna Maria Conti and Camilla Capella to kill their allegedly abusive husbands.

As names continued to be named the ring fell apart and Spana was arrested on February 2 and taken to the Papal prison of Tor di Nona where she was interrogated by lieutenant governor Stefano Bracchi.

Spana was described as intelligent, self-assured, and confident and denied all accusations. She stood by her denial for months, despite repeated interrogations and confrontations with her former associates and clients. She was willing to answers questions and talked a lot, but only provided harmless information, such as long, detailed answers of acquaintances, their family history and residence, but never anything which could be seen as incriminating.

She was proved to be more resilient than her fellow prisoners; in contrast to them, she did not confess her guilt to a priest. Her lack of confession was a problem since law did not permit execution without it. She did not confess until 20 June. She finally signed a long statement of guilt. In regard to the poison, she stated: "I've given this liquid to more people than I’ve got hairs on my head."

In all, the gang was arrested and investigated for only 46 murders, though Aqua Tofana might have killed as many as 600 people.

Five of the ringleaders, including Spara and De Grandis, and six accomplices, including Spinola, Farina, and Crispoldi were executed on July 5, 1659. More than 40 of the gang’s lower-class customers were imprisoned for life while many of the wealthier participants were exiled.

The network of poisoners was estimated to be at least 200 members strong and included wise women, astrologers, alchemists, confidence men, witches, shady apothecaries, and abortionists. Together they offered surface services such as fortune-telling, horoscope-casting, love potions, lucky charms, while offering upon request the darker services of poison. In spite of the authorities cracking down and busting up the ring, the poison continued to thrive in the criminal underworld all over Italy.

When I learned of this poison and how it took over Italy, I became so fascinated with the story that I wanted to include it in a book. Thus, Widow’s Blush was born. Though it takes place in England instead of Italy and about 200 years later, the tale of Aqua Tofana is a key inspirator.



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