By Emma DeWeese
Giulia Tofana is the most prolific serial killer many people never heard of.
Seventeenth-century women were viewed as property rather than people and were used as tokens in the men’s conquest of power. No matter if a woman came from a wealthy family or a peasant family, fathers had full control over who they would marry, often leaving women in unfit relationships.
With the unchecked power men had over women, relationships quickly became abusive and the only way to escape was death. While being a widow was looked down upon, it was better than an abusive marriage in the eyes of many hopeless women according to the “Murder, Mystery, & Makeup” podcast by Bailey Sarian.
Tofana was exposed to the toxic male relationship from birth by witnessing the abuse her father inflicted on her mother. Her mother eventually was imprisoned and killed when Tofana was nine, due to her poisoning her husband and murdering him.
According to multiple accounts from the seventeenth century, Giulia Tofana learned to make poison from her mother that she would use to kill 600 men. She called the poison Aqua Tofana and it contained arsenic, lead, and belladonna, according to Women’s Republic.
The undetectable poison was colorless and odorless. To further cover her tracks, Tofana disguised the poison in dropper bottles that looked like cosmetic bottles picturing Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was believed to protect unmarried women and children and there are accounts of him assisting women out of abusive situations according to the Catholic Church.
Giulia Tofana’s goal was to help women, like her mother, escape abusive marriages without punishment. To the public eye, Tofana owned a makeup stand and sold cosmetic oil for women. Secretly she was selling Aqua Tofana and teaching her select clients how to administer it to dispose of their husbands.
Tofana also taught some customers how to act after her husband was found dead. She advised the wives to demand an autopsy to figure out the cause of death, knowing the medical examiner could not detect the poison and would rule the death as sickness.
To protect herself and her previous clients, Tofana ensured she could trust all the women she sold Aqua Tofana to. Word of the poison spread from customers to women they felt they could trust in similar abusive relationships. They would recommend the newcomer to Tofana’s store where they could buy poison from Tofana after she felt she could trust them. Over the years, Tofana’s cosmetic storefront grew in popularity and she hired extra help including her daughter.
After an estimated 600 successful murders, Tofana sold her last bottle of poison that would lead to her own death. An unnamed woman attempted to poison her husband but felt guilty and confessed to her husband and the authorities. The poison was traced back to Giulia Tofana’s Aqua Tofana.
There are multiple conflicting accounts about what happened to Tofana after she was outed, but the most popular account claims she hid in a convent until she was handed to the authorities. One account said she was tortured, where she released a list of previous clients, and then was executed in a public square.