• Carmen Milligan

Aqua Tofana

Back in the 1600s, it was pretty hard for a woman to get out of a bad marriage. Women had no rights or protections, and were largely considered property. As a matter of fact, livestock was held in higher esteem than were wives. Bartered away by fathers, look for a future post on "Who gives this bride to be wed" bullshit.

Okay, Carmen. Focus.

Enter Giulia Tofana, a woman from Polermo, Italy. She found the secret to a happier life for these women: become widows. With an active ingredient thought to be arsenic, Tofana produced a clear, colorless, tasteless, and odorless liquid that she sold to a very elite and well-vetted female clientale. For more than 20 years, with the help of a staff of workers, her Aqua Tofana was the answer to many an abused wife. A tiny bit of this undetectable elixir in a glass of wine or a bowl of soup would cause a slow and steady decline, leading to death.

Side note: Giulia's mother, Thofania d’Amado, was tried and convicted of poisoning her husband, and was executed. And when I say "tried and convicted", I mean that she was accused of the poisoning and suffered at the hands of the authorities, who then executed her in a horrible way, to show what a grievous sin it was to murder a man. Most accounts say she was drawn and quartered. Yuck.

Back to Giulia. Once the husband was dead, the widow would feign shock, surprise, and demand a post-mortem to find out exactly what caused his death. Of course, nothing would be found, and the widow would be completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. And now, she would be able to live her life in peace as a piteous widow.

It's a pretty good gig, right? She is in business for herself, has a staff, and provides what I am sure she sees as a much-needed product to the oppressed women of the 17th century. Unfortunately, one woman had a pang of guilt just as her husband's hand was poised with his soup spoon going into his mouth. History reports that she begged him to not eat it, he beat her until she told him that it was poison, and he turned her into the authorities. Of course, she sang like a canary.

Word got to Giulia that they were on to her, so she fled to a church (or it may have been a convent) and asked for sanctuary. While she was hiding away in the church, she continued to sell her elixir through religious channels. However, rumors began to circulate that she had poisoned the water supply. And you know what rumors do to people's ability to think rationally. When the authorities showed up, the church leaders handed her over like Judas with the kiss of death.

Sure enough, she was tortured into revealing some of her clients, who were also rounded up and killed. All-in-all she confessed to aiding over 600 deaths during her 18-or-so years as a chemist for the abused. She was hanged, along with her daughter and three assistants.

Today, thank goodness, there are a few more options. Moral of the story? Women will find a way, so be careful. Also, a lack of conscience makes for a happier life. For everyone involved.

Can I get you a bowl of soup, dear?

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