The Renaissance Criminal Who Made A Fortune Helping Women Poison Their Husbands

She’s a real figure of mystery, this woman from medieval times. The various accounts of her life are often contradictory, but always sensational. By some accounts, Giulia Tofana helped literally hundreds of women do away with their inconvenient husbands. In fact, she was so prolific that her name was given to a famous poison: Aqua Tofana. It was means of assassination that was impossible to trace by autopsy and guaranteed to be fatal in carefully administered doses.

Feared by men

The legend of Tofana’s poison was so powerful that it was still feared by men 200 years after her death. Even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was rumored to have been poisoned by her — a rumor, albeit, started by Mozart himself. When the famous composer was seriously ill and on his deathbed in 1791, he was convinced he’d been given Aqua Tofana.

Historian and author Mike Dash quotes words attributed to Mozart. “I feel definitely that I will not last much longer,” Mozart allegedly proclaimed. “I am sure that I have been poisoned. Someone has given me Aqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.”

A controversial topic

The truth is that the cause of Mozart’s death continues to be a controversial topic among historians to this day. As Dash points out, there are “rival diagnoses of syphilis, rheumatic fever or even the deadly effects of eating undercooked pork chops.”

A small minority of researchers think Mozart may have been murdered. But the point is that as the composer lay dying, it seemed plausible to him to blame an exotic poison created by Giulia Tofana in the 17th century.


Before we get into a description of the widespread poisoning conspiracy that Tofana was a part of, let’s find out what’s actually known about the woman. As we’ll see, there are two distinct accounts of her origins. 

We’ll start with a version of Tofana’s life chronicled by two 19th-century Italian researchers, Alessandro Ademollo and Salvatore Salomone-Marino. Independently, using material from Italian archives, they both published work on the story of Tofana and her associates in 1881. 

A network of poisoners

Ademollo and Salomone-Marino agreed that Tofana was active in Sicily in the mid-17th century. The pair further agree that Tofana, and those she worked with, were just one element of a network of poisoners operating throughout Italy.

Salomone-Marino, himself a Sicilian, came across a document written in 1632 by another Sicilian native, Baldassare Zamparrone. Salomone-Marino believed Zamparrone’s writings provided possible evidence of Tofana’s origins. The document told the story of a notorious Sicilian poisoner called Teofania di Adamo.