Sunday, September 18, 2011

La Toffania’s Husband-Killing Syndicate – Naples, early 1600s

EXCERPT (Article 1 of 2): This dangerous art appears to have been carried to the greatest height in Italy, in the 17th century. The most infamous practicer of it was the celebrated Toffania, who first resided at Palermo. She prepared the Aqua Tophania, which she distributed, by way of charity, to such wives as wished to have other husbands. From four to six grains were sufficient to destroy a man, and it was asserted that the dose could be so proportioned as to operate in a certain time—such a number of days, weeks or months, for instance—after it was administered. This, without a knowledge of the constitution and manner of living of her victims, would clearly have been impossible. She distributed her poison in small glass vials, labelled Mana of St. Nicholas of Bari, and ornamented with the image of the saint.

She was at length seized and thrown into prison, where she acknowledged that she had caused the death of over 600 persons. She was afterwards strangled, and her body thrown at night into the area of the convent from which she had been taken. This was to mitigate the archbishop for invading the right of sanctuary.

This singular preparation was colorless, transparent and tasteless, like water. Its poisonous quality was ascribed to arsenic, and it was said to be a solution of arsenic in aqua cymbalaria, the dose being from four to six grains. The symptoms, as given by Huhnermann (see Christison. 293), were a gradual sinking of the powers of life, without any violent symptoms – a namely feeling of illness, failure of the strength, slight feverishness, want of sleep, lividity of the countenance, and an aversion to food and drink, and all the other enjoyments of life. Dropsy closes the scene, along with black, miliary eruptions and convulsions, or colliquative perspiration an purging."

In 1659, it was observed, at Rome, that many young married women were left widows, and that many husbands died when they became disagreeable to their wives. It was at length discovered that the mischief proceeded from a society of young married women, whose president, a little old woman, pretended to foretell future events, and who had often predicted, very exactly, many deaths to persons who had cause to wish for them. The old lady’s name was Hieronyina Spara. She was a Sicilian, and had acquired the art from Toffania, at Palermo. She, her assistant and three other women were hung.

[Archbold, J. F., A Complete Treatise of Criminal Procedure, Pleading and Evidence, in Indictable Cases, Fifth Edition in Two Volumes, Vol. I, Banks & Brothers, N. Y., 1877, p. 846]


EXCERPT (Article 2 of 2): In the annals of most lands we generally find some period when the lust of shedding human blood was rampant; but few can point to a worse condition of existence than that which prevailed in the Italy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Italy of the petty republics and principalities, when the most brutal selfishness and most cringing servility went hand in hand. When baseness, deceit, cruelty, and selfishness are combined in the character of public men, the profession of secret murder becomes one of the fine arts; in fact, so callous do people grow that they cease to think of killing as murder, but simply as the removal of a hateful object.

The most remarkable of these professional poisoners was a woman, by name Tofana, a native of Palermo. This monster, while still a young girl, by some means or other became possessed of the recipe for a mixture of which from four to eight drops were fatal. This liquid, which has become known under the name of “Tofana Water,” has been described as clear, tasteless, colourless, and odourless. It was of such a nature that it baffled the cleverest medical men of the seventeenth century, and the acutest analysts were utterly unable to testify to its presence in the organs of one of its victims after the most searching post-mortem examination. It was, in fact, the poisoner's beau-ideal of a poison. Doubtless, if some modern Tofana were to make use of this so-called “water,” she would not have the same guarantee of absolute security which her seventeenth-century prototype possessed. In the period during which she flourished, chemistry had scarcely risen to the dignity of a science; but in this nineteenth century it is not only an experimental but also a mathematical science. Our analysts can speak with as absolute certainty of the most infinitesimal quantities as others can of tons; they are accustomed to weigh with a balance which indicates the tenth of a milligramme (that is, the .00154 of a grain) with perfect distinctness; while many of their tests are sufficiently delicate to point out without the shadow of a doubt the presence of even the millionth part of a grain.

In the Italy of the period in question, women were but little better than the slaves of their male relatives; they were married or divorced in the most reckless way to promote political or social alliances, and generally discovered their places to be occupied by some other fair ones, who, though more favoured, were perhaps neither more nor less frail than themselves. It was to such wretched women that the infamous Tofana sold her secret, and with society in such a state, there were only too many fair ones who thought they could be benefited by the removal of some hard or faithless lord or some more favoured rival.

The first dose, administered in wine or tea or some other liquid by the flattering traitress, produced but a scarcely noticeable effect; the husband became a little out of sorts, felt weak and languid, so little indisposed that he would scarce call in a medical man ; but if he did, it was only to be told it was a mere nothing, which a draught or two would put to rights. After the second dose of poison, this weakness and languor became more pronounced, and the doctor would begin to think that, after all, the patient required to be put on a course of diet and rest. The beautiful Medea who expressed so ranch anxiety for her husband's indisposition would scarcely be an object of suspicion, and perhaps would prepare her husband's food, as prescribed by the doctor, with her own fair hands. In this way the third drop would be administered, and would prostrate even the most vigorous man. The doctor would be completely puzzled to see that the apparently simple ailment did not surrender to his drugs, and while he would be still in the dark as to its nature, other doses would be given, until at length death would claim the victim for his own.

Then, when too late, the dreadful word “poison” would be uttered; upon which, of course, to save her fair fame, the wife would demand a postmortem examination. Result, nothing; except that the woman was able to pose as a slandered innocent, and then it would be remembered that her husband died without either pain, inflammation, fever, or spasms. If, after this, the woman within a year or two formed a new connection, nobody could blame her; for, everything considered, it would be a sore trial for her to continue to bear the name of a man whose relatives had accused her of poisoning him.

While still at Palermo, Tofana became acquainted with an old sorceress, Hieronyma Spara, to whom she imparted her secret. The two worked together until the number of deaths among young married men began to attract attention ; whereupon Tofana started for Naples, while Spara betook herself to the Eternal City. At Rome, Spara began operations on an extended scale. She formed a band of poisoners, the principal of whom was a woman named Gratiosa, for, be it remembered Spara was well up in years. Spara's method of working seems to have been this : she gave herself out as a sorceress and fortune-teller, and in this capacity wormed the secrets out of the hearts of the silly women who consulted her. She would then cleverly insinuate that in three or four days the cruel husband or the faithless man, as the case might be, could be removed with the most absolute safety. A bargain was struck ; mutual promises of the most profound secrecy were exchanged; and within the week there was a new widow in Rome. If the discontented wife were a member of the middle classes, Spara artfully contrived that the dangerous portion of the negotiations should be carried on by some of the other members of the gang; for she judged that the women of the “masses” would be much more likely to betray her than the women of the “classes.”

Of course, the number of deaths among newly married men soon attracted the attention of the authorities in Rome, as it had done in Palermo; but though the police may have had their suspicions, it was some time before they were able to bring the crimes home to the proper quarters; even after they knew that the sorceress Spara was implicated, it was long before they could obtain proof positive. At length, however, they found a lady who was willing to act in concert with them; and so well did this amateur detective carry out her role, that at last the police knew all the principal members of this infamous gang.

The band was taken and put to the torture, according to the custom of the time. All confessed except Spara, who seems to have had so little knowledge of human nature as to have thought some of the frail ladies whom she had assisted would step forward to protect her from justice. She withstood the torture several times, but, as no relief came, at length cried out in despair: “Where are the Roman princes, nobles, and knights who have made use of my art? Where are the ladies who hare promised me their favour?” But they came not; whereupon the miserable wretch denounced them all and confessed her crimes.

Pope Alexander VII. ordered Spara, Gratiosa, and three others to be executed at once ; within the month he sent several others of them to their last account; and the remainder he banished for ever.

It was in 1658 that this band of secret murderers was thus broken up and destroyed.

Meanwhile, the prime villain was still at large, exercising her terrible vocation not only at Naples, which was her headquarters, but in various parts of Italy. For many years she evaded the police and the custom-house officers with her bottles of poison in her luggage; and death after death in the most mysterious way was reported. At last, by mere accident it was discovered that a little old woman, a voluble and lively talker, was the infamous wretch who carried death far and near. In her luggage were found bottles labelled, “Manna of St Nicholas of Bari,” and embellished with the saint's portrait, just as if it had been a registered trade-mark. At Bari, where St Nicholas was buried, the monks pretended that an oil-spring with miraculous healing properties welled out of his grave. This oil or “manna” was sacred, and no policeman or custom-house officer dared lay profane hands upon it No wonder, therefore, that the chatty little old woman who carried this healing oil about was allowed to pass unmolested.

As soon as the terrible secret was discovered, Tofana fled to a convent which had the right of sanctuary. General Thaun, Viceroy of Naples, gave orders for her arrest; but the sanctuary could not be broken, and all the religious bodies in Naples seemed determined to protect the wicked old wretch who had set religion at defiance. The contest between Church and State was continued with bitterness, until at last General Thaun lost patience and tore the wretch out of sanctuary by main force. This was in 1709.

At first, Tofana maintained her innocence; but, on being put to the torture, confessed ultimately to no fewer than six hundred murders! Short work was made of her after this, and she was condemned to be strangled. Just before her death, she also confessed that she had, only a day or so before her arrest, sent two boxes of her 'manna' to Rome, addressed in initials. All haste was made to the Eternal City, and the boxes were found as described; but no one ever claimed them.

What was this poison? It is known as Tofana Water (Aqua della Tofana); but what was its composition? There have been many conjectures on this subject, some of them of the wildest description: (1) That it was principally composed of the saliva of mad people; (2) that it was nitric acid; (3) that it was a preparation of poppy and Spanish fly; (4) that it was sugar of lead and Spanish fly; (5) that it was extract of snapdragon, a common flower; and so on. Scientific men, however, are disposed generally to believe it to be an artfully disguised preparation of arsenic; and Garelli, head physician to the Emperor Charles VI., stated that his imperial master, who saw the official reports of the trial, told him it was a preparation of crystallised arsenic dissolved in water with Herba Cymbalaria.

Whatever the poison may have been, the reports as to its action would seem to have been exaggerated, for no known poison would work precisely as reported—at once so bland and so deadly; while, on the other hand, we think we are speaking with the strictest scientific accuracy when we state that the modern toxicologist would undertake to detect every and any poison administered in a fatal dose, if the case were presented to him within a reasonable time after death.

[William Chambers, Robert Chambers, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, Chapter “Tofana, The Italian Poisoner,” 1890, pp. 236-8]


See also: Hieronyma Spara & Gratiosa


For more than two dozen similar cases, dating from 1658 to 2011, see the summary list with links see: The Husband-Killing Syndicates


More cases: Female Serial Killers Executed


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