Aqua Tofana (also known as Acqua Toffana and Aqua Tufania and "Manna di San Nicola") was a strong poison that was reputedly widely used in Naples and Rome, Italy. During the early 1600s, an infamous figure, originally from Palermo, was a lady named Giulia Toffana. She made a good business selling her large production (she employed her daughter and several other lady helpers) of Acqua Toffana to would-be widows. The product was sold to lady clients, accompanied by instructions for its use.
Aqua Tofana (literally meaning "Tofana water") was either the creation of Giulia Toffana or an older recipe that had been refined by Toffana and her daughter, Girolama Spera, around 1650 in Rome. The 'tradename' "Manna di San Nicola", i.e. "Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari" might have been a marketing device intended to divert the authorities, since the poison was openly sold both as a cosmetic and a devotionary object in vials that included a picture of St. Nicholas. Over 600 victims are known to have died from this poison, mostly husbands of unhappy spouses.
The ingredients of the mixture are basically known but not how they were blended. Acqua Toffana contained mostly arsenic and lead and possibly belladonna. It was a colorless, tasteless liquid and so easily mixed with water or wine to be served during meals.
Giulia was sympathetic to the low status of women and most often sold her poison to women trapped in difficult marriages. She became known as a friend to the troubled wife and received many referrals. Some of her customers purchased with intent and knowledge of the poison; others used it for its advertised purposes and only "accidentally" caused "unintended" deaths.
Toffana's business was finally revealed to the Papal authorities by a customer; however she was so popular that the locals protected her from apprehension. She escaped to a church, where she was granted sanctuary. When a rapid rumor, claiming that she had poisoned the water, tore through Rome, the police forced their way into the church and dragged Toffana in for questioning.
Under torture, she confessed to killing 600 people with her poisons, but this cannot be confirmed owing to the torture and the widespread distribution of the poison. She was ultimately executed in Rome (in the Campo dei Fiori), together with her daughter (Girolama Spera, known as 'Astrologia della Lungara') and three helpers, in July of 1659. After her death, her body was thrown over the wall of the church that had provided her with sanctuary. Some of the users and purveyors were also arrested and executed, while other accomplices were bricked into the dungeons of the Palazzo Pucci.
There are incorrect references to her purported execution in Naples in 1719. The legend that Mozart might have been poisoned using Acqua Toffana is completely unsubstantiated.
Tofana is in many sources confused with Hieronyma Spara, "La Spara", a woman with a similar profession in Italy about the same time. Probably this is another name of the 'astroliga della Lungara'.
- Stuart, David C. Dangerous Garden. Frances Lincoln ltd, 2004.
- The most reliable source for the story of Toffana is Vita di Alessandro VII by Cardinal Pallavicini