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A Woman's Art

Updated: 1 day ago

Don't touch the wine...

Fed up with your philandering hubbie? Got that insurance policy in place? Image: Evelyn de Morgan, 1903h

The 17th and early 18th centuries were an exciting time for folks with power and money to live and, of course, to die. Best of all, it was an era before forensic medicine. Fingerprints were a hundred years in the future, DNA profiling 200 years away. Nonetheless, even in today's totally surveilled society, restless wives still manage to bloodlessly do away with boring husbands without inconvenient consequences.

I'm a museum aficionado. You'd be surprised, even shocked, at what there's to find squirreled away in dusty alcoves of the British Museum or Vancouver's (now defunct) Museum of the Weird. Italian and Spanish women are fond of fans and many museums own extensive collections. Our local castle offers a modest display of fans, the most interesting of which incorporate small poison lockets.

Poison ring/pendant. Andalusia (Spain), circa 1935. Author collection [1]

Historical records for the city of Rome, capital of the Papal States, for the year 1803 suggest some 3,000 murders by suspected poisoning. Italian goldsmiths did a brisk business in poison rings and lockets, purchased mostly by women of all social classes and ambitious members of the clergy. One had then only to consult with the local apothecary regarding the sex, age, and weight of the intended victim, then stock up on the appropriate poison, often disguised and sold as a liniment or perfume. With the right chemistry, it only took a few drops in the wine and bingo, away with lover number 356. The profession of gold digging was in its heyday. But then, when has it ever not been?

Aqua Tofana, also called "Nanna di San Nicola." Public domain image.

Aqua Tofana was the poison of choice from around 1620 when it was first compounded in Palermo, Sicily, until the turn of the 20th century when weapons of mass destruction became the rage. According to Wikipedia (my go-to for important trivia):

"Poisoning by Aqua Tofana could go unnoticed, as the substance is clear and has no taste. It is slow acting, with symptoms resembling progressive disease or other natural causes. The symptoms seen are similar to the effects of arsenic poisoning. Those poisoned by Aqua Tofana reported several symptoms. The first small dosage would produce cold-like symptoms. The victim was very ill by the third dose; symptoms included vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, and a burning sensation in the digestive system. The fourth dose would kill the victim. As it was slow acting, it allowed victims time to prepare for their death, including writing a will and repenting. The antidote often given were vinegar and lemon juice."

Aqua Tofana became a catch-all term referring to a whole gamut of “slow poisons” that were undetectable and invariably lethal, the perfect way to dispose of an aging, cheating, or otherwise displeasing husband or lover. A network of underground, and sometimes above ground, apothecaries, who also dealt in love philtres and abortion-inducing potions - often sold together for convenience - packaged these slow poisons as women's cosmetics and perfumes, alluding to the almost exclusive feminist market. Who says that love isn't transactional? By 1650, Aqua Tofana had claimed the lives of an estimated 600 men, and it was just out of the starting gate.

Poison locket, Italian. Author collection.

e Potion’ by Evelyn de Morgan, 1903

The exact recipe has been lost (so they say), but here are the approximate ingredients:

  • Arsenic

  • Lead

  • Belladonna (extract of deadly nightshade)

  • Colorant or scent depending on the proposed application

The trick is in the dosage. You don't want the target to collapse in a heap, striking his head on the floor or corner of a table, then find yourself charged with assault and manslaughter or, heaven forbid, murder. Too large a dosage means the police lab will identify poison in the cadaver. Instead, you want to ruin his health over a reasonable period of time then, after the substance has completely cleared his system, his organs fail. Game over. Kaputski. Death of natural causes.

Some noteworthy poisoners

Ludwig Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) is said to have become a victim of Aqua Tofana but nobody took it seriously as he had been joking about his impending demise for some time. Whether his jealous rival, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) actually did the deed is largely a matter of conjecture. Almost immediately after Mozarts death, Russian author Aleksandr Pushkin penned the play "Mozart and Salieri," then composer Rimsky-Korsakov set it to music. A legend was born.

Doing the dirty. Public domain image.

The most alluring and best known poisoner is probably Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), daughter of Pope Alexander VI and famous for coining the term "the cup of Borgia." The notorious Borgia family advanced its political agenda by marrying the seductive Lucrezia off to at least four legal husbands, including Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and Gradara, Count of Cotignola; Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie and Prince of Salerno; and Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, while she enjoyed and disposed of a slew of ad hoc lovers.

Lucrezia married her first hubby, the Lord of Val D'Ayola (Valencia) when she turned 13 years-old in 1493, but the marriage was annulled less than two months later when she was betrothed to Don Gaspare Aversa, count of Procida. When her daddy become pope, he broke the engagement to the hopeful count and arranged for her to marry the powerful Giovanni Sforza. She was still only 13.

When daddy tried to annul this latest marriage, Giovanni accused Lucrezia of paternal incest. Rumours began to circulate. Lucrezia had reportedly consummated this latest marriage in the bed of her father the pope's chamberlain, Pedro Calderon. Families hostile to the Borgias - and who wouldn't be? - later accused her of being pregnant at the time that her marriage to Giovanni Sforza was annulled for non-consummation. You probably get the picture. Or maybe not. It's complicated.

Two more marriages and a slew of scandalous affairs followed. Lucrezia is rumoured to have possessed a poison ring that she used to good effect.

Three portraits of Lucrezia Borgia by Leonardo da Vinci (left & centre, c. 1500) and Bartolomeo Veneto (1520).

Am alleged example of the incompetent (hence innocent) male poisoner is British lawyer and socialite Claus Von Bulow. Of the top 10 psychopathic personalities, CEOs enjoy top billing with lawyers a close second, In 1982, Von Bulow was convicted of botching a 1979 attempt at murdering his shrewish and very rich wife, Sunny von Bülow, which left her in a temporary coma, and a second attempt in 1980 that left her in a life-long vegetative state. Imagine a potted plant. Both convictions were later overturned on appeal. Von Bulow's successful appeal of the imposed 30-year sentence is owed to lawyer and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz of OJ Simpson and Jeffrey Epstein fame.

Left image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay, Composite by author.

Witnesses for the defence included testimony by Truman Capote, often described by associates as "that slimy little faggot," Joanne Carson (second wife of Johnny Carson), and more than ten of Sunny's socialite friends who attested to her extensive drug use.

At Von Bulow's post-appeal dinner party, playwright and filmmaker Norman Mailer whispered to his wife: "Let's get out of here. I think this guy is innocent. I thought we were going to be having dinner with a man who actually tried to kill his wife." [2]

The point is that men often prove incomptent when dabbling in what has been traditionally a woman's art.

A more updated poison

Thalium sulfate, tasteless and odourless in liquid form, works as well or better than Aqua Tofana and, until a short time ago, was readily available over the counter as a commercial rat poison. The world produces approximately 10 tonnes of thallium annually.

My father-in-law died of thallium poisoning (unverifiable since he was immediately cremated but highly probably). Although he and the mother-in-law didn't get on very well, she didn't poison him. He was a goldsmith and surely had produced many poison lockets and rings for his aristocratic client base; nonetheless, his demise occurred some weeks after a prodigious dinner at which he consumed 42 oysters harvested from the mouth of the Huangpu River at Shanghai. Oysters are bivalves that filter sea water to obtain nutrients but oyster beds located at the mouths of rivers with upstream heavy industry are notorious for their concentration of thallium. It's forbidden to harvest oysters from the mouth of the Columbia River at Portland, Oregon, for this very reason.

How do I know this?

I was once contracted by the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company to write a technical paper for local government approval of a proposed thallium storage facility associated with a lead and zinc refinery. The refinery that had been dumping its slag into the Columbia for almost a century and thallium concentration in the water was off the chart. My research curiously coincided with my father-in-law's decline which displayed all the usual symptoms of slow poisoning wherein the initial substance has completely left the victim's system before death occurs due to organ shutdown. Funny how life works, although there's certainly nothing humorous about death, for the deseased, that is. Most folks will tell you they want to live forever.

Victorian era poison rings. Image source: via GIA

Anyway, my latest encounter with post-modern Aqua Tofana came in the form of an associate who began to display flu-like symptoms that persisted, on and off, over a long period of time. He visited his doctor and was prescribed the usual symptom-reducing drugs. His health would improve, then a month or two later, he'd fall ill again. His doctor eventually suspected that these bouts of ill health were purpose-caused and sent his blood sample out for more rigourous analysis.

Yup. He'd been slow-poisoned by his wife who was a nurse, and died within a short time of "natural causes" since his vital organs had been severely compromised by the poison. The wife got away scott-free, as investigators could not trace the poison directly to her, being circumstantial evidence at best. If you're curious, there's a shitload of toxic lead and other ingredients in those cheap, made-in-china lipsticks, so bouts of heavy kissing could theoretically lead to slow poisoning for both participants and it isn't gender specific. She could have love bombed him to death but wasn't particularly creative.

In Richard Wager's opera "Tristan and Isolde" based on a celtic legend, the star-crossed protagonists drink what they think is Aqua Tofana, being Isolde's response to her lover's betrayal, although it's actually a love potion concocted by her own maid. Instead of Tristan's demise, the pair fall passionately in love, leading to the usual cycle of jealousy, hatred, and revenge.

Wagner, who was a notorious anti-Semite, was Adolphe Hitler's favourite composer. Just sayin'.

The path forward

Poison rings have come back in fashion, especially among the Goth set. One may purchase poison lockets and rings almost everywhere these days which says a lot about the fragile and rather transitive nature of love.

Source: Etsy


  1. For sale. Please enquire via the contacts page on this web site.

  2. Dershowitz, Alan, Taking the Stand. New York: Crown Publishers. pp. 240/241. ISBN 978-0-307-71927-0.

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