Tofana (1653–1723)

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Tofana (1653–1723)

Italian poisoner. Name variations: La Toffania. Born in 1653; died in 1723.

Accounts of the life of notorious poisoner Tofana, sometimes called La Toffania, differ greatly. One source claims she was living in Palermo, Sicily, in the late 1600s; another indicates she lived in Naples. Little is known about her early life, and there is disagreement about the manner and date of her death. But it is agreed that Tofana had for many years supplied poison to high-born ladies who wished to get rid of unwanted husbands, facilitating as many as 600 deaths before she was discovered and tried by the authorities.

Tofana apparently operated by selling a substance she pretended was a medicine with near-miraculous healing powers. Called "Mana of St. Nicholas of Bari," it was in reality a powerful compound of arsenic. Reports indicate that this substance was much in demand among women of the region, and that Tofana sold it at high profits for many years. Not until authorities became suspicious at the unexplained increase in the death rate, however, were her crimes discovered. One account says she was exposed in 1659 when a secret society, run by a woman called La Spara (Hieronyma Spara ), was discovered; though Spara and several others were executed, Tofana escaped to a convent. She remained there until 1709, when she was abducted and forced to confess to her part in the 600 deaths, though this could not be proved.

Another source suggests that Tofana's crimes were not discovered until 1719, when the viceroy of Naples ordered her arrested. After capturing her and obtaining her confession through torture, the viceroy ordered her strangled on the spot, and had her body tossed over the wall onto the grounds of the convent that had sheltered her. Though the date of Tofana's death is given as 1723, some sources cite 1720 and others suggest she may have lived until 1730. Her poison, which came to be known as "Aqua tofana," was later among those employed by Marquise Marie de Brinvillers . Tofana was used as a model for the protagonist in Sidonia the Sorceress.


Nash, Jay Robert. Look for the Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1985.

Elizabeth Shostak , M.A., Cambridge, Massachusetts