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Aqua Tofana

Aqua Tofana

Just after Christmas I gave an interview to Shawna Potter, of the hardcore punk band War on Women, on the subject of Aqua Tofana, the supposed “slow poison” used by several hundred Italian women to dispose of abusive or unwanted husbands in the middle of the 17th century. The poison was the subject of a song on the band’s new album; we discussed the historical background and talked a bit about the differences between the historian’s art – which is all about balance and nuance and trying not to go beyond the evidence – and the songwriters’, which in Shawna’s case is often about anger. It was an enjoyable interview to do and Shawna is a much more than usually interesting host. The pod – look for Episode 1 – is available at this link; and Shawna has now made a transcript of the interview available here, from which I excerpt the following:

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
[Music]
Shawna: Welcome to But Her Lyrics, the show where we take a deep dive on the meaning and
the politics behind each song from the new War On Women album wonderful help. I’m Shawna
Potter, singer and lyricist for War On Women, and your host. This episode, the first real episode,
we’re tackling the album opener Aqua Tofana. Now, I say real episode because I did release an
optional episode zero that sets up the entire season of the show. So, check that out if you
wanna hear all my disclaimers and caveats and a fun interview with my mom who kind of called
me out on being old in the interview which I didn’t really get until after the episode aired. Did
anyone else catch that? Mom, if you’re listening, back at ya. Every show will be a little different
as I figure out what I’m doing. But in general, first, I’ll talk about the lyrics. Then check in with
any band members, then I’ll play any potential interviews with activists or experts on the topic,
and then finish out by answering Patreon questions reading the credits, and then finally playing
the song in question. So, let’s not waste any time. Let’s talk about Aqua Tofana, the first song on
the new War On Women album, Wonderful Hell released October 30th, 2020 on Bridge 9
Records.

Okay, so Aqua Tofana literally means Tofana water. And it refers to a poison made in early 17th
century Italy by Giulia Tofana. I’m confident I’m not pronouncing her first name right. But she
made it for the purpose of helping women kill their husbands to get out of marriages they could
not otherwise escape. I believe I came across this little historical nugget in some article from
Bitch or Bust magazine. But, y’all, I tried to find this magical mention. And I just couldn’t. I
searched online, I searched all my physical copies, all my magazines, and I just couldn’t find
where it was mentioned. So, I would love it if there’s any listener out there that knows what
article I’m talking about. It should be from the year 2019. Please let me know. I would love to
give the author a shout out on Twitter and thank them for helping to inspire this song.
So, I look at this song lyrically as coming from three different places, right? Like three different
ideas. The first, my interest in Aqua Tofana. The second is just a thought experiment about what
would happen if all men died. The third idea is just me really wanting to rip off the Shellac song
Prayer to God. [laughs] It was not my intention to throw these ideas together actually. But after
struggling to write a song solely about Italy in the 1600s, hello, I’m not a historian, and sort of
hitting a wall when it came to deciding on the point of view I wanted to express about this
global coordinated effort to kill roughly half the population, eventually I’m flipping around in my
lyric book and see that these two separate pages of scribbled notes might share something.
They might be able to work together.

Since this is the first episode, it’s the first official time I will prove that just because something
interests me enough to write a song about it, it doesn’t mean I’m an expert. So instead of me
reading to you the Wikipedia page about Aqua Tofana, I interviewed Mike Dash, a journalist,
author, and historian whose website– A Blast from the Past– specializes in long form essays
where his original research helps explore lesser known moments in history. And he’s got a great
one on Aqua Tofana. And luckily for us, he took some time out of his day to chat with me about
it.

[Music]

Shawna: Mike, thank you so much for joining me for But Her Lyrics. Could you introduce
yourself to everybody?
Mike: Yes, my name is Mike Dash. I’m a British historian. My main focus as a writer is on strange
unusual marginal events and strange unusual and marginal people.
[Shawna laughs]
Shawna: What did you think when a random feminist punk band from America reached out to
you about doing an interview about Aqua Tofana?
Mike: I was very excited. Or not so excited as my daughter’s boyfriend who actually listens to
some of your music and was extremely impressed that you’d even heard of me, though I should
be–
Shawna: Oh.
Mike: –I should be very much sort of honored by all of this.
Shawna: Oh. So, your daughter’s boyfriend is super cool then I assume if he listens to us, right?
Mike: I hadn’t realized quite how cool until now, but yeah. Exactly.
[Shawna laughs]
Shawna: Yeah. So, I found you online just searching for people that had written about Aqua
Tofana. The original source for me discovering this little moment in history, I have no idea where
I read it. And it was a couple years ago, and I have no notes. And so I thought, “Well, instead of
me reading off the Wikipedia page about it to my podcast listeners, why don’t I interview
someone that actually knows what they’re talking about?” And I found you, and I found your
site. And you write about so many cool little moments in history that I think could easily be
forgotten. And I wondered if the story of Aqua Tofana is a popular one. Has it seen an uptick in
interest recently?
Mike: It is one of my more popular ones out there which is surprising cuz it’s one of my longer
ones. It took me an awfully long time to disentangle the whole story. It’s been surrounded by so
much room and just sort of incorrect accounts so that the whole story was something like
15,000 words which online particularly is a lot to ask people to tear through. But over the last
four or five years since I wrote it, it has definitely been amongst the top six or seven most
popular things I’ve ever written–
Shawna: Yeah.
Mike: –which is picking I find because it’s definitely not one of the better known ones even
amongst my not very well known bits of history. It’s relatively obscure.
Shawna: So, let’s dig in. What can you tell us about, well, actually set the stage for us. What can
you tell us about Italy at that time?
Mike: Well, we’re talking Italy in the 17th century. This is before unification, so it’s a patchwork
of different territories. Sicily, which is where the story begins, was part of the Spanish Empire at
that point and was ruled by a Spanish governor. And Rome where the story ends was part of
what we call the Papal States. So the pope at that time had a sort of a temporal role as well as a
spiritual one. He ruled over a large part of territories in the center of Italy, and the church was
therefore the sort of temple governing parent around the justice system in Rome as well. So, it’s
an area which is kind of made for criminal elements because it’s from one jurisdiction to another
relatively effectively and relatively easily. And this is what some of the people involved in the
story actually managed to do.
Shawna: And I assume that things were not great for women at the time.
Mike: As a historian I can confirm that things have never been great for women pretty much.
[Shawna laughs]
Shawna: You heard it here first, people. It’s official. There’s a reason for our band to exist.
[laughs]
Mike: [unintelligible 00:07:31.05] but they already know. Yeah. Yeah, we’re talking about a very
heavily Catholic society to begin with. We’re talking about one in which also I mean women are
essentially as they had always been chattels and they’re possessions of men. You’re a possession
of your father until you get married, hence the whole idea of giving the bride away by walking
down the aisle. It was meant quite literally in that period.
Shawna: Mmm.
Mike: And then you become the possession of your husband. Now, that’s not to say that every
husband treated his wife as a child. Sometimes the relationship could work out quite well and
the couple could be happy, but that was happenstance. The system is set up essentially. So, if
the man chooses, he can treat the woman as a servant, as a possession. And she has a relatively
limited palette of options if she’s not happy with him. And that I think is really where the story
begins.
Shawna: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about what Aqua Tofana is.
Mike: Aqua Tofana is supposedly, I need to be careful about this because there’s some
mysteries about supposedly a poison. It’s supposedly a very special sort of poison. It’s what’s
known as a slow poison. Now a slow poison differs from an ordinary poison in that supposedly it
works in a slow and undetectable way. It’s not as violent as normal poisons. The chief poison
used at this time was arsenic, which is relatively easy to get hold of but has very distinct
symptoms. It causes uncontrollable vomiting, stomach pains, nausea, extreme dehydration, and
so on.
The slow poisons, in contrast, were supposedly sort of tools of deceit, tools of the weaker
parties. And hence obviously as poisons more generally are tools of women, that’s how they
were seen by the societies of the day. And the idea was that a slow poison was a very highly
concentrated sort of poison which worked in very small doses but over a longer period of time
and with much less violent effects. So, in fact what would happen is that you could, if you could
get hold of one of these poisons in fear, you could use it to kill an unwanted member of your
family or husband for example without being detected. That was supposed to be the special
secret thing about Aqua Tofana. You could murder someone and get away with it.
Shawna: And was this a unique recipe for poison, or was the uniqueness in the story behind the
presentation?
Mike: Well, [laughs] this is why I say supposedly. Because, yeah, it was very widely believed in
the 17th century and up until the 19th century that the slow poisons existed. The fact is that
even now with our much more advanced chemical knowledge, we have no way concocting a
poison that works. Well, Aqua Tofana is supposed to work. The most special thing about all of it
is that you could supposedly calculate the dose so finely, you could kill someone exactly when
you want them to die a week-end, a month-end, a year-end. And that’s simply not possible
using poisons that we know of today. So unless you choose to believe the group of poorly
educated wise women with no access to modern chemical knowledge who could somehow
come across a secret that we don’t know about, we have to assume that there’s a certain
amount of legend involved in it all.
Shawna [00:10:45.11]: So many of my lyrics for the song are taken from the Wikipedia page like
it, right? I’m not above copying and pasting when it comes to lyrics and inspiration. But
something that struck me about this story was, and let’s just put the supposedly caveat on the
entire interview. How about that? From now on like it’s understood, it’s also posted. Okay. What
struck me was how long she was able to sell this poison undetected without being caught. Why
do you think that’s possible?
Mike: Well, the story is that it’s a sort of family business to begin with. The poison was
supposedly invented in the 1620s by a woman called Giulia Tofana who was a Sicilian, and she
was executed for murdering by poison in 1633. That’s definitely true. Supposedly, I guess I
should have said that. But her daughter–
[Shawna laughs]
Mike: –a woman who claimed to be her daughter who was identified as her daughter who
turned up in Rome 20 or so years later using the same recipe and with a network of helpers who
were selling amongst other things this poison to unhappy wives in Rome. So we’re talking about
a poison that was certainly in use for aroundabout 30 years. And, yeah, the reason why they
weren’t caught was partly caution partly because the people who were buying the poison from
them had obviously every reason to want to conceal what they’re doing and partly because of
the nature of the sold poison itself which if used properly was supposed to prevent detection. In
the sense the better question is why were they actually eventually convicted or arrested rather
than how they were able to operate such a long period of time. Because we’re talking about a
period in which there’s really very limited medical knowledge that the main treatment for the
sort of symptoms I was discussing here earlier on is just bleeding people, make it worse rather
than better usually.
And also we’re talking about a period in which bubonic plague is fairly rife in places like that.
And in fact the main outbreak of poisons that we know about because they lead to trials and
lead to executions in the end of the 1650s coincided with a serious outbreak of plague. And
that’s one of the reasons why they were supposed to be able to get away with it at the time that
the deaths were being written off as being caused by something else.
Shawna: Mhm. In your opinion, do you think that most victims of this poison maybe not
deserved to die but deserved some sort of accountability or justice that just wasn’t going to
come any other way?
Mike: Well, there’s some truth in that. And it’s very hard to know because obviously we’re
talking about trial transcripts where the people who are on trial for their lives have every reason
to lie, where the authorities have every reason to want to extirpate women who are doing away
with their husbands in ways that are not just illegal from the technical point of view but also
highly sinful as well. And we are talking about the Papal States again. So, the evidence itself is
not going to be very reliable. But, certainly there were plenty of cases testimonies given in court
of women who were being beaten by their husbands, maltreated by their husbands, and had
been driven to extremes of desperation essentially by the way in which their husbands are
treating them and by the fact that they had no recourse other than to wait for their husband to
die. And if that wasn’t going to happen through their own hand, that would have to wait till that
happened naturally which might be quite soon in a place like Rome in the 1650s at the pope.
[Shawna laughs]
Mike: But it was actually not guaranteed to be very soon, and so certainly the testimony that
was given in court was of largely desperate wives who were really being terribly badly treated
and were looking for a recourse and were sufficiently desperate for that recourse to be murder.
Shawna: Does the legend of Aqua Tofana, do you see it having any effects long term effects in
Italy after the original time period?
Mike: Well, it has long term effects more generally because it became a well-known byword for
a weapon that women could use to bring down the stronger sex. And this is how we see it
written about most commonly in the 19th century. And the words that were associated with the
sort of women who aren’t supposed to be using it are very telling. They’re called the deers,
they’re labeled as evil, they’re labeled as people who have been surreptitious using women’s
wiles to bring down men who should not have been vulnerable to a woman.
[Shawna laughs]
Mike: So, absolutely, this becomes quite a major trope if you like in the way in which women
who are attempting to escape from bad marriages or husbands are normally labeled and viewed
actually.
Shawna: And is there anything else you find fascinating about this time period or about Giulia
Tofana herself? Am I saying that right, Giulia Tofana?
Mike: Yes, my child would. But I’d say she’s pretty better than how most people sound. A lot
brilliant. But I think that’s right.
Shawna: Phew.
Mike: Well, I think that the thing that interested me most when I really investigated the story is
that this is really the tip of the iceberg in the sense of what emerges very clearly is that in most
Catholic capital cities in this period there was quite extensive what’s called a criminal magical
underworld in operation. And I find that particularly interesting because this entire criminal
magical underworld is essentially devoted to servicing the needs of a female clientele who don’t
normally have access to power, so it’s not only poisons you can buy. You can buy love filters that
will cause men to fall in love with you. You can have access to the need for an abortion for
example which again was impossible to get anywhere else and highly highly illegal at the time.
And all of this comes through the sacerdotal power of the church. And so the fascinating thing
about it it’s not, in fact, devil worship or anything like that. You’re using sort of renegade priests
who are willing to sell bottles of holy water, things that have been blessed in churches and so on
and can then be used in magical performances, which were very widely available to women in
places like Paris and Rome. And the way in which people normally got access to Aqua Tofana
actually it wasn’t you just woke up out of the blues saying you wanted to poison your husband.
That’d be highly dangerous to you and the person that is selling honestly.
[Shawna laughs]
Mike: Normally, it was a much more gradual process. You’d meet one of these wise women who
actually had access to a point by something as simple as going to have your fortune told or
looking for a love potion. And as they got to know you, they become aware that you are
somebody who might need some of these other services that they are offering. And they will
then surreptitiously offer those services to people who they trusted. So the criminal magical
underworld is a fascinating discovery, and it seems to be much much more widespread than we
realize. I found one in Rome by researching Aqua Tofana. Other historians have certainly found
similar things operating other capitals like Paris, and I think it would be a really interesting
exercise actually for historians to go and search for other criminal magical underworlds in other
Catholic cities in this period.
Shawna: Now, did you listen to the song? Did you read the lyrics? I’m not saying to like it, I’m
just saying if you listened to it.
Mike: I haven’t listened to the song.
Shawna: Okay.
Mike: I did read the lyrics. Absolutely.
Shawna: Okay, is there anything that struck you or anything I got totally wrong or?
Mike: So I be lacking in historical nuance.
[Mike and Shawna laugh]
Mike: But, I’m not trying to either make a song that will sort of get this across the audience. I
think that the thing that struck me about it was the anger. It was something that probably is
meant to come across to the audience. And, yeah, this is perhaps something where you do have
something over us mere historians in that we don’t have access to the emotions of these cases
nearly as well as we would like to have. The trial testimonies are very flat and very much matter
of fact. People are concealing the emotions that they felt I think very largely because they’re
potentially wholly incriminating. So I think that the most interesting thing about coming at this
from a more artistsic point if view is you probably have access to sort of truths that historians
don’t have access to. And I think that that comes across very strongly from the loops that you
had.
Shawna: Mhm. Thank you for that. Is there anything you’re working on right now, that you’d like
to share with us? Anything coming up?
[Mike laughs]
Mike: I have seen a movie. If it pollutes your group, I don’t know. My main study at the moment
which I’m just finishing off in the Christmas period looks at sin eating which is supposedly again
a custom that prevailed in Wales to where I come from, and involved, sort of reprobate tramps
essentially who were shunned by the community being called in at the moment of someone’s
death. They were these people who were sort of again very similar actually to the people with
criminal magical underworld. They were specialists in a certain sort of area, and what they
specialized in is removing the sense from dead people so that they could go to heaven. Seems to
be in a sort of remnant of Catholic ritual yet involving purgatory which of course had been
abolished with the Reformation in Britain. And so the sin eaters would be called in. They would
put a piece of bread and some salt on the chest of the deceased cadaver which will be laid out in
the main room of the house. And they would utter a sort of special prayer, eat the food, drink or
draft a veil. And in doing so, they would free their soul to go to heaven but take on all of the sins
of the person who had died on themselves.
And obviously, yeah, they’d done that for a few years. They were in a fairly poor spiritual state
themselves, hence the shunning of the local community. So this is again a story which might or
might not have been quite as as prominent as someone who said I’ve been investigating for a
few years, and I’ve finally sort of got to the point of being polite at some conclusions And you
can find a song in that. I’ll direct you to the story of it please next month.
Shawna [00:20:36.17]: Well, I’ve seen that movie with Heath Ledger. So–
Mike: Okay. Okay, well, there you have it.
Shawna: –I don’t know how accurate that thing is. [laughs]
Mike: Very inaccurate, but it’s a story that’s more interesting in many cases than the truth of it
is.
Shawna: Yeah. Because I’ve seen that movie senator is a familiar term to me, and I actually use
it sometimes in my life like as if a real term. I’m sure I won’t include this in the podcast, but I sort
of twisted it. And so I use it in the sense that if I see someone who is being harassed or
mistreated and I need to step in as a bystander even though I might then be harassed or
mistreated right, I’d get that anger directed at me instead. When I willingly put myself in that
position, I sort of think of myself as like, “I’ll be the senator. I’ll take it on. I’m in the mood for it.
Come at me, bro. You’ll get to safety. And I’ll take it.” So, obviously not exactly the same. But, I
think of it in that word that term.
Mike: And it’s [unintelligible 00:21:41.02] with you.
[Shawna laughs]
Mike: You could be absolutely and do whatever it takes to be in a situation like that, so it’s a
good thing to do.
Shawna: Yeah. Well, good luck with that research and that project. And tell us where we can
find you online.
Mike: You can find me at mikedash history.com. That’s where you find them. That’s where I
hang out most of the time.
Shawna: And there are a ton of cool stories on this website, people. So, please check it out,
learn a little bit, write your own song [laughs] about something, and then share with us. All right,
thank you so much Mike for joining me on New Year’s Eve. Thank you.
Mike: It’s been a pleasure.

About Mike Dash

Historian of the exceptional, the evocative and the unusual.

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