During the height of Europe’s witch-hunting in the 15th to 17th century, about 40,000 to 100,000 people accused of being a witch. Ninety percent of these numbers were executed. Sorcery or witchcraft was considered a severe crime during those eras, and it was punishable by death.
Although men were also accused of witchcraft, about 75–80 percent of those executed during the witch hunts were women. Women were subject to cultural prejudices that framed them as inherently weaker than men and, thus, more susceptible to superstition and evil. Such a concept was derived from the Bible about Eve’s weaknesses to temptation.
Most of the women being persecuted as witches were from a stereotyped sector — poor, old, and widowed. But some were wise, skilled, and cunning ladies practicing in apothecaries and other medical fields that were accused of witchcraft.
Three of these women who made history were Guilia, Giovanna, and Catherine when their knowledge about potion making and healing became a tool for the Europeans to kill.
1. Giuliana Tofana and Her Aqua Tofana
Guilia was born in Palermo, Italy, in 1620. She was a beautiful lady and spent most of her time in apothecaries. Due to her astute knowledge in potion making, she later developed her own cosmetics line that was widely-used in Naples, Perugia, and Rome, Italy.
One of her popular products was Aqua Tofana. It was a colorless and tasteless liquid concoction, and its tradename was “Manna di San Nicola.” Its packaging was very wholesome, wherein it was wrapped with the illustration of St. Nicholas of Bari was even the cover of the Aqua Tofana’s bottle. And there’s a reason for that.
This cosmetic liquid’s wholesome branding was intended to lure the authorities about its real purpose — poisoning. Giulia, her daughter, and their women customers knew what Aqua Tofana was really made for.
Guilia became a leader of a poisonous network that spanned across Italy, providing a black market service highly in demand. Her underground empire included cunning women, back door apothecaries, crooked clergymen, and fortune-telling witches, solely dedicated to the sale and distribution of poison.
Getting rid of abusive husbands
During the Renaissance period, marriages were not often bound by love but arranged by families. Marriage was seen then as an economic proposition to reach social, political, and wealth gain.
“The family of the bride was required to present a dowry to the husband which often padded the husbands wealth. After marriage a woman’s body and possessions became the property of her husband. This possession allowed a husband to beat his wife for disobedience. A family would only allow their daughter to be married to a man who was well established in a trade or business proving that he had a means of supporting his wife.” — Amanda Anderson
Due to such a norm, many women in that era experienced abuse by their husbands. And the only way to get out of a miserable situation is to become a widow. Therefore, Giuliana’s Aqua Tofana became a source of escape for many wives that had endured a beating from their husbands.
The liquid looks like ordinary water, but it has arsenic, lead, and belladonna (a poisonous plant). Women mixed this potion to their husbands’ food and drinks in small doses, killing them gradually, in order not to raise suspicion of sudden death.
The downfall of the “Queen of Poison”
For five years, Giulia managed to sell her poison under the radar — fooling the authorities. But in the 1650s, one of her customers had a last-minute regret when she was about to poison her husband.
The woman added Aqua Tofana in her husband’s soup, and he was about to eat it, she stopped him. Her husband, who got increasingly suspicious of her action, forced her to confess. Then, he took her to the Papal authorities in Rome, where she came clean about where she obtained the poison.
Giulianna fled her home and sought sanctuary inside a church. Eventually, the rumors spread like wildfire in Rome. The mob stormed the church; she was taken into custody and was tortured. She, later on, confessed to poisoning 600 men between 1633 to 1651.
Giulianna was publically executed for her crimes, alongside her daughter and three of her employees. Her corpse was thrown over the wall into the church that had offered her sanctuary. Some of Tofana’s clients and other accomplices were also executed. However, some plead ignorance with an alibi that they thought Aqua Tofana was a beauty product and not a poison.
2. Giovanna Bonnano and Her “Mysterious Vinegar Liquor”
Similar to Guilia, Giovanna Bonnano was also from Palermo, Italy. But compared to Guilia, she was outright dubbed as a witch by many. She was an old lady, a widow, and a beggar. People believed that she could talk to spirits as she practices black magic. Therefore, they go to her for spells, potion, and witchcraft. Her infamous reputation was recorded in the 18th century.
Most of her clients were wives who wanted to get even with their unfaithful husbands or kill their mistresses. But some of the potions she made were not effective. Until she discovered an ingredient that changed her life as a professional poisoner, it was a mixture made by a herbalist named Saverio La Monica. This medicine was a lotion intended to kill lice.
However, she heard the news that a child died ingesting this mixture that looks like vinegar.
To test its efficacy, Giovanna initially soaked a piece of bread in the vinegar and fed it to a stray dog. That night, the hound died. She immediately skinned it to check if there were any marks on its skin, which was an indication of poisoning, but there was none.
More lethal than any magic spells
Satisfied with her discovery, Giovanna started producing more of the vinegar-looking solution. She sells it to her clients, marketing it as a “mysterious vinegar liquor,” which will result in an unexplainable death once ingested.
Due to the liquid’s naturalness and tasteless characteristics, it can be mixed with any food. Giovanna’s clients were astounded by the vinegar’s marvels. It also takes eight to fifteen days to reach its full effect — enough time for the suffering husband to confess and receive communion. By doing so, the wives were not haunted by the conscience of the eternal condemnation of their spouse’s souls.
“ The vinegar was a secure and economical remedy. People bought it because they preferred to spent money on magic that worked rather than waste money on spells of dubious success.” — Giovanna Fiume
Some of her clients used the vinegar to escape an abusive husband, but some used it to be with their lovers, get rid of an heir rival, or merely killed people they had grudges.
Death by hanging
At the height of her professional poisoner career, Giovanna was betrayed by one of her delivery-women, Maria Pitarra. When she was delivering the poison bottles, she realized that the victim was to be the son of a friend and decided to warn the mother.
Therefore, the mother planted a trap against Giovanna. She made an order of the mysterious vinegar, and when Giovanna arrived, she was apprehended.
The trial opened in October 1788. Some of the apothecaries where her vinegar was being distributed testify against her. She was accused of witchcraft, and it was believed her poison killed over 1500 victims, mostly men.
She was sentenced to death and was executed by hanging on July 30, 1789.
3. Catherine “La Voisin” Monvoisin and Her Black Masses
In 1640, Catherine Deshayes was born in France. At a young age, she married a jewelry shop owner, Antoine Monvoisin, in Paris. But his business went bankrupt, and Catherine ended up working to raise their family.
She was a midwife and had vast medical knowledge. Apart from this, she was also known in the city talented clairvoyant and fortune teller. Eventually, these gifts led her to become one of the most mystical and fascinating people in the second half of 17th century Paris.
Catherine’s spiritual abilities became more and more admired, especially as she claimed her powers were gifts from God. She told people that she acquired her gift when she was nine years old. Catherine also studied many other disciplines and gained some knowledge about physiology. However, she based her medical work on what information she attained from reading faces and hands and forecasting the future.
The making of a sorceress
Catherine’s spiritual abilities became more and more admired, especially as she claimed her powers were gifts from God. She told people that she acquired it when she was nine. Catherine also studied many other disciplines and gained some knowledge about physiology. However, she based her healing works on what information she attained from reading faces and hands and forecasting the future.
Her skills led her to gain monetary success as she becomes the most sought fortune-teller of her time. She started working on her image by dressing the part — wearing a red velvet robe embroidered with images of eagles in golden thread. She then earned the name “La Voisin.”
Such investment made her attract the wealthiest families in Paris. She then elevated her rituals by performing “black masses,” in which she was used as a living altar for the spirits that were being worshiped.
France’s scandalous affair
In 1667, she asked Catherine to perform the black masses; rumors then believed that the ritual involved calling the devils and child sacrifices. And it was Madame Montespan’s way to possess and secure the king’s love. During one of the meetings, Montespan received a special potion and aphrodisiac — which she subsequently used to drug the king.
Catherine’s close friendship with Montespan causes her more trouble. As the king’s frustrated lover became more obsessed with him, she would have preferred to see him dead than with another woman.
Therefore, when the king became infatuated with Angelique de Fontanges in 1679, Montespan asked Catherine to kill them. She disagreed at first but later also accepted the proposal. Catherine created a poison to murder Louis XIV and Angelique. However, things didn’t go as she expected because the king’s sister-in-law was the one who got poisoned.
When she was arrested, she never revealed her clients’ names or told her persecutors, who attended her black masses. It is believed that she was responsible for the death of between 1000–2500 people.
A witch in flames
During Catherine’s trial, Montespan’s name was never mentioned. In fact, during the trial, she was still the most trusted person in the king’s court. Montespan was almost freed from her involvement in the crime while Catherin “La Voisin” Monvoisin was sentenced to death for witchcraft and murder.
She was executed by burning in the public street of Paris on February 22, 1680. Six months after her persecution, her daughter, Marguerite Monvoisin, confessed all her mother’s clients’ names, including Montespan.
However, several prominent officials inside the king’s court revealed that they have availed and attended La Voisin’s black masses. Ergo, Louie XIV decided to close the investigation.
The story of Guilia, Giovanna, and Catherine had tons of similarities. They were all women, skilled in poison making, and labeled as witches. Their products and services became a means for their clients to murder other people.
These three cunning ladies were also betrayed by their patrons, put on trial, tortured, and executed. While they all received a tragic end, their customers, on the other hand, who had a genuine intention to murder and perpetrated the crime, got away with the offenses.
Consequently, a critical question remains if these three so-called witches in history were perpetrators or merely victims.