How One Woman Murdered Hundreds Of Men With Her Makeup Company

By Gwen Farrell··  6 min read
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Elizabeth Sitani, Allegory of music 17th century public domain

It’s no secret that we as a culture are true crime-obsessed.

Whether our obsession stems from a genuine curiosity about the past or from the desire to educate ourselves and therefore prevent similar things from happening to us is really up to the individual. Most of us would agree, though, that discovering a particularly juicy real-life criminal is one of our most enjoyed pastimes. 

With that in mind, let’s talk about Giulia Tofana – the 17th-century Italian woman who murdered hundreds of men with her makeup company.

Who Was Giulia Tofana?

The first thing we have to acknowledge about Giulia Tofana is that concrete information on her life is spotty. Accounts here and there disagree as to her birth date and manner of death, but those that are in agreement describe the following.

Giulia Tofana was Sicilian, born in the city of Palermo or surrounding area in the year 1600. One account presents the premise that Tofana’s more sinister nature could have been genetic – allegedly, she was orphaned at 13 after her mother killed her father and was then executed for the crime. As Tofana matured into adulthood, she spent time with apothecaries, cosmetologists, and pharmacists, learning their trades and picking up their skills, which would eventually become useful in her future endeavors.

She was allegedly orphaned at 13 after her mother killed her father and was executed.

Tofana eventually left Sicily for Naples, and then Rome, where she quickly made a name for herself in the more nefarious criminal underworld of medieval Italy, especially with the women of the time. Tofana, dubbed the “queen of poison,” became well-known for a special concoction called acqua tofana, a lethal poison disguised as an everyday cosmetic that could be kept in plain sight on a woman’s vanity table. The purpose? To kill the customer’s husband. 

Tofana’s Poisonous Legacy

Given our modern worldview, we might view serial killers as purely a 20th to 21st century innovation. But if Tofana can teach us anything, it’s that bloodlust and psychopathy are traits which date back hundreds of years. During a death-bed (or what some argue was a pre-execution) confession, Tofana admitted to selling acqua tofana for the purpose of murdering around 600 unassuming men.

Let’s quickly examine the historical context so we can state the obvious: women back in the day didn’t have it as good as we do now. Though marriage offered a woman of any social class security and stability, you were up a creek without a paddle if you were stuck with a particularly unpleasant or cruel spouse. In a culture where religion dominated the practices of the day, divorce or vacating a marriage wasn’t an option. For many women (an estimated 600 at least), acqua tofana offered the perfect solution. Historians logically surmise that for Tofana’s customers, her potions disguised as cosmetics circumvented the awkwardness of ending a marriage and allowed these women to escape domestic violence, come into a wealthy inheritance a few decades early, or enable them to marry their lovers.

And it wasn’t a pleasant end by any means. Acqua tofana contained arsenic, belladonna, and other poisons meant to slowly and painfully kill the victim over a number of days, but was ideal in its use because it was tasteless, odorless, and traceless during a post-mortem exam. With Tofana’s keen disguise, the women could keep it on their vanities among lotions and perfumes while secretly administering it to the offending husband, leading him to endure vomiting, dysentery, lethargy, exhaustion, and eventually death. 

Acqua tofana contained arsenic, belladonna, and other poisons meant to slowly and painfully kill the victim.

Tofana’s lucrative business was bolstered by a secret network of allies, which allegedly included members of the Catholic Church and the nobility. However, one would-be widow got nervous in the middle of administering her husband’s poison, and the jig was up. Tofana’s “business” was over before it could accumulate any more victims, and led to her and her conspirators’ eventual hanging in Rome in 1659. Covert poison as a means of assassination, however, had become popularized and would go on to be heavily utilized through the remainder of the era.

Makeup and Murder, a Weird Intersection

Giulia Tofana’s life and crimes have already been covered extensively online, namely by big-name YouTubers who grew their channels by producing content at the bizarre intersection of true crime and makeup (you heard that right). YouTuber Bailey Sarian, known for her Dark History podcast and her YouTube series Murder, Mystery, and Makeup Monday, now boasts almost 6.3 million subscribers on the platform. Sarian covered Giulia Tofana as part of her makeup and true-crime series in a 2020 video that has been viewed over 5 million times. There’s definitely a demand for this kind of niche content…but should there be?

Searching “makeup and true crime” online yields hundreds if not thousands of results, and Sarian is arguably the pioneer of the genre. Numerous content creators, who might have started out as influencers only covering makeup or documentary channels only covering true crime, quickly saw the popularity of these videos and followed in Sarian’s footsteps. Another YouTuber has questioned the ethics of producing this kind of content, labeling it as “problematic,” especially because these videos often comment on grisly crimes or particularly horrible criminals, which feels unpleasant and inauthentic when juxtaposed with the superficiality of putting on makeup.

Others might be in agreement that some YouTubers execute the task better than others, but would essentially argue that the genre is harmless overall and more about education versus insincerity. Wherever you stand on supporting or opposing the genre of makeup and true crime, one thing is certain: Giulia Tofana would probably approve, and without the genre, we may not be as aware as we are of her story. 

Closing Thoughts

Where many of her contemporaries might describe Giulia Tofana as an innovative problem-solver, we find a serial killer. While the murderous aspect of her business isn’t the most admirable thing, her ability to find solutions to the issues facing the women of her day in the most creative way possible does make for a satisfying true-crime tale.

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Seek Truth. Find Beauty.
© 2022 Evie Magazine

Seek Truth. Find Beauty.

© 2022