On a bright and sunny day in 1650, Palermo, Italy, a woman served her husband a bowl of soup laced with poison. Before her husband could take a spoonful, the woman had a change of heart and begged him not to eat it.
This raised the man's suspicions and he abused his wife until she confessed to poisoning the food. With her confession, a bowl of soup brought down 17th-century Rome's most notorious assassin who murdered over 600 men.
Women were auctioned off like objects to loveless and often abusive marriages in 17th-century Italy. They had no standing in society and few opportunities to better their situations. They could marry and hope that their husband treated them decently, they could remain single and rely on sex work to survive, or they could become a widow.
For many women, the third option was the most attractive. Luckily for them, 17th-century Rome had a flourishing 'criminal magical underworld' that provided the services to make this possible. This underground community was made up of alchemists, apothecaries, and experts in 'black magic'.
One of the fastest and easiest ways for a woman to get rid of her husband was by means of poison. If poison is truly a woman's weapon, no one has wielded it like Giulia Tofana - the lady who was none other than the mother of Renaissance Italy's most effective and traceless poison 'Aqua Tofana'.
The poison was famously used by wives looking to discreetly off their husbands, mostly for the purpose of escaping dangerous and abusive marriages.
Giulia was the leader of a poisonous network that spanned across Sicily, Naples and Rome, providing a black market service highly in demand between the years of 1630 to 1655. Her underground empire included cunning women, back door apothecaries, crooked clergymen, and fortune-telling witches, solely dedicated to the sale and distribution of poison.
Some called her a serial murderer and others called her a seductive assassin, but the truth was far more sinister.
Giulia's personal life was not entirely disclosed. However it can be inferred that she was indeed living with an abusive father - Thofania d'Adamo, who was executed in Palermo on 12 July 1633, under accusations of having murdered her husband Francis.
Giulia was described as very beautiful and in light of her parents' deaths, she spent a lot of time with apothecaries and eventually developed her own poison.
Giulia also became a widow and moved with her daughter Sicily to Naples to Rome, expanding her black-market trade. Harboring a soft spot for women trapped in loveless, suffocating relationships, she started selling toxins to help them escape.
With the help of her daughter, a group of trusted associates and possibly a priest, Giulia launched an underground ring of criminals from her apothecary shop, under the pretence of a cosmetic brand - making it easier to disguise her best-selling product, Aqua Tofana.
Made of a mixture of lead, arsenic and belladonna, Aqua Tofana contained some of the same ingredients as normal cosmetics at the time, which helped to blend in on a woman's nightstand or vanity. Husbands were none the wiser that their wife's beauty regimen was their death warrant.
Although it was known to her customers as 'Aqua Tofana', the glass bottle itself was labeled 'Manna of St Nicholas of Bari', which was actually a popular healing oil at the time for blemishes.
Giulia distributed the poison in two forms - as powdered makeup or in small bottles embellished with images of Saint Nicholas of Bari. Back then, no one would question makeup that looked as saintly.
Another element of Giulia's poison that made it so masterfully deceitful is how it killed its victims. The first dose, diluted with some kind of liquid, would cause exhaustion and physical weakness. The second dose would bring on stomach aches, vomiting and dysentery. The third or fourth dose would take care of the rest. The poison, being slow-burning and the method of administration, meant that doctors and investigators believed the death had been caused by some unknown illness or simple disease.
Giulia not only distributed the poison, but gave a walkthrough on how to use it and what to do afterwards. She coached her clients to cry and exhibit emotion, and instructed them to demand a coroner's exam to seem completely innocent of any guilt.
She was careful to only sell the products to ladies she knew or women who had been vetted by past clients. Her secret reign of terror lasted nearly 20 years and ended when she was turned in by a guilty party. Giulia may even have gone undiscovered forever had it not been for that bowl of soup.
Giulia was beloved by the people, especially the women, both powerful and poor who she helped. She got word of her warrant before the authorities came knocking and was granted sanctuary by a local church until a rumor spread that she had used Aqua Tofana to poison the local water supply. The church was quickly stormed and Giulia was arrested.
After brutal torture, Giulia confessed to killing as many as 600 men with the use and sale of her poison between 1633 and 1651.
As per legends, Giulia was executed in Campo de' Fiori in Rome in 1659 alongside her daughter and three of her helpers. Additionally, over 40 of Giulia's lower-class customers were also executed while women of the upper class were either imprisoned or escaped punishment altogether by insisting that they never knew their cosmetics were actually poison.
But, is this how she really died?
Over the last 400 years, several accounts have questioned Giulia's demise. There were many conspiracy theories related to her death, ranging from her having never been arrested and dying of natural causes, to accounts that claim she was actually executed in 1709, and unbelievably again in 1730.
If the last date is correct, it would mean she was well over 100-years-old when she died. All the accounts, however, agree on one thing - by the 1650s, Giulia was no longer operating as the leader of her network.
Contrary, some accounts assert that Giulia's reign of terror lasted far longer than this and that she was captured, tortured and executed in 1709.
Many members of her network were rounded up in 1659 but others fled to Rome, where Aqua Tofana continued to be produced. Though there was nobody to continue her network, her recipe lived on in every apothecary shop throughout Italy.
In this epic tale of Giulia, what is worse - the abused wife wanting to poison her cruel husband or the black-market poison provider making the gruesome concoction easily available?
This woman and the poison she masterminded have been buried in history despite their massive influence on freeing Italian women from unhappy marriages.