Most women in seventeenth century Italy were in a deadly fix. Those who did not want to become nuns and join a convent had three options: beg, prostitute themselves, or marry. Most married, but given the state of things, those who ended up with an abusive husband were usually out of luck. Divorce was not an option, and complaints were met by advice to be patient, submit to their spouses, diligently fulfill their wifely duties, and try harder to please their hubbies.
Many women settled for praying that an abusive husband would mend his way, or barring that, prayed for early widowhood. Some were more proactive in bringing about widowhood. For the latter, a dealer in cosmetics named Giulia Tofana must have seemed like an angel of deliverance. A deadly angel, who helped many women free themselves from a toxic marriage, with a toxin that was named after her: Aqua Tofana. When she was finally caught, contemporaries were shocked to learn that Tofana had helped poison more than 600 men.
The historical record is remarkably silent about much of Giulia Tofana’s background. Relatively little is known of the woman’s childhood, her early upbringing and youth, or about much of her life, for that matter. She was said to have been exceptionally beautiful, just like her mother, Thofania d’Adamo, but there are no known surviving portraits of her.
What is known is that Tofana was born and grew up in Sicily, and was a case of an apple that did not fall from the tree. Her mother, an apothecary who made and sold perfumes, cosmetics, herbal medicines, and other concoctions, was executed in Palermo on July 12th, 1633, after she was convicted of murdering her husband, Francis d’Adamo. It is unknown whether the husband had been poisoned, but odds are that he had been. Tofana took after her mother in more ways than one, including a mastery of apothecaries, in which she had exhibited an interest since an early age.
Giulia Tofana reportedly invented the infamous poison that bore her name, Aqua Tofana. However, some sources indicate that the deadly substance might have been invented by her mother, who passed the recipe on to her daughter. Either way, Giulia Tofana perfected that toxin, and began selling it, discreetly, under the cover of cosmetics, or in small vials known as “Manna of Saint Nicholas of Bari” – a devotional object. Her chief clientele were married women interested in speedy widowhood.
Giulia Tofana was a young widow when she first began peddling her poison, and she might have tested and perfected the recipe for Aqua Tofana on her own husband. She had a daughter, Girolama Sperla, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined what became a family business of concocting and selling poison. Mother and daughter kept it low key for decades, as they moved throughout Italy, first from Palermo to Naples, and eventually, from Naples to Rome.
Tofana’s clientele was mostly wives seeking widowhood, but not all. She also sold Aqua Tofana to men and women who saw the deadly concoction as a means of settling disputes, eliminating business and romantic rivals, or paying back those who had given them offense. Moreover, not all wives who turned to Tofana for help in murdering their husbands did so in order to escape marital abuse: some were motivated by simple greed, and wanted to come into an inheritance. Indeed, so often was poison used in Italy back then to speed up inheritances, that concoctions such as Tofana’s were nicknamed “inheritance potions”.
Aqua Tofana’s main ingredients are known: Atropa belladonna, also known as “deadly nightshade”, combined with arsenic, and lead. However, while the chief components are known, the manner in which they were blended has been lost to history. What is known is that the final product was a colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid, which was almost impossible to detect when added to water or wine. Only a few drops were needed, broken into a few doses, to kill a victim.
Aqua Tofana was slow acting once ingested, and produced symptoms that mimicked death from natural causes, such as those of a steadily progressing disease. The first dose produced symptoms similar to those of the common cold. A second dose, and the symptoms progressed to those of a nasty flu. A third dose, and the victim was seriously ill, complaining of a stomachache, suffering from diarrhea, dehydration, and throwing up. A fourth dose would finish the job.
From the user’s perspective, Aqua Tofana was the perfect poison, that almost guaranteed the perfect crime. Given the state of medical knowledge back then, Tofana’s deadly concoction was virtually undetectable in postmortem examinations. Moreover, the symptoms resembled the stages of a steadily advancing illness. That was the perfect cover in an era when so many routinely fell ill and died for reasons that physicians could not readily explain.
26. A Deadly Progression That Left Doctors “Completely Puzzled “
As one journal described Tofana’s deadly concoction: “Administered in wine or tea or some other liquid by the flattering traitress, [Aqua Tofana] produced but a scarcely noticeable effect; the husband became a little out of sorts, felt weak and languid, so little indisposed that he would scarcely call in a medical manâ¦. After the second dose of poison, this weakness and languor became more pronouncedâ¦
The beautiful Medea who expressed so much anxiety for her husband’s indisposition would scarcely be an object of suspicion, and perhaps would prepare her husband’s food, as prescribed by the doctor, with her own fair hands. In this way the third drop would be administered, and would prostrate even the most vigorous man. The doctor would be completely puzzled to see that the apparently simple ailment did not surrender to his drugs, and while he would be still in the dark as to its nature, other doses would be given, until at length death would claim the victim for its own“.
A journal further described the typical steps whereby a recent widow who had benefited from Tofana’s deadly toxin would move on: “To save her fair fame, the wife would demand a post-mortem examination. Result, nothing â except that the woman was able to pose as a slandered innocent, and then it would be remembered that her husband died without either pain, inflammation, fever, or spasms.
If, after this, the woman within a year or two formed a now connection, nobody could blame her; for, everything considered, it would be a sore trial for her to continue to bear the name of a man whose relatives had accused her of poisoning him.” Free and clear of an unwanted hubby, the new widow could not restart her life afresh.
Discretion was extremely vital to Tofana. She was very selective in just whom she sold Aqua Tofana to, and accepted as clients only those who had been vouched for by previous satisfied customers. Former clients, who had committed murder by using Tofana’s toxin, risked almost as much as Tofana if their prior business dealings came to light. So they had every incentive to vouch only for those whose discretion they completely trusted.
Such precautions allowed Tofana, first working solo and then with her daughter, to ply her deadly trade undetected for decades. It all came crashing down, however, because a new client got cold feet. Reportedly, a woman bought Aqua Tofana and put it in her husband’s soup, but then had a last minute attack of conscience, changed her mind, and stopped her hubby from sipping the soup. His suspicions aroused, the husband forced his repentant wife to tell the truth, and then dragged her off to the Papal authorities to tell them what she had told him. The cat was out of the bag, but Tofana was not arrested immediately: warned, she fled to a nearby church and sought sanctuary, which was granted.
Tofana’s sanctuary did not last for long: a rumor spread throughout Rome that she had poisoned the city’s water supply, so a mob stormed the church, and seized her. She was handed over to the Papal authorities, who tortured her until she admitted to her deadly trade, and confessed to poisoning over 600 men between 1633 and 1651.
In July, 1659, Giulia Tofana, her daughter Girolama Sperla, and three employees, were executed in Rome’s Campo di Fiori. Her corpse was then thrown over the wall into the church that had offered her sanctuary. Some of her clients and accomplices were executed outright, while others were bricked into the dungeons of the Palace of the Holy Office. Others, who were well connected, got away.
The number of Tofana’s victims might have been exaggerated – she was tortured, and people can say anything under torture to make it stop. Indeed, considering that much of the evidence against her consisted of confessions extracted under torture, Tofana could have been innocent. She might well have simply been a woman dabbling in cosmetics, at a time when a literal witch-hunt mania was sweeping Europe, and women doing anything unusual were suspect.
The legacy of Giulia Tofana survived long after her death. In 1791, when the composer Amadeus Mozart fell seriously ill, he became convinced that he had been poisoned. As he put it: “I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea … Someone has given me Aqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death“. Mozart was almost certainly mistaken, and historians believe he died of rheumatic fever, syphilis, or from having eaten undercooked pork. His paranoia – shared by many who took ill in those days of poor medical diagnosis – was testimony to the continuing terror inspired by Tofana and her deadly concoction.
American outlaw Frank Reno (1837 – 1868) was raised in Jackson County, Indiana, by strictly religious parents. They saw to it that their children observed all the strictures, attended church regularly, and spent all day Sunday reading the Bible. It backfired with Frank and his younger brother, John, who rebelled and turned bad early on, and grew deadly before long.
By their early teens, the brothers were notorious delinquents, drinking, brawling, cheating travelers in crooked card games. They were also suspected of horse thefts and of committing a series of arsons around the county. To escape a backlash, their father was forced to flee, taking Frank and John and two other sons to live in Missouri for a few years.
20. From Civil War Bounty Jumpers to Deadly Gang Leaders
Frank and John Reno returned to Indiana in 1860, but they had not been forgotten. To escape angry neighbors, the brothers enlisted when the Civil War broke out. They did so not out of any patriotic motives, but purely opportunistic ones. The US government offered enlistees “bounties”, or signing bonuses, so the Reno brothers became serial bounty jumpers. They would join a Union regiment, collect the enlistment bonuses, which steadily grew as the war progressed, then desert at the earliest opportunity. They would then enlist in another regiment elsewhere with fake names, collect more enlistment bonuses, desert, and repeat the cycle.
Frank returned home in 1864, and with his brother John formed the Reno Gang. They were joined by horse thieves, safe crackers, counterfeiters, gamblers and other ne’er do wells, and began robbing Post Offices and stores in southern Indiana. Frank and two gang members were arrested, but released on bail. One agreed to testify against Frank, but it turned out to be a deadly mistake: he was murdered before the trial, and Frank was acquitted.
19. You Did Not Want to Check Into Frank Reno’s Hotel
After Frank Reno was acquitted, he and his gang grew more violent. They effectively took over the small town of Rockford Indiana, whose Rader House hotel became their headquarters. It also became a ghoulish nineteenth century version of The Hotel California, where you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave: the Reno gang robbed and murdered unwary travelers who checked in.
Frank Reno soon expanded his reach and ambition, and began robbing trains and banks, and raiding communities throughout the Midwest. After his first train robbery in 1866 – history’s first peacetime train robbery – a passenger identified Frank’s brother, John, and two other gang members, who were arrested. The witness was shot dead soon thereafter, at which point the other passengers refused to testify and the charges were dropped.
In 1867, Frank Reno and his gang demonstrated their disdain for the law by attacking and robbing a county courthouse in Missouri. His brother John was eventually arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for that outrage.
A vigilante group formed to hunt down Frank’s gang, so in early 1868 they fled to Iowa. There, the Reno Gang attacked and robbed two county treasuries on successive days. They were arrested, but broke out of jail and escaped to Indiana, where they resumed train robberies, one of which netted them $96,000, a princely sum that gained the Reno Gang worldwide fame.
Eventually, Pinkerton Agency detectives learned of Frank Reno’s plans to rob another train. So they staged an ambush, and soon as the Reno Gang boarded the train on July 9th, 1868, the Pinkertons opened fire. Most of the gang escaped, but a captured member identified two others, who were arrested the following day. The train taking them to jail in Seymour, Indiana, was stopped by masked vigilantes, who lynched the three prisoners. Three more gang members were captured soon thereafter, and the train taking them to the Seymour jail was again stopped by masked vigilantes. They were just as deadly as before, and hanged the prisoners from the same tree.
Frank Reno fled to Canada, but was captured in Ontario and extradited to the US, where he was held with three accomplices in the Floyd County, Indiana, jail. On the night of December 11th, 1868, scores of masked vigilantes marched on the jail and forced the jailer to surrender the keys. Frank Reno was then dragged from his cell in the early hours and lynched, followed soon thereafter by the remaining gang members.
In 1971, West German police began receiving disturbing reports that somebody was robbing graves, exhuming bodies from cemeteries, and gnawing on them. The female corpses were sexually abused as well. In May, 1972, a morgue worker stumbled upon somebody kissing a cadaver. When he tried to stop him, the culprit pulled out a pistol and fired, but missed.
The morgue worker gave police a description of the assailant, and they threw a dragnet. It eventually caught Kuno Hofmann, a deaf and mute laborer who had lost the powers of speech and hearing after his alcoholic father beat him in childhood. Hofmann had a rap sheet, including nine years in prison for theft. When the police interrogated him, he readily confessed to a bizarre and deadly crime spree.
While imprisoned for theft, Kuno Hofmann had developed an obsession with self-improvement via occult “sciences”. He read extensively on satanic rituals, witchcraft, dark magic, and especially on vampirism and necrophilia. His occult readings led him to believe that he could become handsome and popular by performing dark magic rituals with corpses. Hence, the grave robbing.
On at least 35 occasions, Hofmann snuck into graveyards or mortuaries, and even managed to get copies of the keys to a local cemetery. He wanted the recently dead, so chose his victims from recent death notices in newspapers. He would try to get them in the morgue, but if he could not, he would wait until they were buried, then dig up their graves. Once he secured a corpse, Hofmann would perform rituals that involved stabbing and slashing it, cutting off the head on occasion, and drinking the blood. Other times, he would chew on the corpse, and if it was of a female he found attractive, he would have sex with it. So far, Hofman’s depravities were ghoulish, but not deadly. That would change.
When Kuno Hofmann’s gruesome corpse rituals failed to make him handsome and popular, he reasoned that must be because the corpses were not fresh enough. Things went from ghoulish to ghoulish and deadly when he decided to get the freshest possible corpses, by killing people.
Hofmann’s first victims were lovers in a car. After shooting them dead, he drank the blood from their wounds, then he had sex with the girl’s corpse. As he told police, he liked her more than the graveyard corpses. He killed another victim, and would have gone on killing more, if his spree had not been cut short by his arrest. He was deemed insane, and ordered confined in a mental asylum for the rest of his life.
Wild West criminal and criminal lawman James Brown Miller (1861 – 1909) was known as “Deacon Jim” because he neither smoke nor drank, and regularly attended the Methodist Church. Another of his nicknames was “Killer Miller”, because, wellâ¦ for a seemingly straitlaced teetotaler, Miller was a deadly thug who killed many people.
Deacon Jim put on an air of respectability, and liked to go about impeccably dressed. However, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, having killed a dozen people in gunfights. He reportedly gunned down many more during a violent career in which he was an outlaw, a lawman, a Texas Ranger, and a killer for hire.
12. Starting a Deadly Career by Targeting His Own Family
When Jim Miller was a year old, his family moved from Arkansas to Texas. They settled in Austin, where his father worked as a stonemason. The father died when Miller was a child, and somewhere along the line, something went wrong with young Jim. At age eight, according to some accounts, he killed his own grandparents, although there is no conclusive proof to support that.
Whether or not he did in his grandparents, Miller grew into a violent young man. One of his earliest documented killings was of his brother in law, whom Miller detested. On July 30th, 1884, the brother in law was killed with a shotgun blast while he was sleeping. Miller was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life behind bars. However, the case was appealed, and the conviction was reversed on a technicality.
After Jim Miller was released, he became a hired hand in a ranch. His boss was killed by Ballinger’s City Marshall in 1887, and soon thereafter, the Marshal was ambushed by somebody wielding a shotgun, and was severely wounded. The Marshal survived, but lost an arm to amputation. Miller was the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for the attempted killing.
Miller then relocated to the Texas-Mexico border, where he became a deputy sheriff in Reeves County, then town marshal of Pecos. He was a deadly killer cop, and gained a reputation for murdering Mexicans, claiming that they were trying to escape. In 1894 he got into a feud with the county sheriff, who shot him in the arm, the groin, then emptied his six shooter into Miller’s chest. He survived, because he had been wearing a steel plate over his chest.
Jim Miller got a job as a Texas Ranger, and began to advertise his availability as a killer for hire. Charging $150 per murder, he used his Ranger authority to get away with literal murder. As his reputation grew, so did his fees, until he was eventually charging thousands of dollars per killing. He had no scruples about killing lawmen, and is credited with murdering Pat Garret, who had killed Billy the Kid.
In 1909, Miller was hired to kill a popular rancher from Ada, Oklahoma, named Allen Bobbit. Miller shot Bobbit, but he lived long enough to name his killer. Miller and three accomplices were arrested, but the evidence seemed weak, leading many Ada residents and friends of Bobbit to fear that his killers might get acquitted. So they formed a mob, broke into the jail where the accused were held, and lynched the deadly Miller and his accomplices in the early morning hours of April 19th, 1909.
As US forces fought to retake the Philippines in 1944, 22-year-old Japanese Imperial Army Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was sent on a reconnaissance mission to the island of Lubang. An intelligence officer specially trained as a commando, Onoda was directed to spy on American forces in the area and conduct guerrilla operations. He was ordered to never surrender, but also expressly ordered that, under no circumstances, was he authorized to take his own life.
On Lubang, senior Japanese officers meddled and prevented Onoda from carrying out his mission. Within months, American forces invaded the island, and in short order killed or captured all Japanese personnel, with the exception of Onoda and three other soldiers. Taking charge of the survivors, Onoda took to the hills. Over the following years and decades, Onoda would prove himself a deadly diehard – or bloody minded idiot – who would claim the lives of dozens while continuing to fight a war that had already ended.
With American forces overrunning the Philippines and overcoming organized Japanese resistance on the archipelago, Lieutenant Onoda scurried about the rugged terrain of Lubang. He was cut off from communications with his chain of command, and so did not receive official word of the Japanese capitulation in 1945. Without new orders countermanding his last received instructions to fight to the death, Onoda displayed a single-minded devotion to what he claimed was his duty, hid in the jungles and mountains of Lubang, and fought a deadly one-man war. For 29 years.
For nearly three decades, Onoda survived with his tiny command in the dense thickets of Lubang. They erected bamboo huts and eked out a living by hunting and gathering in the island’s jungle, stealing rice and other food from local farmers, and killing the occasional cow for meat. Tormented by heat and mosquitoes, rats and rain, Onoda’s band patched their increasingly threadbare uniforms, and kept their weapons in working order.
Over the years, Lieutenant Onoda and his tiny band came across various leaflets announcing that the war had ended. However, they dismissed them as “fake news” – enemy propaganda and ruses of war. On one occasion, they encountered a leaflet upon which had been printed the official surrender order from their commanding general. They examined it closely to determine whether it was genuine, and decided that it must be a forgery. Even when they recovered airdropped letters and pictures from their own families urging them to surrender, Onoda’s band convinced themselves that it was a trick.
As the years flew by, Onoda’s four-man contingent steadily dwindled, as he lost comrades to a variety of causes. In 1949, one of them simply left the group, wandered alone around Lubang for six months, and eventually surrendered to authorities. Another was killed by a search party in 1954. His last companion was shot dead by police in 1972, while he and Onoda were trying to burn the rice stores of local farmers. Onoda was thus finally alone. Yet he kept on fighting, faithful to his last received orders, doggedly conducting a deadly one-man war.
In 1974, a travelling Japanese hippie backpacker found Onoda, and befriended him. He managed to convince the holdout that the war had ended decades earlier, but Onoda still refused to surrender, absent orders from a superior officer. Returning to Japan with photographic proof of his encounter with Onoda, the holdout’s new friend contacted the Japanese government, which in turn tracked down his former commanding officer.
Travelling to Lubang, Onoda’s wartime commander personally informed him that the war was over, that he was released from military duty, and ordered him to stand down. In 1974, clad in his battered and threadbare uniform, Lieutenant Onoda handed in his sword and other weapons to representatives of the US and Filipino military, and finally brought his war to an end nearly three decades after WWII had ended.
Lieutenant Onoda returned to a hero’s welcome in Japan. However, admiration for his single-minded devotion to duty was not universal. Back in Lubang, the inhabitants did not view Onoda as a conscientious and honorable man devoted to duty. Instead, they saw him as a bloody minded deadly idiot. During his 29 year holdout, Onoda had inflicted sundry harms upon the Lubangese, stealing, destroying, and sabotaging their property. He also needlessly killed about 30 local police and farmers with whom his band had clashed while stealing or “requisitioning” food and supplies, in order to continue fighting a war that had ended decades earlier.
A militarist through and through, Onoda believed that the war had been a sacred mission. The pacifist and futuristic Japan to which he returned was unrecognizable to him. Onoda found himself unable to fit in a country and culture so radically different from the one in which he had grown up. Within a year of returning to Japan, he moved to Brazil, where he bought a cattle ranch, settled into to the life of a rancher, married, and raised family. He died in 2014, aged 91.
The most deadly outlaw and gunslinger of the Wild West was probably John Wesley Hardin (1853 – 1895), who killed dozens of victims – including one man whom he shot for snoring too loud. According to his own claims, which might or might not have been exaggerated, Hardin killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers verified 27 killings that were attributed to him.
The son of a Methodist minister and a member of a prominent Texas family that included a judge and a legislator, Hardin was a bad âun from early on. His violent career started in 1867 with the stabbing of a schoolmate, and a year later, at age fifteen, he shot and killed an uncle’s former black slave in an argument over a wrestling match.
After murdering his uncle’s former slave, John Wesley Hardin fled to Sumpter, Texas, with Texas’ Reconstruction Government agents hot on his tail. He became more and more deadly as time went by, and he claimed to have killed three Union soldiers in 1868, when they tried to arrest him. Within a year of that triple homicide, Hardin killed another soldier.
In 1871, the fugitive Hardin decided to try his hand at becoming a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. He killed seven people en route, including two men in a card game, and an Indian “just for practice“. He killed another three men when he got to Abilene, Kansas. Later that year, he walked up to two black policemen who were looking for him, and shot them both, killing one and wounding the other.
As Hardin grew ever more deadly, he invested the time and effort to hone and facilitate his killing technique. He carried his pistols in holsters sewn into his vest, with the butts pointed inwards across his chest. He crossed his arms to draw, which he deemed the quickest way to get his pistols into action, and practiced his draw technique every day. He also kept on steadily piling up the corpses, and on his 21st birthday in 1874, he quarreled with a deputy sheriff and shot him dead.
A $4000 “Dead or Alive” reward was placed on Hardin. Choosing discretion over valor, he fled Texas with his wife and daughter, and settled in Florida as a businessman, using an assumed name. That peaceful interlude lasted until 1877, when Texas Rangers caught up with Hardin on a train in Pensacola, Florida. He tried to draw his pistol, but it got snagged on his suspenders, and the Rangers pistol whipped him into submission.
Back in Texas, Hardin was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years in 1878. He made numerous escape attempts, including a tunnel into the prison armory, but they all failed. He eventually settled down, studied law behind bars, and was put in charge of the prison’s Sunday school.
In 1894, Hardin was pardoned after serving 17 years of his sentence. Upon his release, he took and passed Texas’ bar exam, and became a licensed lawyer. He moved to El Paso in 1895 to start a law practice, but got into trouble when he quarreled with John Selman, a lawman who had arrested a prostitute friend of Hardin. Heated words were exchanged, and that night, as Hardin was playing dice in a local saloon, Selman walked up to Hardin from behind, shot him in the back of the head, then pumped three more bullets into him as lay on the ground.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading