Seventeenth-century Europeans were prone to paranoid episodes about poisoning. They seemed to have a standing fear that nefarious people planned to spread a plague throughout Christendom via sinister means, such as sorcery and witchcraft, or mysterious “poisonous gasses”.
Such fears led to a great panic that swept the city of Milan, Italy. It began in 1629, after the city’s governor received an alarming message from King Philip IV of Spain. It warned the governor to be on the lookout for four Frenchman who had escaped from a Spanish prison, and might be en route to Milan to spread the plague via “poisonous and pestilential ointments“.
For months after receiving a royal warning, tensions kept steadily mounting in Milan. The alarmed citizens kept a wary lookout for suspicious characters, and grew steadily more stressed out and frazzled as fears mounted of an imminent poisoning. The city thus sat on a powder keg for months, before finally erupting in what came to be known as “The Great Poisoning Scare of Milan“.
It started on the night of May 17th, when some citizens reported seeing mysterious people placing what appeared to be poison in a cathedral partition. Health officials went to the cathedral but found no signs of poisoning. The following morning, the Milanese woke to find that all doors on the main streets had been marked with a mysterious daub.
Milan’s health officials inspected the mysterious daubs that had appeared on city walls, but found nothing harmful in them. They concluded that the markings were a prank by some mischievous people with a sick sense of humor, out to get some laughs out of the citizens’ fears.
Official reassurances did not assure, however. Taking the mysterious daubs as a sign that the expected poison attack had finally arrived, Milan’s citizens went into a citywide bout of mass hysteria. They began accusing random people of acts of poisoning, ranging from passersby on the streets to various nobles to Cardinal Richelieu of France or general Wallenstein, commander of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire in the then-raging Thirty Years War.
Among the early victims of Milan’s poisoning hysteria was an elderly man who was spotted wiping a bench in church before sitting down. A mob of crazed women accused him of poisoning the seat, and seized and violently assailed him in church. They then dragged him to the magistrates while continuing to beat him on the way, and ended up killing him en route. Even more tragic was the case of a pharmacist who was accused of being in cahoots with the Devil when he was found with unknown potions.
After prolonged torture and stretching on the rack, he changed his protestations of innocence to a confession of guilt, repeating whatever his torturers wanted to hear in order to end the pain. Admitting to being in league with the Devil and foreigners to poison the city, the pharmacist named other accomplices who were innocent of any crime. They in turn were arrested and tortured, and to end their suffering, they named yet more innocents, repeating the process. All were tried, convicted based on the confession extracted under torture, and executed.
1. Hysteria Led People to Voluntarily Accuse Themselves
As Milan’s mass hysteria and mounting insanity tightened its grip on the fevered city, many Milanese stepped forward to accuse… themselves. Many went to the magistrates and voluntarily confessed to amazing deeds of the supernatural, describing meetings with the Devil, witches, sorcerers, and sundry practitioners of black magic, in which they plotted to poison the city.
As reported, “The number of persons who confessed that they were employed by the Devil to distribute poison is almost incredible“. Many were executed based on their voluntary false confessions. The hysteria did not subside until the city was struck by an even bigger catastrophe: an actual plague that swept through Italy and lasted into 1631.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading