Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband-killing in 17th century Italy

Detail from

Detail from “The love potion”, by the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite Evelyn De Morgan. The tangled tale of Aqua Tofana is intimately connected to the “criminal magical underworlds” of the 17th century, which supplied love philtres, potions, medicines and poisons to a mostly female clientele.

Early in the autumn of 1791, while he was still hard at work on the great requiem mass that would form such a large part of his legend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fell seriously ill. Convinced that there was no chance of recovery, he

began to speak of death, and asserted that he was setting the Requiem for himself… “I feel definitely,” he continued, “that 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 acqua tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.

Scholars have wrangled now for two full centuries over the circumstances of the great composer’s passing. A handful have concluded that he really was murdered. Most support rival diagnoses of syphilis, rheumatic fever or even the deadly effects of eating undercooked pork chops. Whatever the truth, though, and however he died, Mozart was certainly convinced that there existed a rare poison, one that was colourless, tasteless, odourless, beyond detection – and also so flexibly murderous that a carefully-calculated dose could guarantee a victim’s death a week, a month or even a year after it had been administered.

Nor was the composer alone in this belief. Forgotten though it is today, the mysterious liquid that he feared so much was one of the great whispered secrets of early modern Europe. Aqua Tofana was credited with what amounted to supernatural powers, and blamed for hundreds of agonising deaths. Which is odd, since it is very far from clear that it ever existed – and, if it did, what it was, where it was invented, where first used, and when and how it got its name. Continue reading

The last secret of the H.L. Hunley

Submarine inventor James R. McClintock as he looked in the later 1870s, from a carte de visite photographed in New Albany. McClintock was living in the Illinois town when he journeyed to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there.

James R. McClintock, the inventor of the H.L. Hunley, shortly before journeying to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there. Image: Naval Historical Center.

At a quarter to nine on the evening of February 17, 1864, Officer of the Deck John Crosby glanced over the side of the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic and across the glassy waters of a calm Atlantic. His ship was on active duty, blockading the rebel port of Charleston from an anchorage five miles off the coast, and there was always the risk of a surprise attack by some Confederate small craft. But what Crosby saw that night, by a wintry moon that barely illuminated the dark ocean, was a sight so strange that he was not at first quite certain what it was. “Something on the water,” he recalled it to a court of enquiry a week later, “which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.”

Crosby told the Housatonic‘s quartermaster of the object, but it had already disappeared–and when, a moment later, he saw it again, it was too close to the sloop for there to be time to slip the anchor. The Housatonic‘s crew scrambled to their action stations just in time to witness a substantial explosion on their starboard side. Fatally holed, their ship sank in a few minutes, taking five members of her crew with her.

It was not clear until some time later that the Housatonic had been the first victim of a new weapon of war. The ship–all 1,240 tons of her–had been sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley: 40 feet of hammered iron, hand-cranked by a suicidally brave crew of eight men, and armed with a 90-pound gunpowder charge mounted on a spar that jutted, as things turned out, not nearly far enough from her knife-slim bow.

The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley, and of the Hunley‘s own sinking soon after her brief moment of glory, of her rediscovery in 1995 and her eventual salvage in 2000, has been told many times. We know a good deal now about how the submarine came to be built – of her funding by a patriotic Southerner named Horace Hunley, the construction of two prototypes, and how the Hunley herself was riveted together at Mobile – not to mention the design defects and the human errors that drowned two earlier Hunley crews, 13 men in all. We also know a little of the men who did the actual work: James McClintock and Baxter Watson, two talented mechanics who were running a steam gauge business in New Orleans when the war broke out. We even have a shrewd idea of the division of labor between the two men, for Watson’s son once confided that while his father had built the Hunley, it was McClintock who designed her. Of the three men responsible for the Hunley, then, it was probably James McClintock who played the most important role–and, as thing turn out, it is McClintock who also has by far the strangest tale to tell. Continue reading

The secret plot to rescue Napoleon by submarine

Tom Johnson, the famous smuggler, adventurer, and inventor of submarines, sketched in 1834 for the publication of Scenes and Stories by a Clergyman in Debt.

Tom Johnson was one of those extraordinary characters that history throws up in times of crisis. Born in 1772 to Irish parents, he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves and was earning his own living as a smuggler by the age of 12. At least twice, he made remarkable escapes from prison. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, his well-deserved reputation for extreme daring saw him hired–despite his by then extensive criminal record–to pilot a pair of covert British naval expeditions.

But Johnson also has a stranger claim to fame, one that has gone unmentioned in all but the most obscure of histories. In 1820–or so he claimed–he was offered the sum of £40,000 [equivalent to $3 million now] to rescue the emperor Napoleon from bleak exile on the island of St. Helena. This escape was to be effected in an incredible way–down a sheer cliff, using a bosun’s chair, to a pair of primitive submarines waiting off shore. Johnson had to design the submarines himself, since his plot was hatched decades before the invention of the first practical underwater craft.

The tale begins with the emperor himself. As the inheritor of the French Revolution–the outstanding event of the age, and the one that, more than any other, caused rich and privileged elites to sleep uneasy in their beds–the Corsican became the terror of half of Europe; as an unmatched military genius, the invader of Russia, conqueror of Italy, Germany and Spain, and architect of the Continental System, he was also (in British eyes at least) the greatest monster of his day. In the English nursery he was “Boney,” a bogeyman who hunted down naughty children and gobbled them up; in France he was a beacon of chauvinism. His legend was only burnished when, defeated, apparently conclusively, in 1814 by a grand coalition of all his enemies, he was imprisoned on the small Italian island of Elba–only to escape, return to France, and, in the campaign famously known as the Hundred Days, unite his whole nation behind him again. His final defeat, at Waterloo, left the British determined to take no further chances with him. Exile to St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic 1,200 miles from the nearest land, was intended to make further escape impossible.
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Closing the pigeon gap

Cher Ami, an American veteran of the First World War, was credited with carrying the message that saved 200 men of the “Lost Battalion” during the Battle of the Argonne in 1918–despite losing a leg and an eye to shell splinters in the maelstrom of battle. Decorated with the French Croix de Guerre, he was preserved after death and can still be seen on display in the American Museum of Natural History.

At midnight on November 12, 1870, two French balloons, inflated with highly flammable coal gas and manned by desperate volunteers, took off from a site in Monmartre, the highest point in Paris. The balloons rose from a city besieged—the Franco-Prussian War had left Paris isolated, and the city had been hastily encircled by the Prussian Army—and they did so on an unlikely mission. They carried with them several dozen pigeons, gathered from lofts across the city, that were part of a last-ditch attempt to establish two-way communication between the capital and the French provisional government in Tours, 130 miles southwest.

Paris had been encircled since mid-September. By early autumn, with the prospects of relief as distant as ever, and the population looking hungrily at the animals in the zoo, the besieged French had scoured the city and located seven balloons, one of which, the Neptune, was patched up sufficiently to make it out of the city over the heads of the astounded Prussians. It landed safely behind French lines with 275 pounds of official messages and mail, and before long there were other flights, and the capital’s balloon manufacturers were working flat out on new airships.

The work was dangerous and the flights no less so—2.5 million letters made it out of Paris during the siege, incalculably raising morale, but six balloons were lost to enemy fire and the ones that survived that gauntlet, historian Alastair Horne observes, “were capable of unpredictable motion in all three dimensions, none of which was controllable.”

The French prepare a balloon for launch during the Siege of Paris, 1870. Pigeons carried out by balloon helped establish two-way communication with the city.

Of the two balloons in the pigeon flight, one, the Daugerre, was shot down by ground fire as it drifted south of Paris in the dawn, but the other, the Niepce, survived by hastily jettisoning ballast and soaring out of range. Its precious pigeon cargo would return to the city bearing messages by the thousand, all photographed using the brand-new technique of microfilming and printed on slivers of collodium, each weighing just a hundredth of an ounce. These letters were limited to a maximum of 20 words and they were carried into Paris at a cost of 5 francs each. In this way, Horne notes, a single pigeon could fly in 40,000 dispatches, equivalent to the contents of a substantial book. The messages were then projected by magic lantern onto a wall, transcribed by clerks, and delivered by regular post.

A total of 302 largely untrained pigeons left Paris in the course of the siege, and 57 returned to the city. The remainder fell prey to Prussian rifles, cold, hunger, or the falcons that the besieging Germans hastily introduced to intercept France’s feathered messengers. Still, the general principle that carrier pigeons could make communication possible in the direst of situations was firmly established in 1870, and by 1899, Spain, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Romania had established their own pigeon services. The British viewed these developments with some alarm. A call to arms published in the influential journal The Nineteenth Century expressed concern at the development of a worrying divergence in military capability. The Empire, it was suggested, was being rapidly outpaced by foreign military technology.

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The mysterious Mr. Zedzed, the wickedest man in the world

basil zaharoff

Zaharoff promenade.jpg

Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, better known as Sir Basil Zaharoff: arsonist, bigamist and pimp, arms dealer, honorary knight of the British Empire, confidant of kings, and all-round international man of mystery.

Late in November 1927, an elderly Greek man sat in his mansion in Paris and tended a fire. Every time it flickered and threatened to die, he reached to one side and tossed another bundle of papers or a leather-bound book into the grate. For two days the old man fed the flames, at one point creating such a violent conflagration that his servants worried he would burn the whole house down. By the time he had finished, a vast pile of confidential papers, including 58 years’ worth of diaries that recorded every detail of a most scandalous career, had been turned to ash. Thus the shadowy figure whom the press dubbed “the Mystery Man of Europe” ensured that his long life would remain, for the most part, an impenetrable enigma.

Few men have acquired so scandalous a reputation as did Basil Zaharoff, alias Count Zacharoff, alias Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, known to his intimates as “Zedzed.” Born in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849, Zaharoff was a brothel tout, bigamist and arsonist, a benefactor of great universities and an intimate of royalty who reached his peak of infamy as an international arms dealer—a “merchant of death,” as his many enemies preferred it.

In his prime, Zaharoff was more than a match for the notorious Aleister Crowley in any contest to be dubbed the Wickedest Man in the World. Still remembered as the inventor of the Systeme Zaharoff—a morally bankrupt sales technique that involved a single unscrupulous arms dealer selling to both parties in a conflict he has helped to provoke—he made a fortune working as a super-salesman for Vickers, the greatest of all British private arms firms, whom he served for 30 years as “our General Representative abroad.” He expressed no objection to, and indeed seemed rather to enjoy, being referred to as “the Armaments King.”

Men of the Constantinople Fire Brigade, an Ottoman army unit well-known in the 19th century for its corruption. In the 1860s Zaharoff was employed there as an arsonist, setting fires that could be extinguished for profit.

Zaharoff’s youth remains shrouded in mystery and rumor, much of it put about by Zedzed himself. He was born in the Turkish town of Mughla, the son of a Greek importer of attar of roses, and soon proved to be an astonishing linguist—he would later be described as the master of 10 languages. At some point, it is supposed, the family moved briefly to Odessa, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where they Russified their name. But remarkably little proper documentation survives from this or any other period of Zaharoff’s career. As one early biographer, the Austrian Robert Neumann, put it:

You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! a fire destroyed the church registers. You search for a document concerning him in the archives of the Vienna War Office. The folder is there, but it is empty; the document has vanished…. He buys a château in France and—how does the story of the editor of the Documents politiques go?—”Sir Basil Zaharoff at once buys up all the picture postcards… which show the château, and strictly prohibits any more photographs being taken.”

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The most terrible tunnel

Labourers working at the face of the Thames Tunnel were protected by Marc Brunel’s newly-invented “Shield”; behind them, other gangs hurried to roof the tunnel before the river could burst in. Nineteenth century lithograph.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the port of London was the busiest in the world. Cargoes that had traveled thousands of miles, and survived all the hazards of the sea, piled up on the wharves of Rotherhithe—only for their owners to discover that the slowest, most frustrating portion of their journey often lay ahead of them. Consignments intended for the southern (and most heavily populated) parts of Britain had to be heaved onto creaking ox carts and hauled through the docklands and across London Bridge, which had been built in the 12th century and was as cramped and impractical as its early date implied. By 1820, it had become the center of the world’s largest traffic jam.

It was a situation intolerable to a city with London’s pride, and it was clear that if private enterprise could build another crossing closer to the docks, there would be a tidy profit to be made in tolls. Another bridge was out of the question—it would deny sailing ships access to the deepwater dock known as the Pool of London—and ambitious men turned their thoughts to driving a tunnel beneath the Thames instead.

This was not such an obvious idea as it might appear. Although demand for coal was growing fast as the industrial revolution hit high gear, working methods remained primitive. Tunnels were dug by men wielding picks in sputtering candlelight. No engineers had ever tunneled under a major river, and the Thames was an especially tricky one. To the north, London was built on a solid bed of clay, ideal tunneling material. To the south and east, however, lay deep strata of water-bearing sand and oozing quicksand, all broken up by layers of gravel, silt, petrified trees and the debris of ancient oyster beds. The ground was semi-liquid, and at depth it became highly pressurized, threatening to burst into any construction site. Continue reading

The wizard of Mauritius

Port Louis, Mauritius, in the first half of the nineteenth century

Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.

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