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

A little bit of background: The crucifixion of Prince Klaas

Prince Klaas lashed to the wheel - the image on display at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John's, Antigua.

Prince Klaas lashed to the wheel – the image on display at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John’s, Antigua.

The story of Prince Klaas, the rebel slave, is one of the highlights of the charming Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John’s, which I had the chance to wander around in December 2012 while doing some lecturing in the Caribbean. Slave revolts have been an interest of mine for years, and I was familiar with the outlines of Klaas’s remarkable story – which I wrote up for the Smithsonian at the time (causing a certain amount of upset in Antigua itself among people who don’t seem to have actually read the article very closely). But I had never seen a picture that purported to show him, and in fact it’s vanishingly rare for images of slave leaders to survive from so early a period as the first half of the eighteenth century. So when I discovered that the museum displayed a drawing of Klaas, naked, strapped face down to a wheel, and being lashed, I snapped it and later used it as an illustration in the essay that I wrote.

I felt a little bit uneasy about this. There was something not quite right about the sketch. Klaas, after all, had been bound in order to suffer the appalling punishment of breaking on the wheel – a form of execution that involved the systematic pulverisation of the victim’s bones that is, in effect, a form of crucifixion. Yet the drawing showed Klaas being whipped, not shattered. The wheel that he was strapped to seemed to be lying on the ground, when in reality it would have been mounted on an axle, the better to rotate the victim to face the executioner’s blows. The man administering the punishment was black, implying that he was the overseer on a plantation, not an executioner employed by the Antiguan government. And the artist had depicted only a handful of spectators, not the substantial crowd that watched Klaas die.

Eventually I decided to take a closer look at the problem, and spent a little while researching images of slavery. I soon discovered that my misgivings were correct. Continue reading

The blood eagle

Vikings as portrayed in a 19th-century source: fearsome warriors and sea raiders.

Ninth-century Scandinavia has had a good press in recent years. As late as the 1950s, when Kirk Douglas filmed his notorious clunker The Vikings—a movie that featured lashings of fire and pillage, not to mention Tony Curtis clad in an ahistorical and buttocks-skimming leather jerkin—most popular histories still cast the Denmark and Norway of the Dark Ages as nations overflowing with bloodthirsty warriors who were much given to horned helmets and drunken ax-throwing contests. If they weren’t worshiping the pagan gods of Asgard, these Vikings were sailing their longships up rivers to sack monasteries while ravishing virgins and working themselves into berserker rages.

Since the early 1960s, though—we can date the beginning of the change to the publication of Peter Sawyer’s influential The Age of the Vikings (1962)—rehabilitation has been almost complete. Today, historians are likely to stress that the Vikings were traders and settlers, not rapists and killers. The Scandinavians’ achievements have been lauded—they sailed all the way to America and produced the Lewis Chessmen—and nowadays some scholars go so far as to portray them as agents of economic stimulus, occasional victims of their more numerous enemies, or even (as a recent campaign organized by the University of Cambridge suggested) men who “preferred male grooming to pillaging,” carrying around ear spoons to remove surplus wax. To quote the archaeologist Francis Pryor, they “integrated into community life” and “joined the property-owning classes” in the countries they invaded.

Much of this is, of course, necessary revisionism. The Vikings did build a civilization, did farm and could work metal. But, as the medievalist Jonathan Jarrett notes, the historical evidence also shows that they took thousands of slaves and deserved their reputation as much-feared warriors and mercenaries. They could be greedy and implacable foes, and over the centuries reduced several strong and wealthy kingdoms (not least Anglo-Saxon England) to the point of collapse. Much of the time, moreover, the same men who were doing the farming and the metalworking were also responsible for the raping and looting—it was a matter of economic imperative that Vikings who planted crops in the poor soil of Norway, Orkney or northern Scotland in the spring went raiding in the summer before returning home at harvest-time. Finally, as Jarrett points out, being a well-groomed but brutal soldier is scarcely a contradiction in terms. One of the Viking fighters killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 gloried in the nickname of Olaf the Flashy, and “the era that invented and lauds James Bond really shouldn’t need telling that someone can plausibly be all of heroic, well-dressed and pathologically violent.”
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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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Run out of town on an ass: how Queen Victoria (allegedly) struck Bolivia off the map

A Bolivian donkey of the 1850s. From Herndon and Gibbon, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon (1854).

To be one of Queen Victoria’s ambassadors in the middle of the 19th century, when British power was at its height, was to be something close to a king—in parts of the world, close to a god. Backed by the full might of the Royal Navy, which ruled unchallenged over the Seven Seas, solitary Englishmen thousands of miles from home could lay down their version of the law to entire nations, and do so with the cool self-confidence that came from knowing that, with a word, they could set in motion perhaps the mightiest war machine that the world had ever seen. (“Tell these ugly bastards,” Captain William Packenham once instructed his quaking interpreter, having stalked, unarmed, into the midst of a village seething with Turkish brigands, “that I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits.”)

Men of this caliber did not expect to be be treated lightly, much less ordered to pay their respects to a pair of naked buttocks belonging to the president of Bolivia’s new mistress. Yet that—according to a tradition that has persisted since at least the early 1870s, and is widely known in South America as the “Black Legend”—was the uncomfortable experience of a British plenipotentiary who encountered the Bolivian caudillo Mariano Melgarejo in 1867. Accounts of the event go on to relate that when the diplomat indignantly refused, he was seized, stripped naked, trussed with ropes and thrust onto a donkey, facing backward. Thus afforded a clear view of the animal’s posterior, Britain’s outraged ambassador was paraded three times around the main square of the capital before being expelled from the country.
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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 evil 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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China’s socialist emperor

Wang Mang, first and last emperor of China’s Xin Dynasty, went down fighting amid his harem girls as his palace fell in 23 A.D.

October 7, 23 A.D. The imperial Chinese army, 420,000 strong, has been utterly defeated. Nine “Tiger Generals,” sent to lead a corps of 10,000 elite soldiers, have been swept aside as rebel forces close in. The last available troops—convicts  released from the local jails—have fled. Three days ago, rebels breached the defenses of China’s great capital, Chang’an; now, after some bloody fighting, they are scaling the walls of the emperor’s private compound.

Deep within his Endless Palace, Emperor Wang Mang waits for death. For 20 years, ever since he first contemplated the overthrow of the dissolute remnants of the Han Dynasty, the usurper Wang had driven himself to keep to an inhuman schedule, working through the night and sleeping at his desk as he labored to transform China. When the rebellion against him gained strength, however, Wang appeared to give up. He retreated to his palace and summoned magicians with whom he passed his time testing spells; he began to assign strange, mystical titles to his army commanders: “The Colonel Holding a Great Axe to Chop Down Withered Wood” was one.

Such excesses seemed out of character for Wang, a Confucian scholar and renowned ascetic. The numismatist Rob Tye, who has made a study of the emperor’s reign, believes that he succumbed to despair. “Frankly, my own assessment is that he was high on drugs for most of the period,” Tye writes. “Knowing all was lost, he chose to escape reality, seeking a few last weeks of pleasure.”

When the rebels broke into his palace, Wang was in the imperial harem, surrounded by his three Harmonious Ladies, nine official wives, 27 handpicked “beauties” and their 81 attendants. He had dyed his white hair in order to look calm and youthful. Desperate officials persuaded him to retire with them to a high tower surrounded by water in the center of the capital. There, a thousand loyalists made a last stand before the armies of the revived Han, retreating step by step up twisting stairs until the emperor was cornered on the highest floor. Wang was slain late in the afternoon, his head severed, his body torn to pieces by soldiers seeking mementos, his tongue cut out and eaten by an enemy. Did he wonder, as he died, how it had come to this—how his attempts at reform had inflamed a whole nation? And did it strike him as ironic that the peasants he had tried to help—with a program so seemingly radical that some scholars describe it as socialist, even “communistic”—had been the first to turn against him?
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