Monday, October 12, 2020

Craig A. Monson's "The Black Widows of the Eternal City"

Craig A. Monson is the Paul Tietjens Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of several books, including Nuns Behaving Badly (2010), Divas in the Convent (2012), and Habitual Offenders: A True Tale of Nuns, Prostitutes, and Murderers in 17th-century Italy (2016).

Monson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Black Widows of the Eternal City: The True Story of Rome’s Most Infamous Poisoners, and reported the following:
Page 99:
… Maria continued with a description that precisely matched Giovanna’s in every detail. The pair had simmered the mixture over the fire for about two hours, until they heard the Ave Maria sounding, then let it stand overnight. The next morning Giovanna unsealed the jar, and emptied it into a glass bottle. They threw the dregs from the jar down the privy and simply tossed the jar out into the street.

“A little of the dough from around the jar fell on the floor,” Maria concluded, “and a little cat of mine ate it. The next evening, I found her dead. I skinned her and discovered her flesh had turned tawny red. So I figured the dough had poisoned her.” Another house pet had unwittingly paid the ultimate price to confirm the lethalness of Giovanna’s brew. Significantly, a similar ruddiness had characterized the corpse of Giuseppe Cencietti, the barber of Tor di Nona, and the cadavers of other, more recently departed husbands.

Maria went on to make another eye-opening claim: she suspected Giovanna might even have begun exporting her liquid to the suburbs. Once, when Maria came to visit at Santa Prassede, Giovanna’s current young woman exclaimed, “Don’t you know there’s a woman from Palestrina who’ll pay ten scudi to get some of that liquid to kill her husband?” Giovanna had even enlisted another woman from Palestrina as a runner, to make deliveries: the cartel, it seemed, had continued to expand. From then on Maria could hardly pretend ignorance of the extent of the enterprise, even as she determinedly persisted in presenting herself as an innocent bystander, simply observing it all.

Maria Spinola only revealed her final details about the poison recipe some weeks later, when Stefano Bracchi eventually inquired about her friendship with Gironima Spana. Their acquaintanceship had blossomed almost a decade earlier, during the Jubilee of 1650, when their paths crossed at Santa Maria Maggiore, while both joined the throngs of pilgrims making the rounds of the papal basilicas to garner an indulgence.

In the midst of their pilgrimage, conversation turned from piety to poison. “We chatted about many things, and, in particular, Gironima confided to me that she knew how to make a certain liquid to kill people. When I asked how, she told me she made one type with arsenic and lead and another with cooked eggs, which she said was an oil, just perfect for putting people away. She also said she made one sort with a toad, boiled inside a cooking pot over a slow fire.”

According to Maria, one of Gironima’s concoctions thus contained that prime ingredient of stereotypical witches’ brew in the public imagination:...
Page 99 introduces several of The Black Widows of the Eternal City's recurring motifs, chief among them, the notorious poison that terrified Rome (especially its male residents) after police discovered several widows who had used it to kill their husbands—rumor said no fewer than 500. For centuries writers speculated about the poison’s ingredients, as toxicologists variously suggested drippings from a butchered pig smeared with arsenic, pig slobber, white phosphorous, or strychnine. But the pope kept the transcript of the investigation under lock and key, “so nobody could learn how to make this poisonous potion, with which these cruel murderesses did away with so many.”

Under interrogation, Maria Spinola, one of the five chief protagonists, eventually hanged in Campo de’ Fiori, solves this mystery. Her co-conspirator, Giovanna De Grandis, decocted the lethal elixir from lead and arsenic, acquired from a renegade priest. (Apothecaries refused to sell arsenic to women.)

Maria also describes alternative recipes from Gironima Spana, the case’s most notorious perpetrator, who would eclipse all others in subsequent accounts and appears in many modern compendia of “serial killers.” Maria did not get Gironima’s standard recipe quite right, however: she in fact added antimony to the lead-arsenic mixture, which gave it an extra kick “so that very little does the job.”

Maria’s allegation that Spana stewed up toads must have strengthened her reputation as a witch: toads were commonly recognized as witches’ familiars and a favorite ingredient in their cauldrons (“Toad, that under cold stone / Days and nights has thirty-one / Swelter’d venom sleeping got, / Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!” Macbeth IV, 1).

Maria’s cat was not the only poisoned pet. Animal victims become a leitmotif as poison purveyors and police investigators force the mixture down the throats of dogs and the occasional pig, then sit by to observe the results. Maria’s flayed cat’s inflamed flesh perhaps explains why murdered husbands often “looked better dead than alive.”

Page 99 does not address the book’s chief protagonists, however: the wives of innkeepers, lineners, barbers, and butchers, who turned to Maria, Giovanna, and Gironima for their lethal liquid and whom Spana eclipsed in subsequent accounts. These forgotten, ordinary women are at the center of this story. They represent the 17th-century Roman abused wife, her strength to fight back, her brief success, and her ultimate defeat by powerful men and a society that offered her little recourse.
Learn more about The Black Widows of the Eternal City at the University of Michigan Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Nuns Behaving Badly.

The Page 99 Test: Habitual Offenders.

--Marshal Zeringue