Palermo, Italy, 30th July 1789. Giovanna Bonanno (1713-1789), an old beggar known as “la Vecchia dell’Aceto”, literally “the Vinegar old Lady”, was hanged in front of a numerous audience of noblemen and curious citizens. The accusation was witchcraft yet the sentence was pronounced for poisoning. In a flash everything was gone, Mrs Bonanno dead and the streets of the city came back to their habitual course.

What happened though, why Giovanna  ended up in the gallows?

To answer the question it is necessary to go back to a few years prior, to be exact to 1786. Giovanna attended, or perhaps she just discovered, the scene which changed her life and ended the one of many other people. A child laid numb and suffering on her mother’s arms: she was taking her to the local “pharmacy” to talk with Mrs La Monica, who had sold to her the vinegar for lice that the child had accidentally ingested. The little girl had retching and seemed about to die. The seller made her ingest some oil in order to puke all the venom.

The baby girl was save, but she didn’t know that, subconsciously, she had started a series of dead which lasted for a long time

Giovanna experimented the effects of such a vinegar for lice on an animal. She took one of the many bastard dogs in her district, “la Zisa”, she tied it to a pole and fed it with a piece of bread drenched in the deadly liquid, for then leaving. The following day she came back and, as imagined, found the dog lifeless. By checking its mouth and fur she realised that no particular sign of poisoning showed up.

Below: incision of Giovanna Bonanno, made by Bartolomeo Pollini, 1789

That was appeared just as the poison for the perfect murder

The prolific business of the woman started and through it she was helping people to solve their marital unhappiness as well as her out condition as a beggar. Mrs Bonanno started selling a mixture of vinegar for lice, wine and arsenic, able to kill her victims in a quick time frame without leaving any visible trace about the cause of death.

The first client was Angela La Fata, longing for sending her husband Giuseppe to the afterlife and marry her lover, a certain Giuseppe Billotta. Giovanna Bonanno provided the same quantity that had killed the dog in her first attempt.

Mr La Fata suffered abdominal pain but he did not die

The following day Angela received another dose of vinegar, sold in an anonymous bottle, that the wife served to her man, who puked, writhe in pain but did not die. In the following days the back and forth from la Monica’s shop did not decrease up until they obtained what they both wanted: Giuseppe left the world with atrocious suffering. Mrs Bonanno had experimented a powerful poison, even though slow, who sold for 6 tarì to her first client.

The killing-husbands potion was now ready to sell

The second client was Margherita Serio, who did not want the venom for herself but rather for a friend, Emanuela Molinari, looking for the early departure of her husband, the baker Ferdinando Lo Piccolo. The story repeat itself, one bottle was not enough to knock him out however a second one was all it took to complete the job. Madame Bonanno got the money of the happy widow, who revealed:

May God refresh his soul

After the first two murders, the fame of the vinegar old lady grew and found a new business partner: Rosa Billotta, in charge of finding her customers in exchange of a (high) percentage of the profit. The victims are Agostino Caracciolo,killed by his wife Rosalia Consales; only one woman Rosa Coschiera killed by her husband Peppi d’Ancona; Cesare Ballo, killed by his wife Marianna Tabbittam another woman who wanted ti marry her lover, and Francesco Costanzo, killed by his wife Rosa Mangano who had an affair with the gardener Emanuele Cascino.

The total amount of victims are six but the researchers who examined the papers of the trial, especially the doctor from the 1800 Salvatore Salomone Marino, hypothesised that the number could very likely be way higher.

What suggest such a theory is also the circumstances about her arrest. Mrs Bonanno gave to her business partner Maria Pitarra a dose of venom as well, not paying much attention on who the recipient was. The victim was the son of one of her acquaintances, probably Giovanna Lombardo, who lost her mind and tried to take revenge for the killed wife, in the meanwhile rushed into a new union with her lover, and towards the sellers of the venom.

Mrs Lombardo set up a scum: in October 1788 asked to  Giovanna Bonanno for a dose of poison to kill an acquaintance, but she arrives to the meeting with 4 witnesses so the vinegar old lady got arrested. The trial occurred in front of the Corte Capitaniale of Palermo and, along with Giovanna Bonanno, Maria Pitarra ended up in the gallows too. The accomplice was dragged through the streets and forced to kiss the feet of the executioner befor heing hanged in Piazza degli Ottangoli, today Piazza dei Quattro Canti. The body of the vinegar old lady is buried in the cemetery outside Porta di Vicari, while in the Sicilian Ethnographic Museum Siciliano Giuseppe Pitrè there is a bust which represents, or perhaps imagine, the look of the woman.

That is the conclusion of the life of a woman that it seems unfair to define as a serial killer because who actually commissioned the murder were the wives themselves. Her only fault was the commercialization of a product made of vinegar for lice that she knew the effects of.

Source: Wikipedia, book “I Veleni di Palermo” by Rosario lo Duca.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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