Wednesday 30 July 2014

The Witch of Palermo: Giovanna Bonanno and her Mysterious Vinegar

Giovanna Bonanno (Palermo, Italy, 1713 - Palermo, Italy, 30th July 1789)

Giovanna Bonanno
Giovanna Bonanno

Today our salon is graced by a most questionable sort. Witch, poisoner and executed criminal, Giovanna Bonanno became known as la Vecchia Dell'aceto (Old Vinegar) in fearful recognition of the deadly potions she brewed.

Bonanno's early life is shrouded in mystery and she first appears in records in 1744 when a woman named Anna Pantò married Vincenzo Bonanno. Her existence appears to be one of hardship, scratching a living from begging on the streets of Palermo and selling concoction and potions to those who believed her to be a witch. However, she was to delve into much darker schemes for moneymaking and in the mid-1780s, fate played a deadly hand.

In 1786, a young mother brought her baby to Bonanno for a healing potion, explaining that the child had accidentally taken a drink of a potion intended for the external treatment of lice. The child fell deathly ill and the so-called witch looked on with interest, thinking that this could be a most useful means by which an unhappy woman might rid herself of an unwanted spouse. After all, one less mouth to feed could make a world of difference to women like her, who were forced to scrimp and beg from day to day.

Bonanno's vinegar, a mixture of lice poison and arsenic, proved deadly and impossible to detect in small, repeated doses. Soon men were keeling over all over town and the authorities found themselves utterly helpless to solve this strange string of deaths, all of which were characterised by stomach disorders. For her clients, the system was perfect. Since they believed they were buying an innocent vinegar that had been bewitched, they convinced themselves that they were somehow blameless and that Bonanno was the only guilty party, as she was the woman placing the charms on the liquid.

Bonanno's run of luck could not go unchallenged though eventually Maria Pitarra, a woman who made the deliveries of vinegar, realised that one of the bottles of potion was destined to be used on Giovanna Lombardo, the son of a friend. She warned Lombardo who falsely left word that he would like to buy a draft himself. When Bonanno arrived to make the sale, Lombardo and his witnesses detained her and she was taken  put on trial for witchcraft.

At her trial the suppliers of her ingredients and even some of her clients lined up to point the finger, accusing Bonnarno of bewitching them into making the purchases. and under interrogation, she confessed. Bonnarno was fond guilty and sentenced to hang; she went to the gallows on 30th July 1789 and within six weeks, cautionary plays were being performed telling the story of the notorious witch of Palermo.


DL NELSON said...

Plays were the Facebook of their time, maybe.

Catherine Curzon said...

Though with less cat pictures!

Anonymous said...

This was a well-known phenomenon among the political elite as well, thank you!

Catherine Curzon said...

A pleasure!

angus smith said...

" with less cat pictures..." excellent , I needed a chuckle.

Catherine Curzon said...

I am pleased to provide it! ;-)

Unknown said...

She also knew the cure. Did she sell that, too?