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Gaetana’s revenge: 23 children victims of superstition in Italy at the end of the 19th century

6 min read

The dramatic story of Gaetana Stimoli seems to come straight from a dark past with sorcerers, evil spells, superstitions and fatal poisons.
And instead the woman, capable of committing a series of murders among the most gruesome in the history of crime in Italy (and not only), performed her sad deeds in 1895.
A little more than a hundred years separate our era from that of the events that took place in Adernò (now Adrano), in Sicily, Southern Italy, and it is hard to believe that, on the threshold of the 20th century, a well-known condition of poverty and ignorance could have led a young woman to transform into a multi-murderer of children, immune (at least, according to the chronicles of the time) to repentance and remorse.

Actually, it is not only poverty and ignorance that trigger the woman’s homicidal fury, but it is a pain that knows no comfort or respite, a pain that not even an entire life can alleviate, in any historical period: the loss of her children.
Sure, at the time poverty and disease took away many children (in 1887, according to official data, in Italy there were 347 deaths per thousand live births against 2 today), but this did not mean that the loss of a child could be accepted with more resignation or with less pain.
And poor Gaetana, who was just 33 at the time, also suffered this sad fate.

Adernò, on the slopes of volcano Etna, is a town like many others in Sicily, where the newborn Kingdom of Italy brings about some changes in terms of public structures. For example, a hospital, the first high school, a telegraph station and a power station are inaugurated, but nothing changes in the life of the poorer classes: the peasants remain in their misery and the uncultivated lands of the fiefdoms are not reassigned.
There, infectious diseases and epidemics, especially blackpox and cholera, claim many victims, without even the consolation of a diagnosis that could explain those sudden deaths.
The medical doctors of the time did not know how to give a name to certain diseases for which there was no cure, and in any case, those who lived in poverty could not even afford to pay a doctor’s fee.
Gaetana Stimoli can’t or maybe doesn’t want to go to a doctor (or she did it, and it was useless) but, what we know, is that her two children die.
The subsequent events – the trial and the woman’s conviction – are reported with great emphasis by many newspapers from all over the world, including Germany, the United States and France, but it is the Swiss newspaper Le Temps which, with a long and detailed article, provides several details: the woman says she has already witnessed the death of four of her children, so when the fifth (and last) falls ill, she turns to a magician known for his ability to break even the most powerful invoices.
Gaetana becomes convinced that no, illnesses have nothing to do with it: her children have been bewitched by an evil soul.
This is what the sorcerer tells her and, when also her last child dies, in addition to refusing to return what the woman had paid, justifies himself by speaking of a curse that is too powerful, impossible to undo.

And so that pain turns into homicidal fury: Gaetana Stimoli decides that all Adernò’s mothers must experience her own torment, and she implements a diabolical revenge.
As a result, the children of the village, aged between 4 and 6, begin mysteriously to disappear, or to die in excruciating pain under the eyes of their terrified and helpless mothers.
No one can explain those sudden deaths, and even a local doctor come to the conclusion that it could be a particular epidemic, so selective as to affect only children of that age.
Within a month, between September and October 1895, 23 children died (or disappeared).
Among them also the only son of Gaetana’s sister.

The massacre would probably have continued until all children in the town had died if something hadn’t happened that Gaetana Stimoli certainly hadn’t foreseen: the last of her victims arrives home with all the symptoms of the other children, vomiting and pain to the stomach, but in a slightly lighter form, so much so that the parents have hope of saving him.
Thus they decide to call the doctor, who actually makes the right diagnosis: phosphorus poisoning.
And, fortunately, he manages to heal the child.
In any case, thanks to the survivor’s story, the chilling reality of the facts emerges: Gaetana Stimoli offered sweets to every child who passed by her house, and a glass of milk to quench his thirst, in which she dissolved phosphorus and a very poisonous liquid extracted from a local plant, Euphorbia bivonae (or “carramuni” in Sicilian dialect), in what is a fatal concoction.
The last victim didn’t die because the quantity of poison was evidently insufficient, so the child manages to tell about that kind woman, who offered him some sweets and a milky white drink.
It is the unfortunate Gaetana Stimoli, the poor woman who, after losing her children, consoles herself by pampering other people’s children.

However, still no one in the village suspected her.
It was the gendarmes who rushed to the woman’s house, who initially denied everything, then decided to tell, apparently with sadistic pleasure (again according to the chronicles of the time), the unfolding of events: the death of her “bewitched” children, the will to make other mothers feel the same pain, hatred towards those children who, unlike hers, could still run free and happy for the town.
In addition to Gaetana, her husband and seven other people somehow involved in the magical rites that accompanied the murders were arrested.

But we only know the fate of the woman: the guards have to take her away secretly during the night, because all the inhabitants of Adernò want to take justice into their own hands.
She arrives at the Catania prison, where she tries to commit suicide with the shards of a broken bottle, but then she collaborates with the investigators and indicates where she has buried ten of the missing children.
Initially, all those involved tend to believe that the woman was mentally ill, but her lucidity and the lack of any sign of remorse lead the jurors to disregard that diagnosis: Gaetana Stimoli was then sentenced to thirty years of imprisonment.
She dies in prison, and certainly being locked up in a criminal asylum would have made no difference to her.
However, that choice could have made it clear how crazy it was to attribute the death of her children to a curse, but probably not only Gaetana believed it at the time…

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