Perhaps it was her mother’s curse in 1917 when she married a man of whom her family disapproved. It may have been her criminal mind blossoming into murder. Or a mother’s instinct to protect a beloved son. Something made Leonarda Cianciulli, first known Italian female serial killer, chop up bodies to make soap and teacakes gifts for family and neighbors.
Leonarda Cianciulli (b. April 18, 1894) hailed from Montella, Avellino, Italy. Leonarda’s father, Mariano Cianciulli had raped her mother, Emilia di Nolfi. To save face, Emilia had to marry her rapist once she discovered she was pregnant. Emilia was emotionally abusive to her child, even after a second marriage. The family stayed impoverished.
Leonarda had already made two suicide attempts before she married the older Raffaele Pansardi in 1917. He was not one of the wealthy men her parents had selected for her; Leonarda would later explain her mother cursed her for her disobedience. Four years later, the couple moved to southern Italy. Both found work, but Leonarda went to prison for fraud, her first crime. Upon release, they moved twice more, finally settling into the town of Correggio, the province of Reggio Emilia. Here, Leonarda opened a popular soap shop. She also told fortunes and “hypnotized” clients, claiming to have special powers to help make their dreams come true.
Leonarda was well-liked and respected in Reggio Emilia. Sometimes an awful smell emulated from her kitchen, but it never lasted long. Her neighbors knew she was quite superstitious, but they told one another that this was due to her tragic history. Leonarda had been pregnant seventeen times, with three miscarriages and ten babies dying of various illnesses. Thus she was overprotective of their four surviving children. So in 1938, when her oldest, Giuseppe Pansardi, announced the army was drafting him, Leonarda was aghast. World War II was looming ahead, and she would protect him at any cost. She would lose no more children, least of all her favorite! And in between the tears, the superstitious Leonarda Cianciulli determined human sacrifice would ensure Giuseppe’s safety. Give God a body so He would not take Giuseppe.
Faustina Setti, at 73, was a poor, lonely, unmarried woman, desperate for a husband. She often came to Leonarda for help in finding that husband. “I have someone for you in Pola (now Croatia),” Leonarda told Faustina, “but you must tell no one.” Leonardo took the farce a step further by writing Faustina letters from the “suitor.” To keep the secret, Faustina was to pen upbeat postcards and letters and mail them to her family from Pola upon her arrival. An excited Faustina packed her bags, dyed her grey hair, and then visited Leonarda for the last time for final preparations. Leonarda offered her neighbor wine (some accounts say coffee) to celebrate her new life. When Faustina fell drugged, Leonarda hit her with an ax and hid her body. Leonarda Cianciulli chopped Faustina Setti into nine parts, using a basin to collect the blood. At her 1946 murder trial, Leonarda explained:
I waited until it had coagulated, dried it in the oven, ground it, and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk, and eggs, as well as a bit of margarine, kneading all the ingredients together. I made lots of crunchy tea cakes and served them to the ladies who came to visit, though Giuseppe and I also ate them.
Leonarda may have financially benefitted from the murders. Some sources noted she collected around 30,000 lire total (about $4,900 in today’s U.S. currency).
Opera singer Virginia Cacioppo’s good friend Leonarda promised Virginia work as a secretary for an impresario in Florence. Virginia could not believe her luck; at 53, here was a chance to turn her memories of glory and life of poverty! She was indebted to Leonarda. But Virginia could not keep her mouth closed, so several friends understood Virginia was about to embark on an adventure, courtesy kindly Leonarda Cianciulli, the soap maker and medium extraordinaire. On September 30, 1940, she went to see Leonarda for one last chance to express her gratitude, and they toasted with wine. At her 1946 trial, Leonarda explained chubby Virginia’s fate:
She ended up in the pot like the other two…her flesh was fat and white, when it had melted, I added a bottle of cologne, and after a long time on the boil, I was able to make some most acceptable creamy soap. I gave bars to neighbors and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.
This time, Leonarda received about 50,000 lire, jewelry, and public bonds. She raided Virginia’s house of valuables, and then sold or gifted the victims’ clothing, shoes, and jewelry. And she gave her neighbors gifts of the handmade soap.
But this time, the victim had a family member who did care about what happened to her. Virginia Cacioppo’s sister (possibly a sister-in-law) reported her missing, telling police she last saw Virginia walking into Leonarda’s home. The police spoke with Leonarda. When she declared innocence, the investigators decided to focus on her oldest son, Giuseppe. That was all the threat Leonarda needed. She began talking. And she kept talking into her 1946 trial. She discussed the crimes with ease.
While in custody, Leonarda wrote her memoirs, titled An Embittered Soul’s Confessions. It includes best practices for turning human body parts into soap. Outside the jail and courtroom walls, people waited for hours to get a seat to watch the proceedings and nearly stampeded once the gates opened to the courthouse.
She was proud of the fact that she was assisting her country during wartime. “I gave the copper ladle, which I used to skim the fat off the kettles, to my country, which was so badly in need of metal during the last days of the war,” she would tell the court.
Still, it was difficult to believe this woman could dissect a corpse so quickly and without assistance. So the attorneys, judges, and police took Leonarda to the morgue. She demonstrated her talent by dissecting a corpse into nine pieces under 12 minutes.
Giuseppe also went to trial but was acquitted. Both Raffaele and Giuseppe Pansardi always claimed innocence of Leonarda’s illegal activities. Giuseppe had mailed cards and letters for her while he was on a trip in Pola, and he had tossed some wrapped bones into a river. But, said Leonarda, he had no idea how these actions connected to her crimes.
Leonarda Cianciulli was found guilty of the three murders and given the sentence of thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum. Her family hugged her tight after the sentencing. She died in prison in 1970. She is known as la Saponificatrice di Correggio, the soap-maker of Correggio.