Born in 1894 in Montella, Italy, Leonarda Cianciulli was by all accounts a superstitious woman. Not much is known about Cianciulli prior to the killings but it’s believed that the events that occurred when she was an adolescent attributed to the type of monster, she’d grow up to become.
Cianciulli was suicidal for most of her life and even tried to commit suicide twice as a young girl. In 1914, she married a registry office clerk who her parents strongly disapproved of since they planned for her to marry another man. Cianciulli claimed that on this occasion, her mother was so upset that she cursed them, dooming Cianciulli to a life of misery. The couple moved to Lariano in Alta Irpina where they lived until their home was destroyed by an earthquake in 1930. They then moved to Correggio. Once settled, Cianciulli opened a small shop and became very popular among her neighbors. She was regarded as a nice, gentle woman who was a loving mother and respectable neighbor.
While there’s no proof of a curse, it does appear as though there was a presence of one hanging over Cianciulli and her 17 pregnancies; as she lost three to miscarriages and ten to illness. This coupled with a premonition she received earlier as a young woman from a fortuneteller, who predicted that Cianciulli would marry and have children but that all of her offspring would die, caused Cianciulli to become fiercely protective of her four surviving children.
Reportedly, she visited another Gypsy who practiced palm reading, sometime later. The traveling Romani woman told her, “In your right hand I see prison, in your left a criminal asylum.” Laboring under the curse her mother put on her, and the fortune-tellers’ predictions, Cianciulli turned into an extremely superstitious woman.
Then, in 1939, her eldest and favorite son, Giuseppe, joined the Italian army in preparation for World War II. Cianciulli was determined to protect him by any means necessary. She concluded that the best way to ensure his safety was to make human sacrifices.
She had three friends – three lonely middle-aged women who would give anything to escape from the routine and solitude of Correggio. Each of these friends came to Cianciulli for help, and in return, Cianciulli planned and executed their death.
The first to fall victim to Cianciulli was Faustina Setti, a lifelong spinster who came to Cianciulli for help in finding a husband. Cianciulli told her of a suitable mate abroad in Pola, but convinced Setti into not sharing the news with those around her. Instead, she had Setti write letters and postcards to relatives and friends assuring them that she was fine, which Cianciulli promised to mail after Setti reached her destination.
On the day of her departure, Setti came to visit Cianciulli one last time. Cianciulli subdued Setti with a glass of drugged wine, then killed her with an axe and dragged the body into a closet. There she cut Setti’s body into nine parts and gathered her blood into a basin.
In her official statement upon her arrest, Cianciulli described what happened next:
“I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the whole mixture until the pieces dissolved in a thick, dark mush that I poured into several buckets and emptied in a nearby septic tank. As for the blood in the basin, 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.”
According to some sources, Cianciulli also took Setti’s life savings (about 30,000 lire), which she received as payment for setting Setti up with a husband.
While one would think that a single sacrifice would be sufficient in preventing harm to her son, Cianciulli didn’t seem to be able to stop at one.
Cianciulli found a second victim in family-less Francesca Soavi. Cianciulli convinced Soavi that she had organized a teaching job for her at a school for girls in Piacenza. Like Setti, Soavi was convinced to write postcards to be sent to friends, this time from Correggio, detailing her plans to relocate. Again, like Setti, Soavi came to visit Cianciulli before her departure and was given drugged wine and killed with an axe. Her body also received the same treatment as Setti, and it’s been alleged that Cianciulli may have received 3,000 lire from Soavi’s savings.
The third and final victim was former opera singer, Virginia Cacioppo. At the time, Cacioppo was 53, living with memories of her past in poverty. Cianciulli offered her a job in Florence as the secretary to a mysterious theatre impresario and begged her not to tell anyone. Cacioppo was enthusiastic about the proposal, so she kept the secret. On September 30, 1940, she went to Cianciulli’s house to say goodbye.
Once there, according to Cianciulli’s statement, Cacioppo “ended up in the pot like the 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.”
Cianciulli reportedly received assorted jewels and 50,000 lire from Cacioppo. However, Cianciulli’s choice to pick the former soprano as a victim ended up being her downfall; because unlike the other two victims, Cacioppo had a sister-in-law – a (reportedly very nosy) sister-in-law who did not believe Cacioppo’s letters detailing her quick departure. In fact, the sister-in-law saw Cacioppo enter Cianciulli’s home the night she had “left.” The sister-in-law immediately reported the disappearance to the police, who quickly investigated Cianciulli.
At first, Cianciulli defended herself and wouldn’t admit any wrongdoing. Not until the police began to openly suspect her son, one of the four children she’d worked so hard to protect from the world, that she admitted it was her. She quickly confessed to the murders and provided detailed accounts of what happened to each woman.
Cianciulli was tried for murder in Reggio Emilia in 1946. She maintained a cool demeanor and didn’t appear regretful – she even went as far as to correct the official account while on the stand. The trial lasted only a few days, and she was found guilty of her crimes and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum.
Leonarda Cianciulli died of cerebral apoplexy, a type of intracranial hemorrhage, at the age of 79 in 1970, while in the criminal asylum. Her body was returned to her family for burial, but her murder weapons, including the pot that her victims were boiled in, were donated to the Criminology Museum in Rome, Italy.
Today, visitors can see her collection of axes, and peer inside the vat that she used to boil human beings.
- Leonarda Cianciulli. Murderpedia.
- Grey, Orrin. Leonarda Cianciulli: The Deadly Soap-Maker of Correggio. The Lineup. 2016.
- Serena, Katie. Meet Leonarda Cianciulli, The Killer Who Turned Her Victims Into Soap And Teacakes. All That’s Interesting. 2018.