Leonarda Cianciulli was an Italian serial killer and cannibal infamous for turning her victims’ bodies into soaps and teacakes. She killed three women in Correggio between 1939 and 1940. A native of Montella, Cianciulli attempted suicide twice at a young age. In 1917, she married a man her parents disapproved of and moved to Lauria with him. For the rest of her life, she believeD that her mother had cursed their union. In Lauria, in 1927, she was arrested and sentenced to jail for fraud. After she was released, the couple relocated to Lacedonia, where their home was later destroyed by an earthquake. They eventually settled in Correggio where she set up a thriving soap shop. Cianciulli underwent 17 pregnancies during her marriage, three of which ended in miscarriages. She lost ten more children before they became adults. As a result, she was extremely protective of her four remaining children. Since her youth, she had been interested in palm reading and fortune telling and it only increased after she became a mother. When the World War II broke out and her oldest son was to join the Italian Army, she thought that she could protect him by performing human sacrifices. Her three victims were Faustina Setti, Francesca Soavi, and Virginia Cacioppo. She made soaps and teacakes out of her victims’ bodies and then distributed them among the neighbours. Cianciulli was eventually arrested and tried in 1946. Found guilty of murdering the women, she was sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum.
Childhood & Early Life
Leonarda Cianciulli was born on April 18, 1894, in Montella, Avellino, Kingdom of Italy. She was a child of rape. Her mother, Emilia di Nolfi, was forced to marry her rapist Mariano Cianciulli after her pregnancy was discovered. Leonarda had a turbulent upbringing. Raised in one of the poverty-stricken parts of late 19th and early 20th century Italy, she lost her father quite early in her life. Her mother remarried but that did not improve their financial situation much. Furthermore, she was emotionally abused by her mother and tried to kill herself on two separate occasions.
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Marriage & Motherhood
Going against the wishes of her parents, who had picked a wealthy suitor for her, Leonarda Cianciulli married a registry office clerk, Raffaele Pansardi, who was considerably older than her. She would claim throughout her life that her mother cursed her and her husband on this occasion. While the notion of placing a curse on someone might sound preposterous, her life was full of misery and pain from that point onwards.
Cianciulli and her husband moved to Lauria, a town and commune which is, in modern times, located in the province of Potenza, in 1921. They had financial troubles right from the beginning. Pansardi, with his meagre earnings, could not support their growing family as they soon started to have children. Cianciulli worked as well. However, in 1927, she was arrested for fraud and went to prison.
After she was released, she and Pansardi decided to move the family to Lacedonia, a commune which is presently situated in the province of Avellino, Italy. They were looking for a fresh start but tragedy and misery followed them here as well. In 1930, their house was destroyed in an earthquake. Close to being destitute, the family moved again, this time to Correggio, a town and commune in the Province of Reggio Emilia, Italy.
It was in Correggio that the family began to gain some amount of financial security. Cianciulli open a small soap shop. She was a well-respected member of the community and her shop was quite popular.
Over the years, she had 17 pregnancies, out of which, three ended in miscarriages. Ten of her children died in childhood. She became overly protective of the four that survived. She was an extremely superstitious woman who believed in fortune telling, astrology, and palm reading.
Her fear of losing more children was inflamed by a conversation she had had with a fortune teller years earlier, before she even got married. The fortune teller warned her saying that while she would get marry and have children, they would all die young.
She reportedly met another Romani, a palm reader, who told her that she saw prison in Cianciulli’s right hand and a criminal asylum on the left. In 1939, the World War II had broken out and Italy, led by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, was looking to enter the war on the side of Germany.
They had begun recruiting for their military and Giuseppe Pansardi, Cianciulli’s eldest son, had been designated to be part of the Italian Army. Giuseppe was her favourite child and she soon became afraid for his safety. Determined to protect him at all costs, she decided the only way to do it was by human sacrifice.
Cianciulli was a fortune teller herself and had garnered favourable reputation as such. All three of her victims were her clients who had come to her seeking help. Faustina Setti was a middle-aged unmarried woman who was looking for a husband. During her visit, Cianciulli told her that there was a suitable partner for her in Pola (modern-day Croatia) but instructed her not to tell anyone anything about it. Setti was also told to write letters and postcards so they could be sent back to her relatives and friends after she got to Pola.
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On the day of her departure, she came to bid goodbye to Cianciulli, who gave her drugged wine to drink. After she had fallen unconscious, Cianciulli murdered her with an axe, pulled her body into a closet, and hacked it into nine pieces. She also collected the blood into a basin.
Following her arrest, Cianciulli gave a detailed account on what she did with Setti’s remains. She told the authorities that she threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, and stirred until the mixture had turned into a thick, dark mush. She then poured it into several buckets and disposed of it in a nearby septic tank.
As for the blood in the basin, she let it coagulate before drying it in an oven, grinding it, and mixing it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk, eggs, and margarine to make lots of teacakes. She gave many of these to visiting women and the rest were eaten by Giuseppe and herself. According to some sources, Cianciulli got Setti’s life savings as the payment for her services. It was about 30,000 lire.
Her second victim’s name was Francesca Soavi. Like Setti, she was a middle-aged woman who was promised better prospects than she had at the time. Cianciulli told her that she had found her a job at a school for girls in Piacenza (modern-day northern Italy). Like Setti, Soavi was asked to correspond with friends, but she was told to do so from Correggio. She too came to meet Cianciulli one last time before her departure, drank the drugged wine, and was murdered with an axe.
Her body underwent the same treatment as Setti’s and Cianciulli received 3,000 lire from the death of her second victim. The murder was said to have occurred on September 5, 1940.
A former soprano star, Virginia Cacioppo had reportedly performed at La Scala, a famous opera house in Milan. Cianciulli informed her about a job in Florence as a secretary for a mysterious impresario. As with the other two women, she was instructed not tell a single person about her destination.
On September 30, 1940, she came to say goodbye to Cianciulli, who later gave a chilling account of what happened next, “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 neighbours and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.” From Cacioppo, Cianciulli had apparently collected 50,000 lire and assorted jewels.
Arrest, Trial & Conviction
The death of Cacioppo, her last victim, proved to be her undoing. Cacioppo had a sister-in-law, who increasingly became suspicious of her sudden disappearance. She reported it to the authorities in Reggio Emilia and told them that she had last seen Cacioppo entering Cianciulli’s house. Cianciulli was subsequently arrested.
Initially, she vehemently denied killing anyone. However, after Giuseppe was implicated in Cacioppo’s murder, she gave full confession. In 1946, her trial was conducted in Reggio Emilia.
She was found guilty of committing all the three murders and given a 30-year sentence. She was also ordered to spend three years in a criminal asylum.
On October 15, 1970, Cianciulli passed away in the women's criminal asylum in Pozzuoli, after suffering from cerebral apoplexy for a prolonged period. She was 76 years old. Many of the artefacts from the case, including the pot she used to boil her victims in, made their way to the Criminological Museum in Rome, where they are currently displayed.
In Popular Culture
There have been several adaptations of her story, both on stage and in films. In 1979, a play named ‘Love and Magic in Mama's Kitchen’ was produced by Lina Wertmuller at the Spoleto Festival. It narrated Cianciulli’s life in a darkly comedic tone. In Mauro Bolognini’s 1977 directorial venture, ‘Gran Bollito’, American actress Shelley Winters portrayed Cianciulli.