Leonarda Cianciulli

Handmade soaps or homemade cookies are often welcomed gifts, whether from friends, neighbours or family members, but in this case from 1930s Italy shows that sometimes these can have some disturbing things inside them, more disturbing than questionable chemicals or ocean polluting micro-beads, this is the case of “La saponificatrice di Correggio” or “The soap maker of Correggio”

Cianciulli was born on 18th April 1894 into an unhappy childhood, her mother had been raped by a man named Mariano, she was later forced to marry him due to the pregnancy. Her mother was reportedly emotionally abusive leading to Cianculli attempting suicide twice in her youth. In 1917 when she was 22-years-old she married Raffaele Pansardi, a registry office clerk. At the time Cianculli’s parents had already planned for her to marry another man so they did not approve of her marriage to Pansardi, after this Cianculli claimed that her mother had cursed them.

Cianciulli in her youth

 The couple moved to Pansardi’s hometown of Lauria in 1921, they settled until 1927 when Cianciulli was arrested and sentenced for fraud, after she was released, they relocated again to Lariano in Alta Iripinia. An earthquake hit the area in 1930 destroying their home, this led to them making a final move to Correggio in the Province of Reggio Emilia, Cianculli opened up a small shop in the town and became a well-respected and popular member of the community.

In her marriage to Pansardi, Cianciulli endured 17 pregnancies, she miscarried three and ten died in their youth. Cianculli would often seek the guidance and comfort of fortune tellers and reportedly one told her in her youth that she would marry and have children, but all of them would die young, the fortune tellers words coupled with the fact she lost so many children made her extremely protective of her four remaining children, especially her eldest son and reportedly favourite child Giuseppe. In one visit to a Romani palm reader she was told by the reader “In your right hand I see prison, in your left criminal asylum”.

WWII was at its beginning in 1939 and Italy was calling young men to enlist, Giuseppe then joined the army and Cianculli became determined to protect her son while he served. She became so obsessed that she got the idea that human sacrifices were the answer to protecting Giuseppe. Sources claim that after years of visiting fortune tellers/palm readers she claimed to have unearthed spiritual abilities as well, she then used this to lure her victims in with the promise of readings and answers to their problems.

The first victim was a local spinster Faustina Setti, she had come to Cianculli for help in finding a husband, in the reading Cianculli told her that there was a man in Pola waiting for her, but she must not tell anyone. She persuaded Setti to write letters and postcards to relatives and friends assuring them that she was okay while away telling her they are to be posted when she arrives in Pola. Before her departure Setti made one final visit to Cianculli’s house, she was invited in and given a glass of wine that had been drugged, once she was subdued Cianculli picked up and axe and killed her then dragged her body to a closet. She described what she did to Setti’s body in grim detail in her memoir ‘An Embittered Soul’s Confession’ she said: “I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the 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 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 Giuseeppe and I also ate them.” Some sources also claim that Cianciulli received 30,000 Italian lire (unit of currency in Italy before the euro) as a payment for her service. In today’s money that would be roughly €15.49 (£13.39) ($20.22), which was obviously a big sum of money back then.

Cianciulli’s next murder was speculated to have taken place on 5th September 1940, Francesa Soavi looked to Cianciulli for spiritual guidance with her career, Cianciulli claimed to have found her a job at a school for girls in Piacenza, she was also persuaded to write postcards and letters to friends and relatives from Correggio telling them her plans, Soavi came to visit Cianciulli before she left and was given drugged wine and also killed with an axe, Soavi’s body was given the same treatment as Setti’s. Cianciulli again gained financially from Soavi’s before killing her as it was reported that she obtained 3,000 Italian lire (€1.55) (£1.34) ($1.75) before she died.

Cianciulli’s final victim was Virginia Cacioppo, a former soprano that was said to have sung at La Scala, Cianciulli claimed to have found work for Cacioppo for a mysterious impresario in Florence, just like with the other victims Cacioppo was instructed not to tell anyone about the trip, she agreed and on 30th September 1940 she made her final visit to Cinciulli before departing. The murder and treatment of the body was the same as the other murders, but this time CIanciulli made soap out of the remains, when asked in questioning about this she said, “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”. In total Cianciulli made 50,000 Italian Lira (€25.82) (£22.33) ($29.14) and an assortment of expensive jewels from Cacioppo before her death.

Cianciulli’s victims

Ciopppo’s sister-in-law grew suspicious about her departure especially since she was last seen going into Cianciulli’s house. Her fears were reported to the superintendent of the police in Reggio Emilia. An investigation was opened, and it led to Cianciulli as she was the last person to see Cioppo. She was soon arrested and denied any wrongdoing initially, but when the police turned their attention to Giuseppe Pansardi, her favourite son as a suspect, she quickly confessed in great detail about what had happened to the three women in order to save her son from any false blame.

Cianciulli appeared in court in Reggio Emilia in 1946, she remained unrepentant for her crimes, she even corrected the official account of her crime while giving her testimony. She was described as showing a wild inner pride as she said, “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…”

The trial lasted a few days and at the conclusion she was sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum, echoing the words of the fortune teller she believed in so strongly. While serving her time Cianciulli died of cerebral apoplexy in the women’s criminal asylum in Pozzuli on 15th October 1970 at the age of 79.

Since her death some artifacts from the case has been displayed at the Criminological Museum in Rome, the exhibit includes the pot in which the victims were boiled and some axes that she used to murder her victims.

Cianciulli’s exhibit in The Criminology Museum in Rome

 Due to the time not much is said officially about Cianculli’s mental health, from her youth it’s clear she was suffering with depression as she attempted suicide, by the sounds of her childhood and home life as well she would not have had a lot of love, support or general kindness from her parents, this is probably when her interest in spirituality would have begun, she would have seen the “magic” as a form of escape and over time the escape became a compulsion, she could not live her life without the influence of fortune tellers/palm readers in her life, she would have felt more in control of her life and protecting her children from the information. When Giuseppe was called up to war it would have been a trigger for Cianculli because she wouldn’t be able to keep him safe in battle and wouldn’t have been able to stop him from going either, this lack of control would have led Cianculli to snap and her brain immediately jumped back to her love of “magic” and all things spiritual, except this time with a delusion, the delusion that murder and human sacrifice would keep her son safe, leading to the three murders that now make her “The soap maker of Correggio”.

4 thoughts on “Leonarda Cianciulli

  1. Do we know what happened to her son? Did he survive the war? Are there any records which tell us what he thought of his mother when he learned of her crimes? I would be really interested to know.

    Liked by 1 person

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