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”
Leonarda Cianciulli was born on 18th April 1894, her mother fell pregnant with her after she was raped, she was made to marry Cianciulli’s father Mariano. Reportedly her mother was emotionally abusive and as a result while she was a young girl she twice attempted to take her own life. At age 22 in 1917 she married Raffaele Pansardi, a registry office clerk. Cianciulli’s parents did not approve of the marriage as they had planned for her to marry a different man, as a result of their feelings toward her marriage Cianciulli claimed that her mother had cursed them.
In 1921 the couple moved to Lauria, Pansardi’s native town, while living there in 1927 Cianciuli was arrested and sentenced for fraud, after her release they relocated again to Lariano in Alta Iripinia. In 1930 their home was destroyed by an earthquake, which then led to their final move to Correggio in the Province of Reggio Emilia, Cianciulli opened a small shop in the town and was well-respected and popular with residents in her neighbourhood.
During her marriage to Pansardi, Cianciulli endured 17 pregnancies, three of the children were lost to miscarriage and ten died in their youth. It is said that she was a very superstitious woman and would often seek the advice of fortune tellers, one fortune told her years before that she would marry and have children, but that all of them would die young, as a result of the fortune tellers words and the tragedy of losing so many children she was very protective of the four remaining children. In her numerous trips to see fortune tellers it was also reported that she visited a Romani who practiced palm reading, and she was told “In your right hand I see prison, in your left a criminal asylum”.
In 1939 just as WWII was at its start Cianciulli’s eldest and reportedly favourite child Giuseppe was joining the army in preparation for the war, she became determined to protect her son while he served, she got the idea that to ensure his safety human sacrifices were needed. It was recorded by sources that she claimed to have some spiritual abilities herself and that her victims were lured to her under the promise of a reading and help with their problems.
Faustina Setti was a local spinster who had come to Cianciulli for help in finding a husband, Cianciuli told her that there was a man in Pola for her, but she must not tell anyone the news, she persuaded Setti to write letters and postcards to relatives and friends assuring them that she was okay while away and that they were to be mailed when she arrived in Pola. Setti visited Cianciulli once more before her departure, she was given a glass of wine that Cianciulli had drugged, once she was incapacitated enough, Cianciulli killed her with an axe and dragged her body to a closet. Cianciulli described what she did to Setti’s body in grim detail in her official statement saying, “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.
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.
Due to the face there was little research done into whether Cianciulli was mentally fit because of the lack of knowledge at the time, she was in the sense that she knew what she was doing was wrong because she made sure to cover her tracks and obviously planned the murders in detail some time before earning her victims’ trust and drugging them to make sure she would overpower them. Cianciulli does seem to display some behaviours of antisocial personality disorder or (sociopathy) possibly as a result of her turbulent childhood, that was then further triggered by the deaths of her children and then when she faced the possibility of losing her favourite son to the war she snapped completely and gave in to a delusion where she could protect him with human sacrifice.
This delusion was fuelled by her interest in psychics and fortune tellers in the same way a modern serial killer would argue Satanism, heavy metal, porn, or violent movies games fuelled them to kill, most people see these reading as a bit of fun and entertainment, but to Cianciulli they became a reality, so much so that she believed she was psychic and being told to commit these acts. The reaction to the delusion speaks to her sociopathy because she had no empathy toward the women who came to her for “help” she just saw them as tools in her pursuit to protect Giuseppe and felt no remorse committing the murders because all she could see was the delusion and the reason she thought she was killing these women.