The Cannibalistic Murders of Leonarda Cianciulli
Between 1939 and 1940, Italian serial killer Leonarda Cianciulli murdered three women and rendered their remains into teacakes and soap, an act that earned her the nickname of the Soap-Maker of Correggio. The slayings are horrific enough. Yet it’s the rationale behind the crimes that still sends a shiver down one’s spine.
Born in 1894 in Montella, Italy, Leonarda Cianciulli was by all accounts a superstitious woman. Compounding her fear was the premonition of a fortuneteller she had visited as a young woman. The psychic predicted that Leonarda would marry and have children, but that all of her offspring would die. A subsequent visit to a palm reader brought more bad news: “In your right hand I see the prison,” said the palm reader. “In your left, a criminal asylum.”
She married a registry clerk in 1917, against the wishes of her family. Her parents were so upset that Leonarda’s mother allegedly cursed the young couple. While the nature of the curse remains unknown, its presence hung over Leonarda’s 17 pregnancies. She lost three to miscarriages, while 10 other children died when they were very young. Consequently, Leonarda Cianciulli was very protective of her surviving four children. When her eldest son decided to enlist in World War II, she resolved to put a stop to it. And the only way to do that was with human sacrifice. So the concerned mother set out to find her victims.
Leonarda selected three women—Faustina Settie, Francesca Soavi, and Virginia Cacioppo. She gave each a reason to leave town—a prospective husband in Faustina’s case, and promises of employment in the case of Francesca and Virginia. She convinced the women to keep their plans secret prior to departure. In addition, Leonarda instructed her first two victims to preemptively write letters, addressed to friends and family and postmarked from their respective destinations, claiming that all was well.
Prior to her departure, Faustina Setti visited Leonarda one last time. The fortuneteller provided Faustina with a glass of wine—a toast, perhaps, to brighter days ahead. The wine was drugged. Soon after the sedatives took hold, Leonarda bludgeoned Faustina to death with an ax. The second victim, Francesca Soavi, met a similar end.
Leonarda cut Faustina’s body into nine pieces. She collected the blood and placed the chunks into a pot with caustic soda, used for making soap. Once the body dissolved into a mush, Leonarda poured the goo into a septic tank. She dried the blood in an oven, then mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk, eggs, and margarine, and made teacakes that she served to neighbors. According to her memoir, Leonarda and her son also enjoyed the bloody pastries.
Leonarda’s final victim, Virginia Cacioppo, was a former soprano. She had flesh that was “fat and white” and, according to the killer, made a “most acceptable creamy soap” when boiled down. The murdered singer received the same culinary treatment as Leonarda’s previous victims; her remains were cooked into treats and distributed among neighbors. Leonarda noted that “the cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”
Virginia Caccioppo proved to be Leonarda’s last victim. Virginia’s sister-in-law grew suspicious of her disappearance and told the superintendent of police that she had last seen Caccioppo entering Cianciulli’s home. Leonarda was promptly arrested, admitting to her crimes. During her trial in 1946, she remained unrepentant, going so far as to correct lawyers on grisly details and proudly claiming that she had donated the copper ladle—originally used to skim human fat—to the war effort.
Cianciulli was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum. She died of cerebral apoplexy in 1970. While she was behind bars, she wrote a memoir called An Embittered Soul’s Confessions, in which she coolly described her crimes. The murders have inspired a handful of plays and films, and several pieces of evidence from the case, including the pot in which the victims were boiled, remain on display in Rome’s Criminological Museum.
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