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Serial Killer Leonarda Cianciulli: Turning People Into Soap

Schatzie has bachelor's degrees in animal science and English and a master's in education.

Leonarda Cianciulli, serial killer and cannibal

Leonarda Cianciulli, serial killer and cannibal

Early Life of Leonarda Cianciulli, "the Soap Lady Killer"

Leonarda Cianciulli was not what she seemed. She was far from your normal middle-aged woman; while she looked like a loving and caring person on the outside, she was really a sadistic murderer of several innocent victims. And, as is the case with most serial killers, problems were evident early on in her youth. In fact, she tried to kill herself not just once but twice while still a child.

She then grew into what those at the time would consider a very rebellious adult. Instead of agreeing to the arranged marriage her parents had intended, she became the wife of Raffaele Pansardi, a registry office clerk she had chosen herself. Their wedding was in 1917, and her parents refused to give their blessing. Quite the contrary, Leonarda would come to believe that her mother cursed them out of spite and brought about bad luck on their family for generations.

A Mother's Curse?

To be fair, Leonarda and Raffaele did have their share of unfortunate events. In 1927, Leonarda was imprisoned on charges of fraud, and then three years later, their home was demolished by an earthquake. Three of her pregnancies ended in miscarriage, and ten more resulted in babies who died very young. Despite seventeen pregnancies, only four kids survived.

She was desperate to protect these four, no matter the cost. Already a very superstitious person, it didn’t help that a fortune teller had predicted the death of not only some but all of her offspring. While this would be unsettling to most, she became what you might consider a bit paranoid as a consequence.

A Truly Awful Idea

When World War II started, Leonarda's oldest son, Giuseppe, told her of his plans to join the army. This is one of the reasons many believe she completely lost her already unstable mind. Giuseppe would be directly in harm’s way, and this was particularly upsetting as he was Leonarda's favorite remaining child. She felt especially helpless to protect him, let alone her other children, until she came up with a truly awful idea.

At some point, Leonarda became convinced that the only way to keep them all safe was to offer up some human sacrifices. Only then did she believe her children would be free from harm, and Giuseppe would come home alive.

A murder weapon

A murder weapon

The Murder of Faustina Setti

With this goal in mind, Leonarda used her charm and influence to her advantage. She worked in a small store in their hometown of Correggio, and was well-liked and respected by the locals. She was a poetess and fortune teller, and many sought her advice and came to her with their troubles.

For her, it was almost too simple. She had virtually the entire village to choose from, but who would have the misfortune of dying first, before the others?

The Perfect Victim

Leonarda was strategic about her intended targets. All were older women who lived on their own and were, she reasoned, less likely to be missed. All of the women dreamed of a more exciting and fulfilling life elsewhere outside of Correggio. To Leonarda, this made them perfect. The first unsuspecting victim she selected was a spinster named Faustina Setti.

Since she had no immediate family, Leonarda believed Faustina could disappear with few people thinking to check on her. In other words, she could easily get away with her murder without many questions. Leonarda tricked Faustina by saying that she had found her the perfect future husband. However, this man wasn’t in their hometown but in the large city of Pola. Further, she convinced Faustina not to tell anyone. Instead, Faustina wrote letters explaining she had left, which she would send once she had arrived in Pola.

Murder Method

Before she left on her trip, Faustina visited Leonarda and paid her a large sum of money for her assistance. This consisted of her entire life savings of 3,000 lire, the equivalent of $530 at the time and around $9,500 today. Leonarda offered Faustina a glass of wine to celebrate. Unaware that it was drugged, she drank it and she soon lost consciousness.

Leonarda then attacked her with an ax and dragged the body across the room to the closet. There, Leonarda sliced Faustina apart by hacking her into exactly nine pieces. She collected all of the blood in a large bowl and left it to cool down.

Leonarda Cianciulli's Tea Cakes

The chunks of flesh were mixed with lye, a harsh chemical that dissolved them into mush. This was then dumped into a septic tank and likely into waste. Faustina’s blood eventually grew cold and thick, after which Leonarda dried it in her oven and then pulverized it into a red powder. The powder was later incorporated with other ingredients such as flour, eggs, and sugar and kneaded together. The dough became tea cakes. These pastries had a crunchy texture and were served to clueless visitors, as members of Leonarda’s family.

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In other words, Leonarda, her son, and her neighbors all ate Faustina over the span of a few days. It was a fate that Faustina never saw coming.

The Murders of Francesca Soavi and Virginia Cacioppo

Sadly, one innocent victim wasn’t enough. Leonarda thought her children’s safety required more for extra security. Or, perhaps at this point, she developed a figurative as well as literal taste for killing others.

Francesca: The Job-Hunter

She set her sights next on Francesca Soavi, who was searching for a place of employment. Leonarda told her she had just the position she was looking for at a school in the city of Piacenza.

Like Faustina, Francesca was advised to tell no one else about this good fortune. Instead, she wrote letters to send from right there in Correggio telling everyone she was moving. Then she stopped by to see Leonarda to deliver 3,000 lire as payment. She, too, was given a drugged beverage, sliced into pieces, and partially eaten.

Virginia: The Opera Singer

Leonarda’s third victim was a bit different. Virginia Cacioppo was quite elegant and, as a former opera singer, had a beautiful voice. She was such a talented soprano that she is thought to have graced the stage of the Piaza delle Scala, one of the most prestigious theatres in the world.

And that was not all that set her apart. As Leonarda would remark later, Virginia tasted exceptionally sweet. Her flesh also made remarkable soap.

Virginia was deceived when Leonarda told her she had secured her secretary work in the city of Florence. She agreed to go and to tell not one soul of her plan. When she visited Leonarda to give her 50,000 lire of her hard-earned money, Leonarda drugged and murdered her. However, she took extra liberties with the body.

The nine pieces were mixed with lye in a pot, but the result was extra white and fatty. This inspired Leonarda not to dump it out but instead to add some scent to it while she boiled it. This turned into soap that she gave out to everyone who would take it. The blood was used for tea cakes, as was her MO, and Leonarda was especially pleased with the sweetness of the end product.

Especially creamy soap made from a murder victim.

Especially creamy soap made from a murder victim.

The Investigation and Trial of Leonarda

But that extra luxurious soap and those extra delicious pastries came at a price. Virginia’s sister-in-law had seen her entering Leonarda’s house before her strange and unexpected disappearance. She went to the police with this information. This started an investigation, and because she wasn’t the best at hiding the evidence, Leonarda was arrested not long afterward. Her beloved son was also the target of suspicions until she confessed. She then explained each one of her crimes matter-of-factly with excruciatingly horrific detail.

The trial of "the soap lady killer" of Correggio began in 1946, and though Leonarda was charged with murder, she was far from remorseful about what she had done. In fact, when prosecutors and other court observers got a detail or two wrong, she made sure to set the record straight. Unsurprisingly, she was found guilty and was given thirty years behind bars.

The judge sentenced her to an additional three years in a criminal asylum, where she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1970.

Her crimes are immortalized in a dark comedy called Love and Magic in Mama’s Kitchen. The tools she left behind were put on display in a criminal museum. It seems that the thought of a woman and mother not just murdering, but bathing with and cooking parts of her victims, will always draw interest, as well as remain hauntingly disturbing.


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