Thursday, September 22, 2011

Leonarda Cianciulli, Italian Serial Killer & Cannibal - 1941

From WIKIPEDIA: In 1939, Leonarda Cianciulli heard that her eldest son, Giuseppe, was to join the Italian army in preparation for World War II. Giuseppe was her favorite child, and she was determined to protect him at all costs. She came to the conclusion that his safety required human sacrifices. She found her victims in three middle-aged women, all neighbours. Some sources record that Cianciulli was something of a fortune teller herself, and that these women all visited her for help; others state merely that they were friends of hers seeking advice. Whatever the reason, Cianciulli began to plan the deaths of the three women.

~ Faustina Setti ~

The first of Cianciulli’s victims, Faustina Setti, was a lifelong spinster who had come to her for help in finding a husband. Cianciulli told her of a suitable mate in Pola, but convinced her to tell nobody of the news. She further convinced Setti to write letters and postcards to relatives and friends; these, to be mailed when she reached Pola, were merely to tell them that everything was fine. On the day of her departure, Setti came to visit Cianciulli one last time; Cianciulli offered her a glass of drugged wine, then killed her with an axe and dragged the body into a closet. There she cut it into nine parts, gathering the blood into a basin.

In her memoir (titled “An embittered soul’s confessions”) Cianciulli described what happened next in her official statement:

“I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the whole 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 in the 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 Giuseppe and I also ate them.” Some sources also record that Cianciulli apparently received Setti’s life savings, 30,000 lire, as payment for her services.

~ Francesca Soavi ~

Francesca Soavi was the second victim; Cianciulli claimed to have found her a job at a school for girls in Piacenza. Like Setti, Soavi was convinced to write postcards to be sent to friends, this time from Correggio, detailing her plans. Also like Setti, Soavi came to visit with Cianciulli before her departure; she, too, was given drugged wine and then killed with an axe. The murder occurred on September 5, 1940. Soavi’s body was given the same treatment as Setti’s, and Cianciulli is said to have obtained 3,000 lire from her second victim.

~ Virginia Cacioppo ~

Cianciulli’s final victim was Virginia Cacioppo, a former soprano said to have sung at La Scala. For her, Cianciulli claimed to have found work as the secretary for a mysterious impresario in Florence; as with the other two women, she was told not to tell a single person where she was going. Virginia agreed, and on September 30, 1940, came for a last visit with Cianciulli. The pattern to the murder was exactly the same as the first two; according to Cianciulli’s statement:

“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 reportedly received 50,000 lire and assorted jewels.

~ Discovery and trial ~

Cacioppo’s sister-in-law grew suspicious at her sudden disappearance, and had last seen her entering Cianciulli’s house. She reported her fears to the superintendent of police in Reggio Emilia, who opened an investigation and soon arrested Cianciulli. Cianciulli immediately confessed to the murders, providing detailed accounts of what she had done. Cianciulli was tried for murder in Reggio Emilia in 1946.

She remained unrepentant, going so far as to correct the official account while on the stand: “At her trial in Reggio Emilia last week Poetess Leonarda gripped the witness-stand rail with oddly delicate hands and calmly set the prosecutor right on certain details. Her deep-set dark eyes gleamed with a wild inner pride as she concluded: “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....”

She was found guilty of her crimes and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum. Cianciulli died of cerebral apoplexy in the women’s criminal asylum in Pozzuoli on October 15, 1970. A number of artifacts from the case, including the pot in which the victims were boiled, are on display at the Criminological Museum in Rome.


1946 newspaper article:  

FULL TEXT: Milan, April 28 – Leonarda Cianciulli, who is awaiting trial on charges of murdering three women friends, is reported to have written an account of her life and alleged crimes, entitled “Confessions of an Embittered Soul,” in which she describes how she used an axe to murder one friend:

The book is alleged to state: “While I my victim was drinking an elixir I had prepared. I got an axe, placed myself behind my victim and, summoning my strength, struck the back of her neck-a rattle, nothing else.”

“It was a master stroke that almost beheaded her.”

Cianciulli is alleged to have cut up the bodies of her victims and converted them into soap.

[“Alleged Murderess Relates ‘Master Stroke,’” syndicated (A.A.P.), The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Apr. 29, 1946, p. 1] 



FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 3): In the small Italian town of Correggio, 40 years-old Leonarda Cianciulli was held in high esteem by her neighbors. They had often noticed a peculiar smell coming from the kitchen of her home, but it had not worried them.

They had observed that she was unduly superstitious, but most put it down to the fact that she had lived a tragic life.

~ • ~ • ~

THE wife of a modest government official from whom she was separated, Mrs. Cianciulli had lost eight of her 12 children at an early age.

Thus the revelation that she had turned murderess and made soap from her victims’ remains, came as a horrible shock to the people of Correggio.

Mrs. Cianciulli claimed the power to foretell the future, to hypnotise people, and police believe that her three known victims were so influenced by her as a clairvoyant that she was able to lure them to her neatly kept house, where she murdered them and cut each of their bodies into nine separate sections.

The victims’ remains were boiled in a large kettle in her kitchen and mixed with caustic soda to make soap, and the blood was used in making chocolate which she distributed to local friends and their children.

Evidence at her trial dis closed that one victim had been murdered and dissected in one hour and 40 minutes. Detectives did not believe that Cianciulli, who was not a particularly strong woman physically, was capable of such an effort.

They detained her eldest son as an accomplice, believing he had helped his mother in her gruesome tasks.

The mother defended her son however, saying that he had taken certain bones and other remains which she had wrapped in paper and thrown them in the river, and also that he had posted letters which her victims had written, but he had acted on her instructions always and had not known of the murders.

When the time element of the dissection was mentioned to her, she accompanied judges, police and doctors to the Reggio Emilia morgue and expertly dissected a corpse into nine pieces in the astonishing time of 12 minutes.

This helped convince the authorities of her son’s innocence.

The son, loyal to his mother, would not believe she was a brutal killer until she finally made a confession in her memoirs, which she wrote in prison.

In them she detailed her tragic life and her continual fear that her four children might die because of a curse her own mother had cast upon her before dying.

She wrote of her economic struggles, of her spiritual torments, and of her belief that to save her four children she had to kill four other people by way of an offering.

AND yet she was judged sane by some medical men, partially insane by others.

At her trial, Dr. Guiseppe Dosi, Chief of the Italian Office of the International Police, said, she was a phenomenon, of superstitious exaltation and criminal expertness.

Police investigations into her activities occupied five years. Despite this, and her laboriously written memoirs, the officers were never completely satisfied that everything concerning her had been clarified.

The first victim of the fantastic Leonarda Cianciulli was a 73-years-old spinster, Faustina Setti, a woman who, all her life, had been interested in getting a husband.

She and Cianciulli be came friends, no doubt be cause of the latter’s apparent ability to read cards and engage in so-called spiritualistic phenomenon.

Finally she informed the eager spinster that a wealthy friend of hers at nearby Pola wished to marry an affectionate woman with whom to spend the twilight of his life. She produced fictitious correspondence from the “friend.”

Miss Setti decided to go to Pola to meet this man and marry him. She sold her house and other property, dyed her grey hair a blonde color, and then prepared to leave.

At 10 a.m. on a day late in 1939, she went to say goodbye to Leonardo Cianciulli, and to thank her for her kindness.

They drank a cup of coffee, then Mrs. Cianciulli requested that Setti write letters to friends in Correggio.

After she wrote two letters and two post cards to friends in Correggio, the spinster was struck down from behind with a single hatchet blow.

The murderess dragged the body to a room near the kitchen, disrobed it and then cut it into nine pieces with a saw and a knife.

She drained the blood into a basin, and later when it coagulated used it in making chocolate which she freely distributed to friends.

It is the custom for impoverished Italian women to make their own soap and candles, and Mrs. Cianciulli had let it be known that she intended stocking up in these articles.

No one expressed concern at the evil smelling concoction she had boiling on the stove, no one, apart from the murderess her self, knew that the large kettle contained about 30 pints of water, caustic soda, and the remains of Faustina Setti.

Several days later, her 20-years-old son, a university student, was sent to Pola by Cianciulli to take care of some business. She gave him the two letters and the postcards to mail from there.

Soon, Faustina Setti was forgotten by the people of Correggio. She had no relatives to inquire of her or her 30,000 lire the killer had stolen.

The next victim was a widowed schoolteacher, Francesca Soavi (55), who lived alone.

Mrs. Cianciulli read the cards for her one day and told her she might be able to secure a position for her at a school in Piacenza. The murderess went about her plans carefully, persuading, credulous Francesca Soavi to dispose of her goods and take the position she said she had arranged.

On September 5, 1940, Mrs Soavi went to say farewell to the woman she claimed as a friend.

It is not known how Cianciulli induced her victims to write two post-dated postcards before she was killed with the hatchet and her remains made into soap.

She did write the postcards, however, and when two of her friends received them from Piacenza some weeks later they thought Mrs. Soavi was doing well in her new position.

Cianciulli’s reward for this macabre deed was 2000 lire.

Three months later the third woman was slaughtered. She was Virginia Cacioppo (53), a former singer, who secretly yearn ed for a gay city life.

She became friendly with Mrs. Cianciulli, who told her she had arranged a well-paid position for her in a factory in Florence. She asked Miss Cacioppo not to tell anyone that she, Cianciulli, had been responsible, as she had arranged the position through a man with whom she was having an illicit love affair.

Happy at the prospect of going to Florence, however, Virginia Cacioppo confided in three friends, and this proved to be the undoing of Mrs Cianciulli.

She murdered Capioppo in her kitchen on November 30, 1940.

Because the singer was fat she made light perfumed soap and candles from her remains.

She received 35,000 lire in securities, State bonds, jewellery and cash from the third victim. Some of the bonds were registered. They were traced back to Mrs. Cianciulli after she had cashed them.

Foolishly, the hatchet woman gave some of Mrs. Cacioppo’s jewellery away as a present. This was later traced and identified.

She began to spend money freely — too freely for a woman of her means, and Virginia Cacioppo’s clothes were found in her home.

One witness claimed that although she had watched the house of the soapmaking murderess for one hour and 40 minutes after Cacioppo had entered on the day of the murder, she had not seen her come out of the premises. This woman stated she then went to the house to talk to the owner and Miss Cacioppo.

Only Mrs. Cianciulli was present, however, and there was a foul smelling concoction in the kettle on the stove.

Eventually Commissary Serrao, a clever and painstaking investigator, was assigned to take charge of the case.

He unearthed an abundance of evidence, but Leonarda Cianciulli denied every allegation.

It was only after the arrest of her son as an accomplice that she confessed. Cianciulli was sentenced to 33 years’ imprisonment, which in Italy amounts to a life sentence.

[“The Soap Making Murderess,” Truth (Sydney, Australia), Sep. 7, 1952, Sunday Magazine, p. 13]


During the trial, the prosecution made an effort to prove that without assistance a woman could not overpower her victims, dismember the bodies and transport them. Leonarda, however, stood by her story that she committed the crimes alone and that her son, Joseph Pansardi, had no involvement. A 2008 documentary film, La saponificatrice - Vita di Leonarda Cianciulli, argues that the murderess did indeed have Joseph as her accomplice and that Leonarda lied to protect him and was indeed successful in achieving that end.















For more cases see: Cannibal Murderesses


For similar cases, see Murder-Coaching Moms



  1. MEMOIR: Leonarda Cianciulli, Confessioni di un'anima amareggiata. 1946. Does anyone know if it was published?

    1. It was never published unfortunately been trying to find it myself and saw that it never got published.