Leonarda Cianciulli (The Soap-Maker of Correggio) was an Italian serial killer responsible for three deaths in 1939 and 1940. Yes, she only killed three people but she made soap out of their dead bodies and tea cakes out of their blood! She then offered these tea cakes to all her friends and even sold them these soaps!
The fun fact here is, Leonarda didn’t like violence. So what made her into a serial killer? Well, that's a completely fascinating story in the most tragic way possible.
Leonarda was born in 1893 to Amelia Cianciulli, who just hated the sight of her baby. She blamed poor baby Leonarda for everything that had happened to her and made sure to repeat that to the baby every day, like a mantra. Leonarda was abused physically and verbally every day too.
Amelia, when she was fifteen years old, was actually raped by Mariano Cianciulli who was in his forties. He was unemployed and a drunkard.
Instead of getting him arrested for rape, both their parents got them married when they found out Amelia was pregnant. That’s why Amelia hated Leonarda so much.
Now, fast forward to when Leonarda was about five years old. Mariano had gone out drinking and didn’t come home for days. Normally Amelia doesn’t give a damn but eventually she went around asking for him.
Amelia found him knocked out with a high fever in a comatose state at his friend’s house. She had him brought back home under the pretext of taking care of him.
She then conveniently forgot about him thinking that if he woke up, then life would go on as usual but if he didn’t wake up, then he's dead, which means she’s a widow and can get married again.
Mariano unfortunately didn’t wake up. Leonarda at this age doesn’t really remember her dad except for the beatings he gave her but she remembered this; at the end of the funeral, after everybody left, her mom spat on his grave and said “Good riddance!”
Amelia started hanging out with some dudes doing illegal stuff and ended up marrying one of them. By this time Leonarda was six years old and she had to feed herself because her mom and stepdad would go out on these crazy, fancy dinners.
She was always left alone and she had to desperately find food elsewhere. Amelia constantly told her how annoying she was and just how much she hated her.
When Leonarda was thirteen years old, she attempted suicide and failed. She tried again when she was fourteen years old but failed again. She was just so depressed.
Amelia started to notice that Leonarda had her good looks and her devious mind formed a plan. She thought that if she can get Leonarda married to a rich man, then she would also be settled financially for life.
So, Amelia started looking for suitors for Leonarda behind her back. Unbeknownst to Amelia, Leonarda had fallen in love with Raffaele Pansardi. He was a low-paid government clerk but a very nice and gentle man.
Once Leonarda accepted Raffaele’s proposal, she was so happy mainly because she can finally move out of her mom’s house as Amelia didn’t fail to express her hatred towards Leonarda daily.
But oh boy, all hell broke loose when Leonarda told Amelia about the proposal. Amelia said that she will never approve of this marriage but Leonarda wasn’t having it that day.
She refused to stay with her mom and decided to leave. Amelia cursed Leonarda, “You will live a miserable life until the day you die!”
Here’s the second fun fact. Leonarda is a big time believer of superstitions. She fully believed that she's cursed and it lingered at the back of her mind every single day and it kind of became self-fulfilling prophecy. She kind of manifested it by strongly believing in it.
In 1917, Leonarda married Raffaele and she aspired to be the most perfect wife. This took a toll on her mental health. She developed anxiety and had multiple mental breakdowns in a day over the smallest of things.
These then started impacting her physical health leading her to have frequent violent seizures and her anxiety caused her insomnia.
She had always wanted a lot of kids and wanted to be the best mom ever, unlike Amelia. One day, she had her palms read by a fortune teller. Leonarda warned the fortune teller beforehand about Amelia’s curse on her.
The fortune teller saw her palms said, “Oh no, Leonarda, you're not going to die. You will live very long but it'll be a very sad life. You'll actually outlive all of your children!”
Again, Leonarda started to obsess about Amelia’s curse. She believed that’s why she’s still not able to get pregnant.
Eventually after some time, she conceived but had a miscarriage three months into her pregnancy because her anxiety skyrocketed and her seizures were more frequent.
Raffaele had been such a patient and understanding husband through all of this. He suggested moving back to his hometown in 1921.
Leonarda then got pregnant and the whole pregnancy had been very smooth and she gave birth to her first son, Giuseppe Pansardi.
She had this new obsession now, not to be the perfect wife but to be the perfect mom. She would stand up all night over his cradle, just watching him sleep all night and she started having seizures again because she was so stressed out about what we now call as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
After Giuseppe, she got pregnant sixteen times but lost three children to miscarriage; ten more died in their youth.
So now they were a family of six and she was way too overprotective over her children. She began thinking about the curse again and her physical health deteriorated.
Leonarda went to get her palms read by the fortune teller again. The fortune teller said, “On your right palm, I see a prison and on the left, I see a criminal asylum”. Now, keep in mind that this is another self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll see why by the end of this story.
Due to one of the worst earthquakes in Italy's history, the 1930 Irpina earthquake, with a magnitude of 6.6 that completely destroyed their entire town, Leonarda’s family of six had to find a new home.
They moved to this small town and Raffaele immediately got a clerical job. Their new house was connected to an unused shop next door.
Leonarda kept to herself mostly as she was an introvert but soon became friends with everyone. She even started giving them relationship advice and they frequently came to see her for that sole purpose. She even started writing poetry and reading to all of them.
Leonarda wanted to use the shop next door to sell things and decided it was going to be soap. Yes, this is the part everyone was waiting for.
She had a lot of knowledge on chemicals from her cleaning job prior to this and she was confident she can come up with a superior recipe for soap.
She ordered all these fancy perfumes and oils from France and made a perfect recipe for soap. She gave the soaps to all of her friends of the area to try and they loved it so much.
During the grand opening of her soap shop, everyone showed up and they all bought bars of her soap. Her soap was so good that she started getting orders from all over Italy, especially from high society women.
They were like, “Have you heard of this woman? Her name is Leonarda and she makes the best soaps.” She became really famous for her soaps and so successful to the point where Raffaele didn’t have to work anymore.
By this point, Leonarda started collecting magical and supernatural books from all over Italy and had one of the biggest collections in Italy at the time. The more she studied magic, the more she believed the curse existed and the more driven she was to end it.
Remember Giuseppe, Leonarda’s first son? Well, he’s actually been trying to get away from her because she’s too overbearing.
In 1939, he signed up to join the Italian Army in preparation for World War II without her knowledge. But soon this news reached her ears as her friends praised Giuseppe for his bravery.
Leonarda confronted Giuseppe and forbade him from going because she didn’t want to risk him dying during the war. So, she starts studying more magic because there were still a couple of months before he had to go into the army.
She now delved into alchemy, which had one important rule. In order to obtain something, you have to sacrifice something in return. So she knew that in order to save her son’s life, she had to sacrifice another life.
I think what's fascinating is that she wasn't really a serial killer in the sense that she wanted to kill people. It seemed like she just became one in this desperate attempt to save her son.
After pondering for a long time, she decided that the perfect sacrifice would be her customer. She can murder them in her shop and carry out the spell.
Her first victim was Faustina Setti. She was seventy three years old and had never been married. Leonarda lured Faustina into her trap by pretending that she had found a potential husband for her who lived in a faraway village.
Faustina quickly agreed to travel to meet him. Under the pretext of Faustina’s family not being supportive of her decision, Leonarda told her to write letters to them stating where she has gone and Leonarda would mail it for her.
The next day, Faustina arrived at the soap shop with her suitcases. “Francesca, you look so nervous! Here, have this glass of wine”, exclaimed Leonarda and Faustina chugged it down.
As Faustina started to get drowsy, Leonarda grabbed an axe and brought it down hard on Faustina, but without looking. Remember I said she hated violence. So, she missed and the axe went right into Faustina’s shoulder. The second time, she opened her eyes and smacked the axe down on the top of her head.
Leonarda then proceeded to dismember Faustina into nine separate pieces and hung her up in the back of the soap shop to drain her blood into buckets.
She wanted to make cakes with the blood and soap with the body fat because the protection spell only works if you sacrifice the life of another and the person you're trying to save has to consume it for internal protection and rub it across their whole body for external protection.
She made tea cakes with the blood and gave them to Giuseppe to eat. The tea cakes had a distinct taste of iron and were tad bit on the dry side. Now the protection spell was inside Giuseppe and she needed to make the soap to achieve the external protection.
She then put all of Faustina’s dismembered body parts into a pot with some caustic soda in it, which is how she made soap. Caustic soda is super strong so she used it to dissolve the body parts.
After several hours, she peered into the pot and saw this thick dark mush and she was like “Oh no, that doesn't meet my standards of soap making, I’m a perfectionist!”
She started crying while she dumped the sludge down the drain. She was so upset that the soap didn’t turn out right, not because she killed a poor old lady.
Leonarda thought she needed someone who's happier in life and chose Francesca Soavi who was fifty five years old as her second victim. She had a pretty fulfilling life so far. She was a school teacher. Her husband recently died but she had a happy married life before that.
Leonarda lured Francesca into her trap by pretending that she had found a potential teaching job for her at an elite school in Italy. She told Francesca not to tell anyone about this as this school really valued confidentiality.
Francesca got so excited. She packed her bags, wrote those letters that Leonarda told her to write and she came to the soap shop the next morning ready to leave for the elite school.
“Francesca, you look so nervous! Here, have this glass of wine.”
Once Francesca passed out, Leonarda reminded herself to collect more blood so as to make sure her tea cakes were not dry like the previous batch.
She then dismembered the body and this time she noticed that Francesca had much more fat than Faustina.These new batch of tea cakes with Francesca’s blood and body fat were so ecstatic!
Here’s the third fun fact. Leonarda was actually a really good baker. Even to this day, there are world renowned bakeries in Italy that still used Leonardo's recipes because later on, she wrote a memoir which included recipes.
She then dissolved the body parts in caustic soda but it didn’t turn out right again. In a fit of rage, she threw it all away again.
She came up with another plan. She thought instead of someone happy, she needed to sacrifice someone who would cause the whole town and Leonarda herself to be sad.
Her third victim was Virginia Cacioppo, a fifty three year old former soprano who had this dream of exploring Italy to perform and do what she loved until she died.
Leonarda lured Virginia by pretending that she had found this really wealthy financier in Florence, whom had set up all these Opera Houses and wanted to get Virginia back on stage.
Virginia was over the moon and quickly agreed. So, she did the same things. She packed her bags, wrote her little letters and went to the soap shop.
“Virginia, you look so nervous! Here, have this glass of wine.”
After much persuasion, she drank the wine and passed out on the ground. Now, this time Leonarda did something a little bit different. She stole all of Virginia’s expensive clothes, diamonds and other jewelries.
While dismembering Virginia, Leonarda realised that she too had a layer of fat just like Francesca, but it wasn't yellowish but more like a milky creamy texture.
She the excitedly made tea cakes out of Virginia’s blood and started creating the soap which was turning out to look better than the earlier ones.
She even went into Virginia’s suitcase and grabbed the entire bottle of perfume that Virginia was wearing and put it in the soap mixture.
What Leonarda did next is way more disturbing to me than her murders, dead-body soaps and blood tea cakes. She drew a bath for her oldest son, Giuseppe, who’s a full grown man and she demanded that he got into the bath because she needs to lather the soap on all parts of his body.
After so much of fighting, he just gave in and just got into the bathtub naked, and she literally went all over him with the soap. I can only imagine how traumatizing and violating it is.
He couldn't even look at her afterwards yet she force-fed him the Virginia-blood tea cakes. This completely wrecked their relationship.
The next day, Leonarda went back to the soap shop and started gifting the ‘Virginia-dead-body soap bars to family and friends and they all said it was her best batch yet. She also fed all her friends her tea cakes.
Now, this is when Virginia’s sister-in-law, Albertina Fanti started getting suspicious because she got a couple of letters from Virginia but suddenly the letters stopped coming, which is not normal of Virginia because she was really close with her.
She started investigating and found out that Leonarda was super close with Virginia and started asking her things. It’s pertinent for us to take note that Albertina is a super religious woman.
She went to the soap shop and asked Leonardo about the day she last saw Virginia and Leonarda was like, “You know, what? Why don't I read your palm?” That was when Albertina realised Leonarda was guilty because her way of manipulating was insane.
When people went to get their palms read by Leonarda, they went in open-minded. But Albertina, she went in very close-minded. First of all, she's very religious. Second of all, she thought that Leonarda kidnapped Virginia. She thought Leonarda probably manipulated Virginia to rob her.
Albertina started asking all the neighbors and they remember seeing Virginia going into the soap shop that day with suitcases. She then went to the police and they started investigating not only Virginia’s disappearance but also Faustina and Francesca.
The police immediately confirmed that all three of them were with Leonardo the day they disappeared and so they questioned Leonarda.
“Idiots! That’s what you all are. How could you even think I could murder anyone? I have a soap shop and I do palm readings so there’s nothing weird that these ladies came into my shop that day!”
Now they started investigating the letters that were sent to the families. When they asked the post office workers, they all said that it was just Giuseppe dropping them off.
So now he became the prime suspect and they got a warrant to search the entire house and the soap shop.
They believed that Giuseppe killed them for their money because they found the suitcases with all their clothes and Virginia's diamonds and he got arrested.
“Stop this nonsense because I’m the real killer!” Leonarda confessed. They didn’t believe her because they thought she was trying to protect her son. So she told them the whole gruesome story.
They still didn’t believe her because she’s a fifty year old short, little Italian woman who doesn’t seem to have enough strength to dismember people.
Exasperated, she told them to take her to the local morgue and she dismembered a dead body within ten minutes. She was then happily taken to jail because at least her protection spell on her son had been complete.
Her husband, Raffaele tried to support her while she's in jail but he was jobless and depressed. All of their kids left home and changed their names.
Raffaele passed away before trial started for Leonarda. Giuseppe went to war before her trial without even saying goodbye to her.
At the trial in 1946, Leonarda seemed like she had lost it. She was making jokes about the murders. They found her guilty and insane. She was sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum.
Do you remember that fortune teller's reading? “On your right palm, I see a prison and on the left, I see a criminal asylum”. And that is how this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Leonarda did really well in prison. She read palms and gave advice. She started working in the kitchen and baked. Everyone loved her baked goods in prison.
She even wrote a seven hundred plus pages memoir (titled ‘An Embittered Soul’s Confession) which included recipes while in prison and those are the recipes that a lot of famous Italian bakeries still reference in their baking. They say it's some of the most authentic Italian baking.
Then she got transferred to a criminal asylum to finish her sentence. This is when her seizures started up again. She started losing her sight and she had hemorrhage in her brain.
In 1970, she died of cerebral apoplexy, one year before she was to be released from the criminal asylum. She had a bad case of caustic soda poisoning. The fumes of the caustic soda had gone into her brain and started dissolving parts of her brain. Then her brain started bleeding.
There's no record of what happened to her children because they all changed their names. There was record of Giuseppe entering the army and getting based in a foreign country. The area where he was based, the Italian Army was taken as prisoners of war but there's no record of him on the prisoners of war list. So a lot of people think that he died in battle.
In the end, the protection spell didn’t even work.
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I wrote this summary based on this true crime podcast below. Please listen to it for the full experience as she really goes into details.
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