Alright, let’s talk about today’s murderess-a mother who would do absolutely anything for her son. Including human sacrifice, apparently. Yeah, we’re going there today. Welcome back to A Murderess Affair-the podcast where we talk about women in history known for mayhem and murder.
Our murderess of the day is Leonarda Cianciulli, and if you’ve got a weak stomach then this may not be the episode for you. She’s known for turning her victims into soap, and cake, and actually correcting the prosecution about the grisly details when she was caught. But let’s start at the beginning.
Leonarda was born in Montella, Italy in 1893 or 94. In her early childhood, she actually attempted suicide twice. I’m not sure at what ages or why-and couldn’t find any articles that explained it either.
In 1917, she married a registry office clerk named Raffaele Pansardi. However, her parents disapproved of this marriage and had actually arranged her to marry another man. Because she refused, and decided to marry Raffaele instead, she claims that her mother put a curse on her and whatever family she may have. I don’t know how much stock you all put in curses, but there definitely seems to be some kind of awful misfortune that follows Leonarda throughout her life.
In fact, Leonarda was so troubled that she went to visit not one, but two different fortune tellers, both of whom gave her extremely dark predictions. The first told her that she would marry and have children...but that all the children would die young. The second that she went to did a palm reading on her, and supposedly said “in your right hand I see prison, in your left hand I see a criminal asylum.”
In 1921, she and Raffaele moved to his hometown, where she is then arrested and imprisoned for fraud for 6 years. When she is released, they move again to a town called Lacedonia. However, their new home is destroyed in the 1930 Irpinia earthquake, and they were forced to move again.
Her new town was Correggio, Reggio Emilia and she opened a store there. For a while, things seemed to be doing well-her store was popular and she was well known and liked throughout the neighborhood.
Remember what fortune teller 1 said? About having children, but that they would all die young? Leonarda had a total of seventeen pregnancies. Out of those seventeen, 3 were miscarried and ten more died as young children.
As a result, she was extremely protective of her remaining 4 children.
In 1939 she learned that her oldest son, Giuseppe, was being drafted into the Italian Army for WW2. Now, Giuseppe was her favorite child, in addition to being her oldest surviving child. She decided that she was going to keep him safe no matter what, and for some reason, human sacrifice was her method of choice. Naturally.
Now, in addition to being a store owner, Leonarda was also known to read fortunes for people in town. So it wasn’t too suspicious when she began offering fortunes to the women in town.
The first woman was named Faustina Setti. She was an old woman who was trying to find a husband, and Leonarda told her she’d find him in a city called Pola. But, this to be husband of hers was only to be found if she didn’t tell anyone about where she was going until she got there.
She was instead to write letters and postcards to family and friends that Leonarda would mail once she got word that Faustina had reached Pola. Faustina then began to prepare to go, but stopped by Leonarda’s one last time for final preparations. Once there, Leonarda gave her a glass of drugged wine, and then proceeded to beat her to death with an axe. She then dragged Faustina’s body into a closet and cut it into 9 different parts. She then describes what happens next in her own, rather grisly, words. Prepare yourselves.
“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 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.”
This is the most demented cake recipe I’ve had the misfortune to ever read. Blech. Gross. In addition to apparently using human sacrifice to save her son somehow (still not sure about the correlation there), she also took Faustina’s life savings, a total of 30,000 lire which would be close to 4,500 US dollars in 1940.
The next woman to fall victim to Cianciulli was Francesca Soavi. She went to Cianciulli in search of a new job, and was ecstatic when she heard that Cianciulli had found her a job at a school for girls. Just like Faustina, she was persuaded to write postcards and letters to friends and family to be sent courtesy of Cianciulli upon her arrival to the new city. Similarly, Francesca also came to visit Cianciulli before she was supposed to leave, and she was also murdered the same way, killed with an axe after being given drugged wine. This was on September 5, 1940. Cianciulli repeated the same process with Francesca’s body, disposing of her remains by baking them into tea cakes and serving them to her neighbors. She also took $3000 lire from Francesca.
Her final victim was Virginia Cacioppo. Virginia was a former singer, a soprano, who actually sang at La Scala, which is a big fancy opera house. Cianciulli told Virginia that she found her work as a secretary for an impresario -who’s basically one of the people in charge of putting on and organizing operas and plays- in Florence. Virginia was also told not to let anyone know where she was going, and came to visit Cianciulli on September 30th. And on that last visit, Cianciulli once again drugged the wine she served her, and then murdered her with an axe.
This time, however, she didn’t just use Virginia’s body to make food. Oh no. She also used her melted body to make soap.
According to Cianciulli,
‘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 Virginia, she also stole 50,000 lire, a collection of jewels, and sold her clothing and shoes that she’d had with her when she died.
Virginia was Cianciulli’s last victim. Her sister in law was suspicious that Virginia just disappeared suddenly without a trace, and had last seen her going into Cianciulli’s house. She took her fears to the police, who began an investigation and ended up arresting Cianciulli. She didn’t admit to her crimes at first, until she realized that police thought that her son was actually involved. Once she heard that, she immediately admitted to all three murders, giving enough details to convince the police that she had been the one to perpetrate the crimes.
She was tried for murder in 1946, and remained completely unrepentant. Throughout the trial she would actually call out corrections to prosecutors about how she committed the crimes and what she did overall. According to an article published covering the trial,
“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, and sentenced to 30 years in prison, and 3 in a criminal asylum.
On October 15, 1970 she died from a cerebral apoplexy in the women’s criminal asylum in Pozzuoli. While she was in jail she did what many criminals tend to do for some reason, she wrote a book about her crimes called “An Embittered Soul’s Confessions”. I wasn’t able to find any place that this book was sold or downloadable which I think is probably for the greater good, but there are a lot of places that quote excerpts from it, including Unknown Gender History and Wikipedia.
I hope you all enjoyed this episode, definitely more of the WTF stories I’ve covered here on this podcast. As always, you can find me on social media @frumiousreads on twitter, tumblr, youtube and instagram and come scream with me about different women in history and their murderous affairs (see what I did there?). You can listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, podbean, libsyn, and basically anywhere podcasts are found, and check out our podcast merch at frumiousreads.com/shop to get your cool A Murderess Affair shirts.
Make sure you subscribe or follow wherever you listen to podcasts, and thanks so much for listening. As always, stay spooky friends, and I’ll talk to you soon. Goodbye!