By Bryn Fawn
Italy is known for its many delicacies, such as risotto, cheese and wine. However, what if the beloved granny of your village fed you a pastry made of your favorite next-door neighbor?
Leonarda Cianciulli, or The Human Flesh Soap Maker, earned that title rightfully. She was born in 1894 and lived in Italy. In her career of murder, she killed three women. She would turn their flesh into soap and dried their blood to use in tea cakes. She was the first recorded female serial killer in Italy.
Cianciulli had a difficult upbringing. She had many siblings, and her mother was unhappily married. She had attempted suicide twice before adulthood. Cianciulli was superstitious, and had her future foretold to be devastating.
Her mother also supposedly cursed her, after Cianciulli married a man her parents’ disapproved of.
Reportedly, a fortune teller told her, “In your right hand I see prison, in your left a criminal asylum.”
Cianciulli moved to Correggio, Italy, with her husband. That is where she built her reputation as a doting mother and kind neighbor. She assisted those around her when necessary and was a trusted elder.
Cianciulli had 14 children, but 10 died in their youth. Cianciulli grew overprotective of her remaining children, especially her favorite son, Giuseppe. World War II soon came, and Giuseppe enlisted himself into the war. Cianciulli felt distraught over this news. She could not bear the thought of losing her son to the bloodthirsty war. Cianciulli then became convinced that the only way to save her son was to make human sacrifices.
Cianciulli was known in her community as a loving mother and kind neighbor. It is unclear, but Cianciulli may have been a fortune teller herself, or was a trusted elder and community members often sought out advice from her.
Cianciulli committed her first murder in 1939. Faustina Setti was her first and oldest victim. Setti had come to Cianciulli for counsel on finding a fit husband. Cianciulli told Setti there was a man waiting for her in Pola, Italy and instructed Setti to prepare for her departure. Cianciulli also told her to write plenty of letters and postcards to send to friends and family once she arrived in Pola. Before she left, Setti visited Cianciulli one last time.
That choice sealed her fate.
Setti visited Cianciulli with much joy. To celebrate, Cianciulli offered her a glass of wine. Unbeknownst to Setti, it had been drugged. Setti fell unconscious, upon which Cianciulli took the opportunity to kill her. She used an axe to kill Setti. She brought the body to a closet, before she cut it into nine pieces. Setti’s blood was drained into a basin.
Cianciulli wrote in her memoir, “An Embittered Soul’s Confessions,” confessing to how she disposed of Setti: “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.”
It is uncertain, but Cianculli may have received Setti’s life savings, adding up to 30,000 Italian lira.
Cianciulli’s second victim was also a familiar face to the killer. Sep. 5, 1940, Francesca Soavi met Cianciulli. Cianculli spun a story that there was a teaching job for Soavi abroad.
Cianciulli once again instructed Soavi to write letters to family and friends, but delay their mailing. Soavi met Cianciulli one last time before her departure. Again, Soavi was fed drugged wine, killed with an axe and was turned into tea cakes.
Cianciulli had one final victim. A former opera singer, Virginia Cacioppo. Cacioppo was tired of her daily toil, and paid Cianciulli 50,000 lire to help her find a way to the big city. Cacioppo wanted the hustle and bustle of city life, instead of Correggio.
Cianciulli, again, instructed Cacioppo to write letters to her friends and family before she left. Cianciulli promised a fresh start, but would never keep that promise. Cacioppo visited Cianciulli’s home for the great news, and never left.
Cianciulli said in her statement to police: “[Cacioppo] 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 neighbors and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better. That woman was really sweet.”
Cianciulli not only made Cacioppo into sweets, but also soap. Cacioppo was the only victim to be made into soap.
Cacioppo’s sister-in-law, unlike other family, grew worried when Cacioppo disappeared. In fact, her sister-in-law was the last person to see Cacioppo alive before Cianciulli murdered her. Her sister-in-law saw Cacioppo enter Cianciulli’s residence, and never leave. The sister notified the police immediately, and an investigation was conducted.
Cianciulli at first admitted no guilt to the crimes, when the police had come. The police then accused Giuseppe. Stricken with grief at the thought of losing her son, she immediately admitted guilt and confessed to every aspect of the murders.
Cianciulli was put on trial in 1946. The trial was swift, lasting only three days. Cianciulli was reported as showing no remorse, being calm the entire time.
Cianciulli corrected the prosecutor one time, on record stating, “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.”
Cianciulli was found guilty and sentenced to 33 years, 30 imprisoned and three in an asylum. The fortune teller from before was correct. Cianciulli died in the asylum in 1970. Her body was returned to her family for the burial, along with her belongings, except for the murder weapons — including the pot she used to boil down her victims. The instruments of murder were given to the Criminology Museum in Rome, Italy and can be seen on display to this day.
Today, critics and historians claim Cianciulli’s first two victims as lonely. Their families weren’t alarmed at their disappearance. However, Cianciulli’s time was drastically different from our own. There was no way to quickly contact a loved one. Cianciulli would never have been able to commit her murders today.
Cianciulli also was mentally ill. She was certain that she needed to perform human sacrifices to save her children. She believed she was cursed. While her punishment may seem lackluster, she was eventually admitted into asylum and received treatment.
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