To the people of Correggio, Italy, Leonarda Cianciulli was just a friendly, neighborhood shopkeeper. She was a soap maker and owned a little store that was popular among the townspeople. Nobody knew that she was secretly a murderer who used her victims’ skin and blood to make soap and tea cakes, which she then served to her customers.
Leonarda’s life was difficult from the beginning. She struggled with depression and tried to kill herself twice during her adolescence. Soon after marrying her husband, Rafaelle Pansardi, an earthquake completely dismantled their house and they were forced to move. They decided to settle down in the small town of Correggio.
Before her first pregnancy, she was told by a clairvoyant that none of her children would live to see adulthood. Some time later, a palm reader told her “in your right hand I see prison, in your left a criminal asylum.” She lived with a constant fear of these predictions.
In total, she became pregnant seventeen times during her life. She had three miscarriages and ten of her children died while they were still very young. When her oldest and favorite son, Giuseppe, declared that he was joining the army to help Italy fight in the war, she decided that she had to take the necessary precautions in order to keep him out of harm’s way.
She came to the conclusion that, in order to protect the children she still had, she would sacrifice other human souls. She began killing without remorse, all in the name of her children.
Her first victim was Faustina Setti. Faustina asked Leonarda to find her a suitable husband and Leonarda said that she knew of the perfect man, who was living in Pola. Before Faustina was to leave to meet her new husband, Leonarda encouraged her to let her family and friends know she was safe by writing them letters. The shopkeeper assured Faustina that she would mail them once the young girl left on her journey. She also allegedly charged Faustina the value of her life’s savings for her help.
However, Faustina never made it to Pola. When the young woman went to visit the shopkeeper the night prior to her trip, Leonarda gave her drugged wine. Once she drank the wine, she killed Faustina with an axe and cut her body into several parts. She also filled a bucket with her blood in the back of the shop.
To get rid of the body, she admitted to mixing the limbs in a pot with sodium hydroxide, which is used to make soap, until it dissolved. She then poured the mixture into various buckets and poured them into a septic tank that was near her store.
Once the bucket of blood began to coagulate, she baked it in the oven and ground it into a powder. She mixed the powdered blood with chocolate, milk, eggs, flour, and sugar and made tea biscuits. She fed these biscuits to her unsuspecting customers and she and Giuseppe also tried them.
Her second victim, Francesca Soavi, suffered the exact same fate. Leonarda told her that she had lined up a teaching job for her in Piacenza. She was also advised to write letters to friends and family and leave them with Leonarda. Leonarda killed her and disposed of her body in the same fashion as Faustina and used her blood to make more tea cookies.
The last of Leonarda’s innocent victims was Virginia Cacioppo. In her younger days, she was an opera singer, but after her career ended she was desperately searching for work. Leonarda told her that she had found a job for her as a secretary in Florence. In the end, she was also killed with an axe after being drugged. This time, though, Leonarda also used her skin to make soap.
In her own chilling words she stated, “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 neighbors and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”
It was Virginia’s sister-in-law who notified the police. She became suspicious when Virginia suddenly went missing and had remembered that Leonarda was the last person she visited. Police questioned the shopkeeper and she confessed to her crimes without hesitation.
When she took the stand and told her shocking account of what she did to these women, she told it in great detail but with no remorse.
In the end, the palm reader’s prediction came true. She was sent to prison for thirty years and to a criminal asylum for three. She died in 1970, at the age of 76, while serving her time in the asylum.
No one knows exactly how Leonarda Cianciulli could have made the drastic switch from a friendly, neighborhood shopkeeper to a cold-blooded killer so quickly. Did she always secretly have a dark side or did the death of so many of her children drive her to insanity? Regardless, she left her mark on the small town of Correggio forever.