Transcript: 22. The Soap Maker of Correggio (Leonarda Cianciulli) | Italy

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Albertina was concerned about her dead brother’s wife. The two sisters-in-law always looked out for each other, but Virginia had changed. All she could talk about was a job in Florence that would bring her back to her glory days as a world class soprano – but it all sounded too good to be true to Albertina.


If Albertina had to be perfectly honest, the 50-something Virginia trying to get back on stage was probably not the best idea. Her voice wasn’t as strong as it used to be, and she was a bit out of shape. The whole Florence-thing made no sense, she didn’t even know where she would stay once she got there. 


It was coming up to Christmas of 1940 and Virginia was gone. She had sold her home and all her belongings and left Correggio without saying goodbye. Albertina felt uneasy about her sister-in-law’s sudden departure and decided to talk to Virginia’s friends and hear if they had had any news.


After comparing notes on Virginia’s stories about Florence, they realised that something simply didn’t add up. She told different versions of her plans to three of her closest friends. Correggio isn’t a big place and people kept an eye on each other’s business. 


A woman told Albertina that she had seen Virginia enter a neighbour’s house on Saturday the 30th of November. She knew Virginia, because they had often met at the neighbour, Leonarda Cianciulli’s home. After an hour and a half, Virginia had not left, and the woman thought she would join the ladies who were probably having some coffee and treats. 


She knocked on Leonarda third-floor apartment door, but was surprised that Leonarda was alone, there was no sign of Virginia. Leonarda invited her inside, but the woman declined, as there was the foulest smell coming from a boiling pot in the kitchen. Never in her wildest dreams, would she have imagined what was cooking at 11 Via Cavour on that Saturday night.


>>Intro Music


Leonarda Cianciulli was born in 1893 in the town of Montella, not too far from Naples. Her mom, Emelia, was raped by a man called Mariano Cianciulli and when she fell pregnant with Leonarda, her parents forced her to marry her rapist. 


Needless to say, Leonarda grew up in a loveless home. Her mother’s hatred towards her father affected how she felt about the child – she despised her. They were very poor and had to make do with what they had. Leonarda was undernourished and sickly due to the lack of attention she received from her mother.


When Mariano passed away, Emilia remarried, but that did not solve any of her financial worries. 


Leonarda was a solitary child who had invented many imaginary friends. She was a bit of a tomboy and her teachers remarked that although she didn’t have many friends, she was jovial at school.


But things were different at home. Leonarda’s mother, Emilia was extremely emotionally abusive towards her. So much so, that Leonarda attempted to commit suicide as a child. She tried to hang herself, but either the rope was too long, or it snapped. Reportedly, when her mother found her and realised what she had done, she said: 


“Leonarda, either commit suicide successfully, or don’t bother at all.”


In her teenage years, Leonarda became more sociable. She was always drawn to older men, she did not like her peers. She found the boys of her own age to be silly. 


For guidance, she often visited a Romani (or gypsy) to foretell her future. Leonarda was a highly superstitious woman who always believed in spells and magic. One fortune teller predicted that Leonarda would marry and have many children, but that they would all die.


Not long after, she met a man who worked as a clerk in the registry office, in Montella. Raffaeli Pansardi was much older than the 23-year-old Leonarda, so it’s safe to say: he was exactly her type. 


The couple married in 1917 against the wishes of Leonarda’s mother, Emilia. The marriage angered her, because she had already arranged for Leonarda to marry another man. In fact, she had wanted Leonarda to marry a cousin, whom she thought to be best suited for her, purely for financial reasons. Leonarda was pinned to be the family’s ticket to riches, and because she had married Raffaele, all of that had gone up in smoke.


Being superstitious, Leonarda strongly believed that her mother cursed their marriage. Shortly after the wedding, the couple had a baby girl. But she died of Spanish Flu – the epidemic that killed millions of people worldwide between 1918 and 1919. 


Leonarda was convinced it was her mother’s curse that had caused the death of her child. After a couple of years, Leonarda and Raffaele couldn’t stand living with constant fear of Emilia’s curse and decided to move farther south, to Raffaele’s hometown of Lauria. 


Both Raffaele and Leonarda worked while they lived in Lauria, but in 1927, Leonarda was charged with fraud and sent to prison. It is not clear what job she did or what the fraud case against her was, but it was significant enough to lock her up.


On her release, because of the shame that she had brought to Raffaeli’s family, the couple moved yet again, this time over two hours north, to Lacedonia. They were still settling in in 1930 when a massive 6.6 magnitude earthquake struck the area. 1400 people were killed and left homeless. 


Among them, Leonarda and Raffaele. They took whatever they could salvage from their home in ruins, and moved across the country, to settle in the city of Correggio in northern Italy. Correggio had 20,000 inhabitants at the time, it was the second largest town in the province of Reggio Emilia, but it was still not a city.


In the 1920’s, the Province of Reggio Emilia, like most of Italy, experienced tension between fascists and anti-fascists. Despite all the political friction, the small town of Correggio managed to exist under the radar. Life carried on with its normal routines of work and raising families.


It was part of the fascist mindset that a good fascist woman should bare as many children as possible. Fascists banned all literature on birth control and increased penalties for abortion, declaring both crimes against the state. In 1933 there was a celebration of motherhood at the Palazzo Venezia where a crowd of mothers were ‘blessed’ by Il Duce himself, Mussolini. The target for families were to have five children. Then they were rewarded. He gave 6000 lire cash and a 1000 lire insurance policy.


Leonarda was a fervent fascist and altogether, she fell pregnant 17 times. She miscarried three times and lost ten additional children, all before their tenth birthdays. In the end, she only had four children left: three boys and one girl.  


Traumatised by all the deaths, Leonarda was over-protective of her remaining children. Fear was taking over her whole existence. She could not forget what the fortune teller had told her all those years before: she would marry and have many children, but they would all die.


What made her ever more anxious, was the fact that she was convinces that all her hardships and the constant deaths in her household was a direct consequence of her mother’s curse on her and Raffaeli.


That is perhaps why they chose to settle in the small, unassuming town of Correggio, far away from her mother. They needed protection from “the evil eye” or Malocchio – that is the curse placed on them by Emilia Cianciulli.


She also bought into the legend of Befana. Today, Befana is a merry Italian witch who plays the same role as Santa Claus, but she does not deliver presents to kids over Christmas time, she delivers candy. Only to kids who have been good all year, though. Parents will warn their kids “I’ll tell Befana” or if the kids are misbehaving: “Befana will come and take you away”. The latter is the more sinister shadow of the legend – Befana swoops up naughty kids and takes them home to her child-guzzling husband. 


Leonarda often used this image to explain the deaths of her children.


Once, she visited a palm reader, who foreshadowed more dark times for Leonarda. The gypsy read her first palm and saw that Leonarda would go to prison someday.  The other palm revealed that she would also go to an asylum for the criminally insane. Leonarda was concerned, but she could not let the prediction make her change course again – Correggio was a good place to be and that is where she had wanted to stay.


Once in Correggio, Raffaele managed to find a job at the registry office and Leonarda rolled up her sleeves too. She started her own business, a shop which she ran from home. Soon they could afford a spacious apartment. They also had a maid.

 

At her shop, Leonarda sold used clothing and used furniture. There was always sweet pastries and coffee on offer too, as Leonarda was obsessed with baking. The shop was always filled with women and chatter. Everybody enjoyed her cakes. She hardly ever left home as her shop was there and everyone congregated ay her place.


The women who visited Leonarda’s shop were mainly neighbours. Everybody thought she was a kind and friendly person, a good mother to her four children. People flocked into her home and for the first time, she felt that life was good. It seemed that curse had lifted, she finally felt free and safe.


Leonarda loved to advise friends on personal issues. Because of her life-long obsession with fortune telling, she became a bit of a fortune teller herself. Her customers trusted her and came to her, specifically to have their futures predicted. They often visited her and had a cup of coffee or a glass of wine while Leonarda did tarot readings or practiced palmistry. 


She was a robust woman who spoke with passion and conviction and she would invite groups of friends to listen to poetry readings too. At this time, before televisions were in every home, people listened to the radio daily. The emotion-fuelled speeches of Hitler and Mussolini graced the radio airwaves. Leonarda had a way with words and was seen as a charismatic woman with a perceptive intuition.


Raffaele didn’t quite settle into life in Correggio as well as his wife did. He hardly spoke to anyone and he would only go out to go to the cinemas. He lost his job and started drinking excessively. The follow-on effect of the Great Depression also affected Italy and jobs were hard to come by. Raffaele struggled to find another job and Leonarda soon tired of his drunken presence in the home. According to her, she kicked him out.


After leaving the family home at 11 Via Cavour in Correggio, no one knows what happened to Raffaele Pansardi. Some people think he may have returned to his hometown of Lauria. Others wonder if he had a more sinister fate. Either way, there is no public record of Raffaele and no accounts of his whereabouts after he left. Leonarda reverted to her maiden name of Cianciulli and took charge of the home as a single mother of four.


And she was a loving mother too, despite never experiencing the love of a mother herself. Her eldest son, the handsome olive skinned and dark-eyed Giuseppe, was unashamedly her favourite.


By 1939 Leonarda was 40 years old and things were good. She kept a tidy home and word spread of her baking skills. Business was okay, and she felt that she was a part of the community. She worked hard at home to make ends meet. It was common practice for Italian country housewives with limited means at the time to make their own soap and candles. Soap was made by boiling the pork bones and cartilages in caustic soda. This was a process that usually took place outdoors due to the stench that it produced, but Leonarda had a big pot on her stove inside the kitchen which she used for soap making.


In the same year, Hitler’s troops invaded Poland and the stage was set for the start of World War II. Mussolini’s Italy was still undecided whether to enter the war or not. But with all the unrest in Europe, Italy had to be vigilant. The government called on its young men to join the army in preparation for war. Much to Leonarda’s anguish, her two eldest sons were drafted to join the Italian army too. That included the apple of her eye, Giuseppe Pansardi.


Something broke in Leonarda: she was convinced she was about to offer another child to feed Befana’s gluttonous husband. One night, she had a dream, a Madonna holding a child in her arms came to her. The Madonna wanted Leonarda to sacrifice innocent human lives in exchange for her children. 


Being as superstitious as she was, Leonarda agreed. She made a deal with forces that be and decided to sacrifice innocent others to take her children’s place in the afterlife. To be safe, she felt she needed to sacrifice four people in order to save her four children. 


Leonarda did not have to look too far to find her victims. So many vulnerable women visited her often, seeking guidance and advice. She knew their inner-most fears and desires and started to plot the demise of her first victim: Faustina Setti.


Faustina was one of Leonarda’s regular customers. She was a 73-year-old unmarried woman, who had never had much luck in love. She was a sad and lonely woman, who had made it her sole mission in life to find a romantic partner.


Leonarda saw an opportunity and seeing as Faustina clung to every fortune that came from Leonarda’s lips, it wasn’t too hard to put her plan in motion. 


Leonarda told Faustina the name of a man whom she was destined to marry in the town of Pola – just inland from the Adriatic Sea. It was purportedly a wealthy friend of Leonarda’s who was eager to meet a caring woman. Leonarda even produced fake letters from her so-called friend from Pola. If you’d like to imagine: Leonarda was the 1930’s version of an online dating platform who matched two profiles and moderated communication between the two. 


The romance heated up in the letters between the two and Leonarda encouraged Faustina to explore the relationship, as it was destined to be. She also implored Faustina to keep it a secret, because the small-town housewives of Correggio could have been jealous. 


Faustina was over the moon and followed Leonarda’s instructions. With encouragement from Leonarda, she also sold her house and other belongings, cashing out before she made a new start in Pola. It was a bold move for someone who had lived in the same town for most of her life.


On the morning of her intended departure, Faustina went to a local hairdresser to have her hair done. She dyed her grey hair blonde and was giddy with excitement. She could not contain herself and mentioned to a woman in the salon that she was about to meet the man of her dreams and start a new life with him. Faustina paid and left on a high: a new look for a fresh start. Sadly, this was the last time Faustina Setti was ever seen alive.


Before leaving for Pola, as agreed, Faustina had one last stop to make: 11 Via Cavour – Leonarda’s home. It was a week before Christmas and the streets were white with heavy snow and the smell of homemade Cappelletti came from all the kitchens as families prepared for festivities. 


Nervous and excited at the same time, she was happy to see her friend one last time. Leonarda shared in her excitement and poured the both of them some wine. Sensing Faustina’s apprehension to make the big move, Leonarda suggested she wrote letters to her friends in Correggio – a final goodbye. She could post the letters once she arrived in Pola. The letters had to explain why she left and that she did not intend on returning. 


Minutes after writing the letters, Faustina felt a bit hazy, tired. What she did not know, was that Leonarda had spiked her drink. As soon as the trusting Faustina was knocked out, Leonarda used an axe and dealt her a single blow on the head from behind. She was killed instantly.


Leonarda did not want her children to see Faustina’s body, so she dragged her into a cupboard. She left her in the cupboard overnight as she carried on her normal nightly routine. 


The next morning, she waited until her son, Giuseppe, left home before she went to work. She chopped Faustina’s body up into nine individual pieces. The blood was drained into a basin to make disposal faster.


Leonarda later wrote about what happened next in her memoirs, An Embittered Soul’s Confessions:


“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 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.”


The thrifty housewife knew in pre-war time Italy how to be resourceful – she used everything, nothing went to waste. That is why even Faustina’s dried blood were made into cakes. Imagine what went through her mind as friends commented on her crunchy cakes and she watched them eat it.


Her plan had worked. An to make things even better, after selling her home and all her belongings, Faustina had 50,000 lire in her handbag when she went to say goodbye to Leonarda.


But the plan was not complete. Leonarda sent her son Giuseppe to Pola on some or other errand and instructed him to post the postcards written by Faustina. Faustina was an unwitting accomplice in her own death: when her friends received the letters, they were happy for Faustina and her absence was explained. Nobody suspected that she had never made it to Pola.  


The next year, in 1940, Italy joined World War II, fighting alongside Germany. On June 10th Mussolini made his memorable speech, announcing ‘the hour appointed by destiny’ had arrived as he declared war against Great Britain and France.


The fear of losing one of her sons engulfed Leonarda Cianciulli all over again. She needed to make another sacrifice. This time, she would not stray far from the plan that helped her to successfully murder and dispose of her first sacrificial victim. Again, she stuck to someone she knew. One of her regular visitors and clients, 55-year-old Francesca Soavi, known by everyone as Clementina. 


Clementina was a widowed school teacher in search of employment. Correggio was a town with woven fabrics industry and there wasn’t much work around. She was lonely and became friends with Leonarda. Leonarda’s fortune telling intuition instructed Clementina to go to Piacenza (a larger town, also in northern Italy). In Piacenza, there was a teaching job at an all-girls school that was perfect for her. 


Again, Leonarda told her prospective victim not to mention the fact that she found the job because it was written in the stars. She assured her that they could write postcards or letters to her loved ones, once she was ready to leave. But she warned Clementina that telling people could change the course of her destiny.


Leonarda followed the same checklist: Clementina sold up and visited Leonarda as she was leaving Correggio. On September 5th, 1940, Leonarda served her a glass of drug laced wine and once she had passed out, attacked her from behind. The school teacher’s remains boiled and this time made into homemade bars of soap and tea cakes. The tea cakes were served to her neighbours again and Leonarda was ever the sweet and charming hostess. 


Two weeks later, a couple of Clementina’s friends received post cards from Piacenza, telling them about her new life. Her friends were happy to hear that Clementina was doing well and that she had finally found a job she had so desperately wanted. 


Unfortunately for the gold digging Leonarda, Clementina did not have quite as many assets as her predecessor in death, Faustina Setti. Clementina’s life savings were only 3,000 lire, but it was enough to see Leonarda through for a while.


An old student of Clementina’s grew restless when she hadn’t seen her around for a while. She remembered Clementina loved going to Leonarda’s for coffee and conversation and thought the ‘friend’ Clementina often talked of, would know something. The former student knocked on Leonarda’s door and asked her if she had seen Clementina. Without batting an eyelid, Leonarda told her that Clementina had gone to a better place. One has to wonder if the young girl was invited in for coffee and cakes…


Realising how easy it was to make her sacrifices of innocent people, Leonarda started preparation on her third victim. Virginia Cacioppo was a grand dame, a once-was famous soprano who had graced the stage of Milan’s legendary La Scala theatre. She was filled with glamorous memories of her life in the city and yearned to have another go at happiness in her life. She was 53-years old, her husband had passed on and her grown-up son had moved away. She found the dullness of provincial life stifling. 


Grasping at straws and looking for guidance, Virginia went to Leonarda Cianciulli, who by this time had quite the reputation for telling fortunes and serving delicious cakes. 


Leonarda knew exactly what her story would be to coax Virginia to sell up her home in Correggio. She told her that there was an opportunity in Florence, the city of art and music. Virginia would be the assistant to a theatre impresario and it would pay very well. The job was just to get a foot in the door because there was also the promise that she could audition to work as a singer again.


This was exactly what Virginia wanted to hear and Leonarda knew it. She asked Virginia to be discreet about the job, as Leonarda was having an illicit affair with said impresario. She would have hated bringing a scandal into her lover’s life, especially since he had promised to take her friend (that is Virginia) under his wing.


Leonarda instructed her to sell her home so she could buy a nice place in Florence. She pressured Virginia to move quickly and do what was required as it would be a pity if Virginia missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime.


Virginia did as she was told and visited Leonarda one last time before she left for Florence. On the 30th of November 1940, she had her last glass of wine as she was writing postcards to her loved ones. By this time, Leonarda knew the drill and went to work swiftly. In fact, the murder and dismemberment of Virginia took place in less than one hour and forty minutes. 


Of the disposal of Virginia’s body, Leonarda later remembered:


“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.”


Leonarda took Virginia’s glamourous clothes and jewellery and kept it in a safe place in her home on Via Cavour.


Virginia’s sister-in-law, Albertina Franchi was very concerned about Virginia’s whereabouts and started an active search for her. She reported Virginia missing to police, but they felt that she was a grown woman and it was her prerogative to leave, had she wanted to. There wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that she was a victim of foul play. 


Albertina was frustrated but decided to do a bit of sleuthing herself. She visited Virginia’s friends and asked them to tell her everything that Virginia told them before she disappeared. 


As it turned out, despite Leonarda’s instruction to keep her new adventure quiet, Virginia was so excited, she couldn’t keep the secret of moving to Florence to herself. She confided in three close friends. In each conversation, Virginia gave different reasons for her departure. Albertina and the friends found this very peculiar and were certain that Virginia was trying to hide something. It made them feel very uneasy about her safety. 


In looking for information about Virginia, Albertina also came across rumours about two other missing women who had disappeared under similar circumstances.


Albertina went to police again, presenting them with the evidence she had been able to gather. She told them that there were three women, including her sister in law, who had disappeared after being promised a new start in a new location by their fortune teller.


The testimony of the neighbour who saw Virginia enter Leonarda’s home without leaving again was crucial, as she was the last person who had seen the soprano alive.


Police superintendent of the Province of Reggio Emilia, commissary Serrao, was known as a ‘clever and painstaking investigator’. When Albertina told him everything she had learnt he decided to find out a bit more about Leonarda Cianciulli. 


As 1940 was turning the leaf to change into 1941, Leonarda was spending money like crazy. People who knew her and her limited means grew suspicious of her. Where did all the money come from all of a sudden? She even gave an expensive piece of jewellery to one of her friends. A piece of jewellery that belonged to Virginia Cacioppo. 


Police were asking questions and people were talking. Anonymous letters started flooding into the police station, voicing suspicion of the fortune-telling shopkeeper. Things were heating up for Leonarda.


So, in order to create a diversion, she went to police and laid a claim of defamation against Albertina for spreading rumours and untruths about her.


But there were no solid leads yet. And police in Correggio knew better than to arrest a person, purely based on rumours and accusations. So, they followed the money. Two separate people, one a priest and the other a local cheesemaker, wanted to cash in bonds that they had recently taken over. The bonds were to the value of 35,000 lire and were originally taken out by Virginia Cacioppo. 


When questioned by police, both men denied knowing the origin of the bonds, but could tell police that they had obtained them from a woman called Leonarda Cianciulli. This was the clincher; the damning evidence police were looking for. 


On the 1st of March 1941, police arrested Leonarda at her home on Via Cavour. Neighbours watched as she was marched to the holding cells, just around the corner from her house.


When questioned, Leonarda admitted that all three women had been to see her before their departures and that all of them had entrusted her in selling their belongings in her shop. She sold second-hand clothing and furniture after all. That is why she had the women’s clothing in her possession.


Investigators asked her to explain how she got her hands on Virginia’s bonds? Leonarda used her poetic rants to talk it away, she could not give them a straight answer. It was evident that she tried to dodge telling the truth.


At Via Cavour number 11, police could not find any traces of blood. The house was spotless. Remember, this was in 1941, before scientists knew that luminol was a helpful tool in detecting blood evidence. Interesting side-fact, it was only a couple of years later, in 1947 that scientist Walter Specht discovered that blood triggered a reaction. 


Amazingly, officers searching Leonarda’s home discovered a fragment of Faustina’s dentures. Her dental technician confirmed that it had been made by him. There were also human skull fragments in the kitchen, partially soaped up with caustic soda.


Police knew that Leonarda had lured the women into her home and murdered them. They were convinced the motive was greed, that she wanted her victims’ money and belongings. It was hard to believe that a woman could have committed such heinous and physically challenging murders, police felt that someone had helped her. Soon after Leonarda’ own arrest, her beloved Giuseppe was arrested for assisting his mother in committing the murders and disposing of their bodies. 

 

When Leonarda hear about Giuseppe’s arrest, she confessed to everything and made it clear that Giuseppe had nothing to do with it. Police weren’t convinced and both Leonarda and her son remained in police custody.


She was firstly taken to prison in Bologna, but later the same year, she was moved to the asylum for the criminally insane in the Aversa Provence of Caserta, under the care of renowned Italian psychiatrist Filippo Saporito. She remained there till March 1943, two years after her arrest. 


In this time, she wrote her memoirs, An Embittered Soul’s Confessions. It was a 700-page handwritten rant. It was only after reading the memoirs, that authorities learnt about her real motive for murdering her friends – she viewed them as sacrifices, so she would not lose any more of her children.  


After reading it, the professor declared her ‘infirm of mind’. In his psychiatric evaluation of Leonarda Cianciulli Dr Saporito diagnosed her with hysterical psychosis and a ‘totally sick mind’. 


The investigative section of the Court of Appeal of Bologna, on the other hand, accused the psychiatrist of having been "bewitched" by the robust and poetic fortune teller and considered the criminal to be fully imputable. They felt, her alleged motive and even the act of writing the memoir was it all part of a ploy to appear more insane than she actually was. If declared insane she would have had a better chance to escape the death penalty.


It would only be 1946 before the case went to trial – five years after Leonarda and Giuseppe's arrests. Bear in mind that the timing was very bad. It was the height of World War II. By 1946 Mussolini was dead and Italy worked toward rebuilding a peaceful future. 


Leonarda and Giuseppe found themselves to be quite the sensation. After period of war and death on the battlefield, no one expected a mother of four to be killing people and boiling them up in her provincial kitchen.


In 1946, Italy also had a referendum to decide whether it would become a republic or not. At the time of the mother and son’s trial, there were many international journalists in Italy who became aware of the soap maker’s story. The sordid story made waves all around the world, as far as Australia.


Droves of people formed an angry crowd inside the courtroom. The trial was like going to the cinema to watch a horror movie. But it was much better, as this was a real-life horror and they wanted to hear all the gruesome details. Way back when, this is what people did for entertainment.


Trial kicked off on June 12th. Mother and son sat next to each other in the dock, behind black iron bars as the crowded looked on. Leonarda was indicted of 15 counts of imputation and there were nine counts against Giuseppe.


Giuseppe looked bewildered for the most part, while Leonarda seemed to love the drama of the situation. When she was called to testify on her own behalf, she brought the theatrics.


Never once did she show any signs of remorse. The official account of Leonarda’s time on the stand says:


“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 wild inner pride as she concluded: ‘I gave the copper ladle, which I used to skim the fat off to pot, to my country, which was so badly in need of metal during the last days of the war…”


The claim of her selfless love for her country did not have much of an impact on the jury.


Leonarda explained to the court that her mother had cursed her when she had married Raffaele Pansardi. She told them about her miscarriages, all the children who died, losing everything in the earthquake in Lacedonia… To protect her remaining children, she had to sacrifice someone in their place. She honestly believed, that her victims would be reborn and that the evanescence of their bodies would give them a new form of life, purified by pain.


I did not kill because of hatred or greed, but only because I am a mother.”


Leonarda said, trying to pull at the heart strings of all mothers who had lost children. There were many who were grieving for sons who had died in the war and she hoped that would make her appear more sympathetic.


Leonarda stressed that, although Giuseppe was the one who had posted the postcards from Piacenza, he had no idea what it was about. He thought he was doing it on behalf of his mother’s friend. He also took some bones and body pieces, which Leonarda had wrapped in butcher’s paper and thrown them in the river, but he did not know the packages contained human remains. She said that Giuseppe had no knowledge of the murders and only acted on her instructions.


The judges still felt that Leonarda could not have acted alone. It would have taken a long time to dissect the bodies. The one hour 40 minutes in which she killed and disposed of Virginia Cacioppo, could not have been done by one woman alone. 


At this time, Leonarda rose to the challenge and said that she could prove that she had worked alone. She marched the judges, doctors and police to the Reggio Emilia morgue and expertly dissected a corpse into nine pieces in an astonishing 12 minutes.


Giuseppe struck everybody who followed the case as an intelligent and educated young man. He was devastated about the situation he found himself in. His defence portrayed him as an unfortunate victim, caught up in the storm of his mother’s crimes. At the end of the trial he was acquitted of all charges. Leonarda applauded and whistled as she celebrated his acquittal.


The court did not fall for Leonarda’s stories of superstition and sacrifice. She swindled her three victims out of their life savings and murdered them. The time she took to brainwash them and convince them to sell up all their belongings made her crimes pre-mediated and callous.


Leonarda was found guilty of triple murder and aggravated theft. Interestingly, she was found to be of ‘semi-infirm mind’. Her sentence was not only a 30-year life sentence, but she was also to spend three years in a criminal asylum. Exactly like the palm reader predicted all those years before. In 1946, she was lucky not to have been given a death sentence for her crimes.


She passed away October 1970 of a stroke at the age of 76, after spending 24 years at the women’s criminal asylum in Pazzouli. It is rumoured that she was a model prisoner who loved to bake and offered her biscuits around. Nobody would eat it. They were afraid that they would be cursed or poisoned by some magical substance.


Leonarda Cianciulli was Italy’s first and only female serial killer of the 20th century. Tools she used to dismember and dispose of the bodies are on display at the criminological museum in Rome. She will also be remembered as the lady who gave the word ‘saponify’ (to turn into soap) – a whole new meaning…


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