True Crime: Female Serial Killers in History | Leonarda Cianciulli

In the fourth part of our series, Keren takes us on a journey delving into Female Serial Killers throughout history; this week she looks at Leonarda Cianciulli, La Saponificatrice di Correggio (the Soap-Maker of Correggio).

TW: Rape, suicide attempts, child abuse and miscarriage

Leonarda Cianciulli

Serial Killers Leonarda Cianciulli
Leonarda Cianciulli

In the Beginning

Leonarda Cianciulli was born in April 1894 in Montella, Avellino, Italy. Her life was already tainted with misery before she was born. Leonarda’s father had raped her mother, and they married as soon as they discovered she was pregnant. Unfortunately for Leonarda, her mother was incredibly abusive. She also claimed her mother cursed her for her disobedience.

Due to such an awful upbringing, Leonarda attempted suicide twice. Shortly after her second attempt, she married Raffaele Pansardi (chosen by her parents) in 1917. Four years into their marriage, they moved to southern Italy and found themselves some work. However, it wasn’t long before Leonarda was convicted of fraud and went to prison.

Following her release, the couple moved to Correggio. It was here that Leonarda opened up a popular soap shop. She also told fortunes and ‘hypnotized’ clients, claiming to have special powers to help make their dreams come true.

She was well-liked and respected by her neighbours, despite there sometimes being a horrific smell coming from her kitchen. Many of the locals knew Leonarda was incredibly superstitious and pinned this on her tragic upbringing.

Protect Him at All Costs

Leonarda became pregnant seventeen times, unfortunately losing three children to miscarriages and another ten to various illnesses. This made Leonarda incredibly overprotective of her remaining four.

When she found out that her favourite child, Giuseppe, was being drafted to the army, Leonarda was aghast. Being the superstitious woman that she was, Leonarda believed that a human sacrifice was the only way to protect her beloved son.

Serial Killers Leonarda Cianciulli
Giuseppe Pansardi – Leonarda’s favourite son

Human Sacrifice

Leonarda’s chosen victim was 73 year old Faustina Setti: a poor, lonely and unmarried woman, who would often visit Leonarda with the hopes she would find her a husband.

One day, Leonarda told an unwitting Faustina that she had found her a potential husband for her in Pola (now known as Croatia), but she must keep him a secret. Leonarda took the farce a step further by writing letters; pretending to be the ‘suitor’. Following letters going back and forth, Faustina was told that she must send ‘upbeat’ postcards and letters to her family as soon as she arrived in Pola, to help keep her secret.

After packing her bags and dying her hair, Faustina went to see Leonarda one last time to go through the final preparations. She offered Faustina a (spiked) drink to celebrate her new life, and shortly after, Faustina fell to the floor. Leonarda hit her with an axe and the chopped her body up into nine parts, using a basin to collect the blood.

One is not Enough

It didn’t take long for Leonarda to believe that one human soul was not enough, and she found her second victim in Francesca Clementina Soavi.

Francesca was schoolteacher who, like Faustina, had no family members to worry about her whereabouts. Leonarda promised that she had found a job for her at a girls school in northern Italy. Using the same conniving methods as before, Leonarda tricked Faustina, had her over for a celebratory drink and drugged her. She then killed her with the same axe and chopped her body up into nine pieces.

Leonarda’s human sacrifices: Virginia Cacioppo, Faustina Setti and Francesca Clementina Soavi

Last but not Least

Leonarda’s third and final victim was her good friend, Virginia Cacioppo. Virginia was an opera singer and Leonarda used this to her advantage. She promised Virginia a job with an impresario in Florence. Virginia could not believe her luck, and despite Leonarda’s warnings, told her friends about her new adventure.

In September 1940, Virginia went to visit Leonarda a visit one last time to express her gratitude. However she met the same foul fate as Faustina and Francesca.

Unfortunately for Leonarda, Virginia’s sister reported her as missing, telling police that she last saw Virginia entering Leonarda’s home. When the police spoke to Leonarda, she declared her innocence and they then moved their focus to her son Giuseppe. This was all the threat she needed and she finally began talking about the horrific crimes she had committed.

Sickeningly Sweet Confessions

During her trial in 1946, Leonarda explained what she did with the blood:

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 of 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.

Leonarda also admitted that she used some of the blood to make chocolate which she shared this with her neighbours. As for the body parts:

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.

During her time in custody, Leonarda wrote her memoirs, titled An Embittered Soul’s Confessions. It included the best practices for turning human body parts into soap. Another confession explained how perfect Virginia was for making soap and tea cakes:

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.


Despite Leonarda’s confessions, the court did not believe that a woman could possibly dissect a human body with such speed and precision, without assistance. They took her to the morgue, where she demonstrated her ‘talent’ by dissecting a corpse into nine pieces in under twelve minutes.

Leonarda was found guilty for the three murders and was sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum. She died in prison at the age of 76.

Unfortunately I have been unable to find a single copy of Leonarda’s memoirs – I guess they don’t want people practicing how to make soap out of humans!

You can read about Jane Toppan here

You can read about Nannie Doss here

You can read about Juana Barraza here

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