The Corregio Soap Maker

Rome's Museo Criminologico [Criminological Museum]  may not be to everybody's taste,  but it's definitely worth seeing.  The museum's collection features photographs and memorabilia from some of the most gruesome forensic cases in the long history of Italy.   From Renaissance murders to the Mafia, this museum has it all.  

It was there that I first learned about Leonarda Cianciulli, a.k.a. the "Soap Maker of Corregio" and her bizarre criminal career.    While almost unknown outside of Italy, Leonarda's career as a serial killer is still unparalleled in many ways, both for her unique method of concealing bodies and her rather odd motive for killing.

Born in 1894, she was raised in one of the most poverty-stricken regions of Italy.   Her mother, Emilia di Nolfi,  had become pregnant due to rape and was later forced to marry her rapist,, Mariano Cianciulli, when she realized she was pregnant.   By most accounts, Leonarda's early childhood was a grim one.     Her father died when Leonarda was young but her mother's later remarriage did little to ease the situation at home.  Due to emotional abuse by her mother, she would make two suicide attempts.   Leonarda compounded her woes by marrying a man of whom her parents disapproved (they had a more prosperous suitor in mind).   She would later claim that her mother had placed a curse on her as a result of her Leonarda-cianciulli-2[1]1914 marriage of Raffaele Pansardi and the tragedy she later endured seemed to bear that out.  

Along with being imprisoned for fraud and later seeing her house destroyed by an earthquake, she also lost three of her children in childbirth and another ten as children.   Of her seventeen pregnancies, only four survived to adulthood and she was especially protective of all of them as a result.  Despite these troubles, she and her husband eventually settled in the town of Corregio, near Naples, and Leonarda apparently settled into a normal life as a shopkeeper and part-time fortune teller.   A long-time believer in the supernatural, she had once consulted a Gypsy fortuneteller who, among other things, predicted that all of her children would die before her.  A different fortuneteller  told her that she faced either a future in prison or in a criminal asylum though Leonarda seemed not to take that warning seriously.    Her neighbours would later describe her as a gentle soul with a fondness for poetry.   Nobody suspected what would be coming next

For Leonarda, everything changed in 1939 when Benito Mussolini began drafting young men to prepare for Italy's entry into World War II.   Il Duce's popularity had slipped during the 1930s and the prospect of Italy entering the war on the side of Nazi Germany alarmed most Italians.    Leonarda became mentally unbalanced at the thought of her favourite son, Giuseppe, being drafted and possibly dying in combat.    The prospect of losing Giuseppe apparently led to her decision to carry out human sacrifices to preserve her son from death.  As she would later state during her testimony, killing others would keep her own children safe by providing God with other deaths in place of her own children.   Since she had four remaining children, she would need to sacrifice four others to keep them safe.

Her first victim was a 50-year-old spinster named Faustina Setti.   Recruiting Leonarda as a fortune-teller and matchmaker, Faustina paid her 30,000 lire to find a suitable husband.     Telling her that she knew of a good marriage prospect in a nearby village, Leonarda persuaded Faustina to write letters and postcards to relatives that she would later post from out of town to reassure them she was fine.    She also instructed Faustina not to tell anyone about her marriage plans.    On the day Faustina was to leave Corregio, she visited Leonarda's home for the last time.   There, Leonarda gave her drugged wine and then chopped her body inito nine pieces with a hatchet.  According to the official statement she gave to police afterward,

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.

After pocketing the money Faustina had brought with her, Leonarda selected fellow-villager Francesca Soavi.   After telling Francesca that she had found her a job a school in Piacenza, Leonarda persuaded her to keep the job offer secret.   She also persuaded Francesca to write a series of letters and postcards that would be mailed at a later date.   Copying the murder of Faustina Setti almost exactly, Leonarda drugged Francesca and dismembered the corpse with an ax on September 5, 1940.    She also pocketed her life savings (only 3,000 lire this time).   Once again, no suspicion attached to her and Leonarda was free to find another victim. 

It was this last victim who would prove to be her undoing.   Virginia Cacioppo was a former soprano who had sung opera professionally at La Scala in Milan.  She was also wealthier than Leonarda's other victims with more than 50,000 lire in cash and jewelry.   After Leonarda lured Virginia to her house with the promise of finding her a job with a mysterious impresario, she was killed like the other victims.   In a last, ghoulish touch, Leonarda added cologne to the soap she made from Virginia's remains to make it more appealing to friends and neighbours.  

VIrginia Cacioppo's sister-in-law became suspicious and began investigaing her disappearance.   When she learned that Virginia had last been seen entering Leonarda's shop, she went to the police superintendent.  Following an investigation, Leonarda Cianculli was arrested for murder.    She was unusually open with the police and described her crimes and how she disposed of the bodies in ghoulish detail.    Since World War 2  was still underway, putting her on trial for the murders was hardly a priority.   It was not until 1946 and Italy's defeat that Leonarda finally went on trial. 

And it was quite a trial.   Though her son Giuseppe had been arrested as well as a possible accomplice, he was later freed.    Leonarda's detailed confession of the murders, complete with descriptions of what she did with the bodies afterward generated international publicity.  During her testimoony, Leonarda was quick to correct the prosecutor on any details which she regarded as inaccurate.    At one point, she proudly pointed out that she "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 during the last days of the war. . . ."    She also described her reason for the murders, including her desire to help her son with human sacrifice.  Whether she truly believed what she had said in court or was hoping to avoid prison through an insanity plea, the graphic details of her crimes attracted a fair amount of public attention in a country stilll recovering from war.

Found guilty by the court,  Leonarda Cianculli was sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum.   While in prison, she wrote her memoirs, Le confessioni di un’anima amareggiata  (Confessions of a bitter soul).  Unrepentant to the last, Leonarda died of a cerebral apoplexy (stroke) on October 15, 1970.   As she would later insist, "I did not kill for greed" though her reason for killing three people seems as murky as ever.    Rome's Criminology Museum still contains numerous artifacts from the case, including the pot she used to boil her victims for soap.   


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