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True crime. Casually done.

Leonarda Ciancuilli: The Cannibal of Correggio

It is December 17th, 1939, in the small town of Correggio, nestled in the Po river valley of Northern Italy.

Great Britain, France, and Germany are already at war, but Mussolini has cynically kept Italy neutral for the time being. The entire Italian nation is on edge, with millions of people – even some devout fascists – not in favour of joining Hitler’s war and spilling Italian blood for his conquest of Poland. Yet war seems inevitable and it lingers on everybody’s mind.

Ermelinda Faustina Setti [Irma-leenda faus-tina setty], a sweet old dear, aged 72, shuffles slowly up the Corso Cavour [cav-or] just off the town centre. A lifelong spinster, she has a square, somewhat masculine face that has long since lost its vestiges of youth. But she has kind, lively, smiling eyes. Signora Setti arrives at apartment building number 11. Her friend, Signora Norina Pansardi [nor-ina pan-zard-ee], lives on the third floor. As Signora Setti makes her way to the top of the stairs, her friend kisses her on both cheeks and ushers her inside. They have some important business to discuss.

But one of these women is not who she seems.

Signora Setti sits primly on an old but comfortable sofa, her nose in the air, while Signora Pansardi busies herself in the kitchen. Pansardi comes back bearing a cup of coffee and some biscuits for her friend, as was her custom on the old woman’s many visits. Signora Pansardi, aged only 46, smiles through jagged teeth and a somewhat gnome-like face, with an elongated bulbous nose. She is a tiny woman, standing at only 4-foot-11 and weighing roughly 110 pounds.

The two women briefly discuss the prospect of war. Signora Pansardi seems deeply concerned, as she has three sons of roughly military age. Signora Setti, single and childless, does not seem concerned in the slightest. She has big plans. And she’s leaving town.

Setti had been coming to see Pansardi for some years now, as the latter was a respected town wise-woman, palm-reader, and astrologer. This time Pansardi had outdone herself. She had found a husband for Signora Setti: an older man living in Pola, an Italian province bordering Yugoslavia, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Signora Setti, an incurable romantic who had sadly never found a husband, was going there to meet him. To avoid a scandal, the two women had agreed to keep the arrangement a secret for now.

As Signora Setti was illiterate, Signora Pansardi – who had a third grade education – had helped her compose letters to her friends explaining the situation as soon as Signora Setti arrived in Pola. Setti had also signed over her power of attorney to Pansardi, so her friend could manage her assets until Signora Setti could bring them over and begin her new life with her husband.

Signora Setti took a sip of her coffee, her heart racing with excitement for what was about to happen. A new life she was about to grasp at the late age of 72. Then for some reason, she began to feel drowsy. She took another sip of coffee to wake herself up. Behind her, Signora Pansardi raised an axe, brought it down with surprising ferocity, and struck her friend on the neck. The blow nearly decapitated her with one stroke. Signora Setti’s head now hung off the front of her torso by a thin layer of skin and sinew.

Signora Pansardi ripped the head off her friend’s body and threw it in the sink.

Meet Leonarda Ciancuilli [chan-coolie]

Leonarda Ciancuilli was born on April 18th 1893 (some sources say 1894) in Montella, a small village in Southern Italy. Her father, Mariano, was a peasant cattle breeder. His wife, Serafina [sara-feena], was a widow with two other children from a previous marriage. Mariano and Serafina went on to have three more children together.

It is rumoured that Serafina was raped by a man, possibly named Salvatore [salva-tore-ay] Di Nolfi, and the rape had gotten her pregnant with Leonarda. With it being Italy in the 1890s, and very Catholic, it goes without saying that abortion was very, very illegal. As such, Serafina was forced to have Leonarda and raise her as her own. Not that the devout Serafina would have contemplated anything to the contrary.

Nevertheless, Serafina allegedly hated the baby that was born out of neither love nor marriage. As Leonarda grew up, her mother was verbally and physically abusive to the extreme. Leonarda was systematically treated worse by her mother than her other siblings. She told Leonarda that she had been brought into the world by the devil and that nothing but evil would come of her life. It did not help that Leonarda was epileptic. Among the Italian peasantry at the time, there was a superstition that seizures were a sign of demonic possession. Thus in her mother’s eyes, Leonarda was a foul, ungodly little creature.

We do not know much about her adopted father’s treatment of Leonarda, with her being the rape-baby of another man. But we do know that Mariano Ciancuilli bestowed upon his adopted daughter the nickname of “Nardina”, a shortened diminutive of Leonarda, which implies affection. Leonarda’s name itself she inherited from Mariano’s father, Leonardo. Serafina, who hated her father-in-law, preferred to call her Norina. Leonarda’s siblings, wanting to please both parents, simply called her “Ina”.

Criminal psychologists would later theorize that Nardina and Norina were representative of two sides of Leonarda’s split personalities. The “Nardina” side of her was gentler, worked hard, and suffered for her children. The “Norina” side was more aggressive, cruel, and took ruthless action to defend them.

Evidently, Leonarda was a deeply troubled and depressed young girl. In her 700-page memoir, melodramatically entitled Confessions of an Embittered Soul, which she later wrote while incarcerated, Leonarda claimed she had tried to commit suicide multiple times in her youth:

“I tried twice to hang myself. Once they came in time to save me and the other time the rope broke. Mother let me know that she was sorry to see me alive. Once I swallowed two sticks, with the intention of dying, and ate some shards of glass… nothing happened.”

It is possible that these claims are a delusional lie, since Leonarda had tried to hang herself twice, with these same outcomes, while she was imprisoned awaiting trial in 1941. Much of her memoirs are unreliable because, if it hasn’t become clear already, Leonarda Ciancuilli was off her f*cking nut.

Her psychologists determined that severe childhood abuse from an overbearing mother led to narcissistic personality disorder with sadistic schizoid and paranoid tendencies. A lack of motherly affection moreover led to Leonarda forming insecure attachments, anti-social behaviours, hostility toward other women, and a feeling of inferiority which she tried to mask with grandiose behaviour and claims.

She presented herself to the world as a “special person” and related to other people by trying to dominate them. She tried to cultivate people’s trust, and took it as her due, but she did not empathise with others. She didn’t view people as people, but only as objects, or prop pieces in the stage play of her own life.

The Sinews of Superstition

There was another aspect to Leonarda’s psychosis. Among the fairly illiterate Italian peasantry was a mixture of badly understood Catholicism, latent Ancient Roman paganism, and more modern urban legends, all mixed into a single incoherent belief system. Despite being a devoutly Catholic nation, much of peasant religiosity took on a decidedly more magical element – a belief in curses and witchcraft, mixed with trash-magazine-level astrology and carnival-grade fortune-telling.

To take one simple, crude, and cheap anecdote for sake of an example: country priests were occasionally uneducated and could not properly speak Latin. At one point in Catholic Mass, the priest is supposed to bless the bread, quoting Jesus Christ and uttering the words “this is my body.” In Latin, this is supposed to translate to “hoc est enim corpus meum” which some priests shortened to “hoc est corpus.” The theory goes that the priest using flawed “dog Latin”, or the peasant crowd’s mishearing, (or both) slowly led some countryside parishioners to think the priest was shouting “hocus pocus!” before magically turning bread into the body of Christ. By the late 17th century, magicians were shouting it to pull rabbits out of hats. Instead of a dead language used by tradition, Latin phrases began to take on the power of magical incantations for the peasantry, just as they do in every sh*tty horror movie released in the last 70 years.

Leonarda Ciancuilli was a sucker for this sort of pseudo-religious magical hogwash. When she was a young girl, she is said to have visited a gypsy fortune-teller who told her that she would marry and have children, but that all of her children would die. She was also told that she would either wind up in prison or an insane asylum. Apparently Leonarda took this warning to heart. But seeing as we only have her own memoirs as evidence for this encounter, it could quite likely just be more of Leonarda’s bullsh*t. Something to sex up the events of her life by making them seem fated in the stars.

In 1912, a nineteen year old Leonarda was arrested and convicted of theft. Her overall reputation in Montella was that of a local troublemaker. Yet, in fairness, growing up with a mother who literally called her devil-spawn and treated her like trash, it couldn’t have been easy. In fact, her mother’s insults may well have made Leonarda’s criminal behaviour a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nevertheless in 1917, at age 24, Leonarda experienced a glimpse of happiness. She met a man named Raffaele [ninja turtles] Pansardi, who worked as clerk in the registry office. Yet even this chance of a happy life was spoiled by her mother. In prison, Leonarda wrote, “I met my husband and fell madly in love with him. My mother opposed our marriage because she wanted to give me to her nephew. I got married anyway and my mother threw a curse on me.” Serafina Ciancuilli thereafter severed all relations with her daughter. While the exact nature of the curse (if there was one) is not known, her mother’s final rejection had a profoundly damaging impact on Leonarda. One that she would not shake for the rest of her life.

As Raffaele and Leonarda Pansardi settled in Montella for a long and happy marriage, Leonarda was again arrested in 1919 for threatening someone with a knife. Two years later, the couple moved to Raffaele’s hometown of Lauria [lorrie-ah], a small medieval town just above the toe of Italy’s boot. Here Leonarda gained the reputation of a whore who would sleep with any man who showed her the slightest interest, who ignored the authority and commands of her husband, and as a notorious con-woman who posed as a spiritualist. She began a fortune-telling racket to bilk people out of their hard-earned cash.

In 1927, Leonarda was convicted for fraud after conning a local peasant woman out of two month’s wages, was fined and given 10 months in prison. Her defense attorney tried and failed to get her to plea insanity.

During this same disreputable and turbulent period, Leonarda was trying desperately to have children. Of her 17 pregnancies, 3 ended in miscarriages, and a whopping 10 of her children died in their infancy. According to Leonarda, it was only through the magic exercised by a “local witch” that allowed her to have children and protected them as they grew up. In total, Leonarda had four children who survived – three boys and a girl. And, in Leonarda’s mind, this was entirely due mystical forces.

Thus in addition to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother in childhood, Leonarda suffered a harsh downpour of trauma as she lost child after child in her twenties and thirties. An already mentally unstable mind with a plethora of personality disorders was pushed closer and closer to the breaking point. And to give herself some illusion of control, she dug herself deeper and deeper into the occult. As Leonarda herself puts it:

“I could not bear the loss of another child. Almost every night I dreamed of the small white coffins, swallowed one after the other by the black earth. For this I studied magic. I read the books that talk about palm-reading, astrology, spells, hexes, and spiritualism. I wanted to learn everything about curses to be able to neutralise them.”

While dabbling in astrology, tarot cards, and larping as “witchy-poo wiccans” may be a harmless enough pastime for bored housewives and moody teenagers, this cocktail of superstition was the final nail in the coffin for Leonarda’s sanity. She came to believe in increasingly bizarre things, which in turn would lead her to commit some of the most heinous acts in order to protect her surviving children.

The Witch of Correggio

Once Leonarda was released from prison, she and Raffaele hastily moved to the tiny village of Lacedonia [lah-cha-doh-nya], also in Southern Italy, for a fresh start. Not long afterward, on July 23rd 1930, an earthquake struck the region causing 1400 deaths and obliterating the Pansardi’s home. From there, the family picked up sticks and headed north to the other side of the country to settle in Correggio.

Leonarda’s husband, Raffaele, got another job as a clerk in the Correggio registry office, earning a very modest wage that barely provided for his wife and family. To supplement the family’s income, Leonarda set up a fairly successful furniture and clothing business as a sideline. And, of course, she also offered palm-reading and astrology to her more gullible customers.

Meanwhile, Leonarda’s reputation in Correggio evolved to be drastically different than in previous towns. She was respected among the townsfolk. Leonarda may have been considered eccentric in her beliefs and behaviours, but she was also thought charming and mysterious. She was a sage, a wise-woman, with strange powers people barely understood. An image that Leonarda did everything to encourage. She was admired for how she doted on her children. She was well-liked, considered reliable, and was trusted with the townsfolk’s personal secrets. People frequently stopped by her place, where she told them entertaining stories, plied them with coffee and pastries, and lent them a sympathetic ear. She broke the tedium of people’s humdrum small-town lives by giving them exciting prophecies about their futures. She provided crackpot remedies and invoked gibberish spells which, as far as the townsfolk and the placebo effect were concerned, seemed to work.

Leonarda was also admired across town for being an enthusiastic and devoted fascist…

But apparently Raffaele did not share the town’s admiration for his wife. He gradually fell into alcoholism to cope with his life married to this temperamental and often violent madwoman. And after two decades of marriage, he abandoned his wife altogether. While I would never advocate a husband abandoning his family, in this case it might be fair to say that this poor bugger got out while the getting was good.

Giuseppe, the oldest son of Leonarda Cianciulli during the trial
Giuseppe, the oldest son of Leonarda Cianciulli during the trial

Meanwhile, Leonarda’s four surviving children had grown up to be fairly promising young people. Her eldest son was studying literature at the University of Milan. Her second son was conscripted into the army. Her third son was just finishing up high school. Only her young daughter was still in childhood, and was away being educated by the local nuns.

By and large, after much tragedy and family turmoil – and a number of criminal offenses – Leonarda might have wound up spending the rest of her days as a relatively harmless village quack and petty con-woman.

But then the war came.

Body Armour by Blood Ritual

When the German army marched into Poland in September 1939, many in Europe thought that Mussolini might declare war and join Hitler immediately. The two dictators had grown increasingly close in their goals over the past three years. There were many similarities in their ideologies and how they governed their nations. But Mussolini never had an overwhelming sense of fondness or loyalty for Hitler, nor the Nazi ideology that positioned Italians as an inferior race. So Mussolini hung back, waiting and watching, only intending to strike at the Allies should the Germans look on the verge of victory. Then Mussolini might quickly gobble up new possessions in Africa and the Mediterranean islands.

To the wider Italian population, however, aided by harsh anti-British and anti-French propaganda, it seemed like war could break out at any time.

This sent Leonarda into a mental breakdown. She had already lost 10 children in infancy, and 3 to miscarriages. To her mind, it was only by her tireless exercise of spells and study of the occult that had kept her remaining four children safe. One of her sons was already in the military. Another one of her sons would soon reach military age. But strangely she didn’t seem to give too much of a damn about them. Most of her concern was for her eldest son – her absolute favourite. He was studying in Milan. He might be vulnerable to army conscription. Leonarda felt certain that if he went to fight, he would die.

According to Leonarda’s memoirs, this premonition was reinforced by her nightmares. She dreamt constantly of her abusive mother, Serafina Ciancuilli, whom Leonarda had last seen 22 years before. Her mother appeared to her, night after night, and told Leonarda that her son would die unless Leonarda committed a blood sacrifice in order to protect him. You know, typical mother-daughter advice on child-rearing. At any rate, recurrent nightmares and mounting anxiety for the first three months of the Second World War clearly caused Leonarda to have some sort of psychotic break, given what came next.

Leonarda wrote in her memoirs that she was also heavily influenced in her thinking by Graeco-Roman mythology. She bore in mind the story of Thetis, goddess of the sea, who had dipped her son Achilles in the river Styx to make him invincible. Though perhaps this reference was cooked up later to make the acts of murder and desecration of a corpse sound more “educated and palatable.”

Which brings us back to December 17th 1939, and the final moments of Ermelinda Faustina Setti.

Blood Biscuits

“The martyr was sipping the coffee. I raised the axe. I think I worked like a thunderbolt. I think my strength tripled, otherwise I could not have done what I did.”

Leonarda brought the axe down on her friend’s neck and nearly decapitated her with one stroke, an impressive act for such a tiny middle-aged woman. Leonarda then walked around the sofa to the front of the torso, the top of which was at first pumping, and then oozing, blood. She gripped the head with both hands, and wrenched it free. She went to the kitchen and tossed it in the sink.

Coming back into the sitting room, Leonarda grabbed the corpse and dragged it across the floor, leaving a trail of blood on the old wooden beams, until she reached a closet and shoved the body inside. She leant Signora Setti’s torso over a large basin, and proceeded to make a series of small strategic cuts in the body, to speed up the draining of the woman’s blood. While the sofa, floors, and sitting area already looked like someone had popped a water balloon filled with red paint, there was roughly 2 or 3 litres of blood left in the body for “future use”.

Leonarda went back into the kitchen. “I cut into the head that I had laid in the sink, but no blood came out.” Evidently the blood left in Signora Setti’s head that hadn’t drained onto the floor of the sitting area had already seeped out into the sink.

Leonarda went back to the closet. The basin was nearly full. With a large knife she cut into the body’s flesh. She broke the bones with a large hammer. Leonarda proceeded to cut off the body’s arms and legs. The legs she split in two, at the knee, to reduce their length. She then proceeded to cut out the woman’s pelvis from the rest of the torso. After a lifetime of experience dealing with fresh slabs of meat from the butcher when cooking for her family, apparently it took Leonarda no more than 12 minutes to fully dismember Signora Setti’s corpse.

“I threw the pieces into a pot, added 7 kilograms of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred it all until the dissected body dissolved into a dark and sticky pulp, with which I filled some buckets and I emptied into a nearby septic tank.”

Caustic soda, otherwise known as lye, is made of the chemical sodium hydroxide. It is able to turn animal proteins into liquid. It burns rather quickly through flesh. That scene in Fight Club where Brad Pitt throws a chemical on Ed Norton’s hand and makes him hold it there as it disfigures his skin? That’s caustic soda.

As such, it is often used to break down roadkill by animal disposal professionals and has been used by a number of murderers on corpses to speed up their decomposition. It is also fairly easy to obtain without drawing suspicion. When heated to 100 to 300 degrees Celsius, it can melt most human flesh into a thick dark soup. Later police testimony indicates that the neighbours were briefly aware of a foul smell coming from Leonarda’s apartment, but they largely ignored it, and it soon went away.

From there, Leonarda set about cleaning the blood off her clothes, the kitchen counters, and did her best aggressively scrubbing blood stains out of the wood floors. What she could not remove, she covered with rugs from her furniture business. She then set about the task of re-upholstering her sofa. The bones she would later toss into a nearby canal.

When Signora Setti’s blood in the basin had fully coagulated, Leonarda brought it into the kitchen. Why let such a thing go to waste?

“I gathered the blood like it was jam,” she later wrote, “I dried it in the oven, ground it and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk, and eggs, as well as a little margarine, mixing everything together. I made a large number of crunchy pastries and served them to the ladies who came to visit, but my son Giuseppe and I ate them too.”

Evidently, Leonarda also gave out some of these pastries to the local children, which no doubt made her very popular. She thought by eating the pastries, the blood ritual would protect the children, just as this gruesome act had protected the life of her own kids. As far as Leonarda was concerned, she later wrote, she was simply dipping the neighbourhood children into the river Styx.

Additionally, according to one confession Leonarda made to police a few weeks after her arrest, she claimed to have used some of her friend’s meat for cooking as well: roasting, stewing, and boiling the human flesh before consuming it. But it is difficult to tell whether this confession is true. Nevertheless, given Leonarda seemed perfectly happy to make blood biscuits, eat them, and hand the rest out to the neighbourhood, it is not unreasonable to think that she would not let the rest of her friend go to waste.

A few days later, Leonarda sent her son Giuseppe out of town to mail Signora Setti’s letters back to Correggio to her various acquaintances. In those letters, Setti explained that she had moved to Pola, where she planned to be married, and she had kept things secret to avoid a scandal. Of course, there was no husband waiting for her in Pola. This was all a lie concocted by Leonarda.

Meanwhile, the Cannibal of Correggio pocketed the 30,000 lira of Signora Setti’s savings which the old woman had been carrying with her in preparation for her move across the country. That works out at approximately $25,000 USD today. Not a bad payout from a day’s work.

The Cannibal Strikes Again

Given the grim nature of the events described above, I’ll wager that you groaned inwardly (or outwardly) when you saw that next title card. But if Leonarda had stopped at one blood sacrifice, she certainly wouldn’t be as notorious in criminal history. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, if she had stopped at one victim – it is likely she never would have been caught.

It is September 5th 1940. Germany had knocked France out of the war, and Mussolini, sensing an opportunity to sit at the peace table with minimal loss, declared war on June 10th. But the war was not going well for Mussolini against the British in the Egyptian desert or in Ethiopia. In fact, it was an unmitigated disaster. The Italian army simply wasn’t yet properly equipped to go to war, and they were badly led by an incompetent officer core. Whether these fortunes played a role in Leonarda’s decision-making or not, the woman had concluded it was time to make another blood sacrifice.

Francesca Clementina Soavi [soh-av-eee] aged 55 was a kindergarten teacher from a local school in Correggio. She was single, poor, and without many people in town to miss her. Like the first victim, Signora Soavi had been coming to Leonarda for several years for guidance, for a sympathetic ear, for the occasional fortune-telling, and, to be honest, for plain old simple companionship.

She couldn’t have chosen a worse person.

Leonarda had lied to Soavi that she had found her a well-paying job at a girl’s boarding school in Piacenza [pee-ah-chenz-ah] a city not far away from Correggio in Northern Italy. This would have provided the teacher with a more stable income and Piacenza’s larger population might even offer the possibility of finally finding a husband.

Of course, there was no job in Piacenza. It was all a lie of an experienced con-woman. Leonarda had also convinced Soavi to write postcards to friends and co-workers, apologising for leaving suddenly, but to avoid making her final destination known until she was firmly in the job. In reality, this would prevent anyone from knowing where to start, should people begin looking for her. Signora Soavi also signed over her power of attorney, so Leonarda could handle her affairs back in Correggio while she got settled. Leonarda wrote, “Soavi gave the key to her house to Marta Ferrari [no relation] and told her to give it to me because she was leaving.”

Leonarda poured the doomed school mistress some wine and they clinked glasses in celebration of her opportunity and new life in the big city. Naturally, the wine was drugged. While Signora Soavi fell into a stupor, her eyes glazing over and her vision turning blurry, Leonarda struck her with the axe.

A familiar pattern played itself out. Decapitation. Head in the sink. Torso dragged to the closet. Blood drained into a large basin. Arms, legs, pelvis, and torso dismembered with a large knife and a hammer. Legs split in two. All within 12 minutes. Flesh thrown into a pot and boiled with caustic soda. When it became a foul smelling soup, poured into a septic tank for later disposal. Bones chucked into the nearby canal. Blood congealed into a jelly, dried in the oven, then ground into a powder and baked into pastries to feed the neighbourhood. Possible prime cuts of meat preserved for roasting, stewing, or boiling for dinner. Clean-up performed. Bloodstained fabrics washed or replaced. Stubborn bloodstains on the wood floor covered with throw-rugs. A foul smell briefly emitted from the apartment.

Then Signora Soavi was gone. Erased from the Earth.

Leonarda sent her son Giuseppe to Piacenza to mail postcards to Soavi’s friends and acquaintances. She meanwhile sold all of Soavi’s belongings, and pocketed roughly 3000 lira in cash. Only about 2500 dollars in modern US currency. Not the best payout for the effort expended. But Soavi was poor. And Leonarda, a woman of modest means herself, found that living in wartime she needed all the help she could get.

But the school teacher hadn’t kept her move to Piacenza completely secret from everyone like Leonarda had instructed. She had told one of her neighbours. When Signora Soavi didn’t turn up in Piacenza and did not respond to her mail, this raised a few eyebrows. But unfortunately, it was wartime. Hundreds of people were dying every day. Amid all that chaos and death, who had time to worry after one impoverished lonely school-teacher?

An Italian Soap Opera

It is September 30th 1940. A little over three weeks since the last murder. Virginia Cacioppo [cat-chop-oh] made her way up the Corso Cavour to number 11, and walked up the stairs to the third floor, where the Cannibal of Correggio was waiting for her. Signora Cacioppo was 59 and a retired soprano, who had studied at the Milan Conservatory and made her debut as a beautiful and talented opera singer in 1904. I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school when I say that Italians love opera, and Virginia was once renowned and venerated nationwide, performing for some of Italy’s top conductors.

As Virginia aged, however, the singing jobs slowly dried up and went to younger, more beautiful sopranos with fresher sounding voices and tantalizingly new reputations to draw in crowds. As such, Signora Cacioppo fell on harder times. She settled in Correggio with her sister, but evidently felt wounded that her career had come to an end. Worse still, she was unmarried and lacked that extra means of support as she stared down the gun barrel of retirement. It was Virginia’s yearning for her glory days in the opera that Leonarda exploited to the full, in order to lure the ex-soprano into the same vulnerable position that had so far killed two other women.

Leonarda concocted some cock-and-bull story about how she had found Virginia a job in Florence. She would be the secretary of a theatre impresario, which in the opera world is similar to the job of a Hollywood producer, involving the financing and organisation of the actual shows. It was a respectable position, and being a secretary to such a man kept Virginia in the opera life, kept her in money, and was better than nothing. To put a cherry on the cake, Leonarda said it was likely Virginia could marry this man. An idea that was even more tempting. Above all else, Leonarda instructed Virginia to keep the job a secret.

The rest you can probably predict. Virginia Cacioppo came over on the day of her supposed “departure for Florence.” The hopeful ex-opera singer was drugged, decapitated, and dismembered. Her blood was drained into a basin and left to congeal. All signs of her murder were cleaned up as best as possible.

But here’s what you might not have expected. When Leonarda threw the pieces of Virginia’s corpse into the pot, added the caustic soda, and started to boil it – for some reason she became enamoured with the “quality” of the opera singer’s flesh and decided to make soap out of it. Leonarda later wrote:

ended up in the pot, like the other two. Its flesh was fat and white. When it was dissolved, I added a bottle of cologne and after a long boil, creamy bars of soap resulted from it. I gave some to neighbours and acquaintances… With regret I observed that the soap was not perfect, because I had to add some ash to it.”

It is true that Signora Cacioppo, with all due respect and rest her soul, had gained a little weight in her middle age. So it is highly likely that Leonarda was not completely deluded and indeed her fat would have made for decent soap. I felt so creepy writing that sentence. Furthermore, Signora Cacioppo’s proclivity for self-indulgence left her blood sugar levels slightly more elevated than the other two women. Which is another thing Leonarda observed: “The pastries were even better. That woman was really… sweet.”

So this time the neighbourhood children got to enjoy top quality pastries and some of the old ladies who visited Leonarda were gifted fine-smelling soap out of the goodness of her heart. I can only imagine the shock those ladies must have felt when they learned they’d been washing themselves with a perfumed chunk of fat sliced off an ex-opera singer.

Leonarda’s son Giuseppe was duly sent out of town to send some misleading letters. Leonarda meanwhile managed to rob 50,000 lira of Virginia Cacioppo’s savings. That is the equivalent of roughly 41,000 USD today. Her biggest payday yet. Furthermore, Leonarda sold Cacioppo’s many belongings – jewels, furs, dresses, shoes, and even some small bank bonds.

The problem was this. If you murder a spinster old lady of 72 who allegedly moves to Pola to get married, no one really looks for her. If you murder a single school teacher, who goes to get another job in another city, then disappears during the biggest war the world has ever seen, she might be overlooked. But murder a former celebrity who was well known within the town? People start to talk.

The Investigation

Like Signora Soavi, Virginia Cacioppo had not followed her murderer’s instructions to the letter. She had told her sister she was going to Florence to work as a secretary for a theatre impresario. But luckily for Leonarda, Virginia did not tell her sister who had set up this arrangement. Between October 1940 and the start of 1941, rumours flew across Correggio. It was quickly established that Virginia Cacioppo had never made it to Florence and was, in fact, missing. With a bit of digging, it was also established that the job, the impresario, and the theatre itself, did not exist.

Virginia’s sister, Signora Albertina Fanti, immediately suspected Leonarda. Albertina knew that the Cannibal was friendly with all three women who had gone missing over the past year. She knew that her sister had visited Leonarda shortly before she disappeared. And so, Signora Albertina Fanti did the sensible thing and went to the cops. This’ll be the one story you’ll hear all decade where the literally fascist police are actually the good guys. But when their opponent is an insane cannibal, it is a bit of a toss-up.

The police went round to Number 11 Corso Cavour and questioned Leonarda. She flatly and angrily denied any involvement in Virginia Cacioppo’s disappearance. In fact, Leonarda became so belligerent and menacing that the police briefly had her arrested. But there was nothing really tying Leonarda to the opera singer’s disappearance. Moreover, she was a tiny woman of 4-foot-11 and 110 pounds. How could she have brought down a heavyset woman like Virginia and disposed of the body?

Police Commissioner Serrao [sare-ow] then took up the case of looking for Virginia Cacioppo, and he appears to have been worth his salt. Serrao traced the serial numbers on a bank bond that belonged to the opera singer to a man who had recently cashed it. A priest named Adelmo Frattini [frat-teeny]. When questioned, the priest said he had received it from a man named Abelardo Spinabelli [speen-a-belly] during some petty commerce. Spinabelli meanwhile was a friend of Leonarda’s and said he had received it from her in repayment for a debt.

Serrao initially suspected all three people were in cahoots, along with Leonarda’s son Giuseppe Pansardi who had been identified sending Virginia’s letters from out of town. The priest and Spinabelli were quickly ruled out. This left Leonarda and her son as suspects in Virginia Cacioppo’s murder. Police tossed over Leonarda’s apartment and found blood stains under the rugs and furniture, along with some of the personal effects of Cacioppo, Soavi, and Setti. The police also found Signoria Setti’s dentures.

Leonarda and Giuseppe were arrested and charged in March 1941. Leonarda was initially quite reticent during police interrogations. Serrao at first suspected the murders had been committed in order to rob the women. It was only when Leonarda realised that her son Giuseppe might also go down for the three murders that she started to talk. And once she did, she did not stop.

And, boy howdy, did she have a story to tell.

Confessions of an Embittered Soul

Due to the crisis of the war, the trial was delayed for five years, during which time both Leonarda and her son Giuseppe were held in prison. During this time Leonarda tried to commit suicide, ranted and raved about her crimes, and composed her 700-page memoir. Her Confessions of an Embittered Soul is not an easy source to find, much less in full English translation, since Italian authorities never intended for it to be published or sold. Nor can it truly be trusted in all aspects, given its author.

Giuseppe was released after five years due to a lack of evidence, and because of the confessions Leonarda made in her memoir thoroughly and deliberately exculpated him. To this day, we do not know the extent to which Giuseppe was aware of his mother’s crimes, and whether he participated in the murders or knowingly participated in acts of cannibalism. He does not possess a past history and rap sheet like his mother that would imply a disturbed mind. So we are left to speculate what life with Leonarda was like for all those years and whether it imparted any serious lasting damage on her children.

At the trial in June 1946, the prosecution insisted that Leonarda wasn’t a maddened cannibal but had just killed her victims to take their money. Leonarda insisted that she was making a blood tribute to protect her children. One of her major arguments was the murder of Signora Soavi the school-teacher, who yielded very little money. It is also rumoured that during the trial Leonarda was secretly taken to the morgue to demonstrate that she could, indeed, dismember a corpse in under 12 minutes. Leonarda’s 700-page memoir was also taken as evidence, but there has always been suspicion that Leonarda cooked the whole thing up with her defense team in order to pursue an insanity verdict. For one thing, it seems dubious that Leonarda, with a third grade education, could have written a 700-page memoir all by herself. Although, as far as I can tell, the Italian and the sentence structure are pretty shabby.

In the end, the judge accepted the cannibal version of events, and sentenced Leonarda to three years in a lunatic asylum and thereafter to 30 years imprisonment. But Leonarda never left the nuthouse. She spent the next quarter of a century there. According to the nurses, she occasionally made pastries in the kitchens, but none of the other inmates dared to eat them.

Leonarda died of a brain hemorrhage, aged 77, on October 15 1970. May the bitch rot in hell.

The Twist

So, on the one hand, you’ve got a psychopathic cannibal with a lifelong obsession with the occult. During a blood ritual to protect her son’s life, spurred on by the ghostly apparition of her abusive mother, she brutally murdered and consumed three women. She made pastries of their congealed blood and, in one case, made soap of the fat. All of which she distributed to an unaware public. And she laid down an account of these crimes in exhaustive detail, with interesting commentary for true crime writers to pick apart, in a 700-page memoir that she wrote while in prison.

On the other hand, you’ve only got the word of a notorious con-woman for most of this.

Despite the bloodstains and possessions of the three women found in Leonarda’s flat, there is no evidence beyond the murderer’s own testimony that she cooked blood into biscuits or boiled fat into soap. By the time of her trial five years after her arrest, any pastries Leonarda gave out had long since been excreted into the sewers and any bars of soap carved out of Virginia Cacioppo’s corpse would long since have gone swirling down the bathtub drain.

Leonarda’s criminal history shows theft, threats of violence, and fraud. She also practiced for years as a huckster who made money as a palm-reader and fortune-teller for the more gullible people in her community. She had conned her way into the confidence of the housewives of Correggio. She was, in short, a practiced and inveterate liar. It is possible that in her arrest and trial, Leonarda pulled off one of her greatest cons of all time. She convinced a court of law, the wider Italian public, and generations of true crime readers, of the most extraordinary and gruesome story. That she was the Cannibal of Correggio. When in actual fact she may have been nothing more than an opportunistic murderer and thief.

Why would she do this? Well, if the motive of the murders was money it would have been likely that her son Giuseppe would not have gotten off the charges. There is even subtext in Leonarda’s memoirs which may imply it was Giuseppe who actually carried out the murders, rather than a tiny middle-aged woman. By claiming a horrendous tale of lifelong insanity and putrid cannibalism, Leonarda threw up a massive smokescreen that completely altered the focus of the trial. And, even though it wasn’t a blood ritual, this pack of lies was able to protect her son.

The only solid argument against this theory is the murder of Francesca Clementina Soavi, whose murder yielded less than a tenth the money of the other two murders. However, it is possible Leonarda thought Soavi had more. We must also remember the context of Leonarda being a fairly impoverished person, with only a sideline in furniture and palm-reading, whose husband had abandoned her. And in the latter two murders, it was wartime, and lots of people were suffering financially. From that perspective, 3000 lira isn’t half bad. Furthermore, it is possible that the smallness of the amount prompted the third more ambitious murder of the much wealthier Virginia Cacioppo, which happened only three weeks later.

So either Leonarda was a deluded cannibal obsessed with the occult who will go down in history as Italy’s answer to Hannibal Lecter… or she recognised the occult for what it was – a useful way to con people into doing what she wanted. And she ended her life pulling off the most massive con-job of all. She fooled a court, got her son off murder charges, and got to spend the rest of her life in an asylum rather than in prison or facing execution. And she transformed herself into an infamous folk legend. The last of which, given her proclivity for narcissism, probably appealed to her.

Cannibal or con-artist – either way – this places her firmly in the annals of criminal history. I’ll let you decide which story seems more plausible. Personally, having read through much of what she wrote, I think the thieving cow was full of sh*t. And if you think that makes for an anti-climax at the end of the video, just wait till you realise that means you’ve been conned by a fortune-teller who died 50 years ago.

Console yourself that my calling her legend into question is my way of spitting on a murderer’s grave.

Dismembered Appendices

1. There is some reason to believe that the plotline in Fight Club of Tyler Durden making luxury soaps from the discarded fat he stole from liposuction clinics was inspired by Leonarda’s story.

2. Leonarda Ciancuilli’s official moniker as a serial killer is actually the “Soapmaker of Correggio”. And given that she only made soap from one of her three victims, I feel that people have missed the forest for the trees when naming her. What about all the cannibalism? The blood biscuits? The fact that according to Leonarda she fed human blood to her friends, family, and ate some herself? Possibly also ate human flesh for dinner? Hence I have given this video what I feel is a more appropriate title to fit her crimes. The Cannibal of Correggio. And hopefully I get extra points for alliteration.

3. It is quite likely that Leonarda deserves the title of Italy’s first modern female serial killer since the country was unified in 1871. The title of first modern Italian serial killer regardless of gender belongs to another candidate, however. Especially if we count the murders carried out by people in organised crime.

4. When researching this story of a con-woman posing as a palm-reader and fortune-teller, taking advantage of the naivety of three women and luring them to their deaths, I kept thinking back to a few of the lyrics from Tim Minchin’s song “Storm”, with which I’ll leave you:

I don’t mean to bore ya

But there’s no such thing as an aura

Reading auras is like reading minds

Or tea leaves, or star signs, or meridian lines

These people aren’t plying a skill

They’re either lying or mentally ill.

When it comes to the story of Leonarda Ciancuilli, “either lying or mentally ill” pretty much sums it up.

Please stop paying these people.

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