In Part III, we covered the life and crimes of the “jolly” nurse Jane Toppan. Today’s entries are being released concurrently as they focus on two more women you would never have seen coming. Much in the way people trusted Toppan as a nurse, these women didn’t fit anyone’s idea of what a killer looks like. Nannie Doss and Leonarda Cianciulli would have reminded you more of your Grandma than of Ted Bundy. They might have even offered you tea and cookies, but you’d be wise not to accept any consumables from these ladies.
Leonarda Cianciulli was a beloved figure in her Italian community. She was by all appearances a sweet elderly woman fond of entertaining and preparing food for her guests. Like the case of Nannie Doss, no one saw the wolf behind the sheep’s clothing until it was too late.
Born in Italy some time between 1893 and 1894, Leonarda’s childhood was nothing short of tragic. She was conceived through rape, and her mother was left with few options. Rather than face being ostracized by her community, she was forced to marry her rapist Mariano Cianciulli. Leonarda was a painful reminder to her mother of the terrible decision she had to make. Needless to say, this resentment made for an unhappy childhood, resulting in two separate attempts at suicide at a young age.
Leonarda struck out on her own as soon as she was able. Going against her parent’s wishes she married in 1917 to Raffaele Pansardi. She would come to believe her mother had placed a curse on them for this transgression. Leonarda was extremely superstitious and often sought the council of fortune tellers. This propensity for the mystic arts would have a lasting effect on the direction her life would take.
She and her husband were met with an unfortunate series of events early on and were forced to move around on more than one occasion. One move in particular came as a result of an earthquake in 1930 that struck their region, killing over 1,400 people and leveling their home. Leonarda attributed this all to her mother’s alleged curse.
From there, the couple finally settled in Correggio, where Leonarda set up a small shop and quickly earned a reputation as a kindly neighbor and loving mother. For a time it seemed her misfortune had run its course.
This turn wouldn’t last however, and Leonarda began to feel once again like a cursed woman. Out of 17 pregnancies three would miscarry and 10 would die at a young age from a variety of illnesses. She was understandably protective of her surviving four children, especially her son Giuseppe, her eldest and favorite child.
During this time, Leonarda met with a fortune teller who prophesied that she would have many children but would lose them all before she died. Her fears for her remaining children deepened. In 1939, as Italy was entering the war, she learned that her son Giuseppe was to be drafted. She would do whatever it took to redirect what she saw as fate coming to claim another of her offspring.
Leonarda decided the only way to cheat death was to provide a replacement soul for the afterlife. She had become something of a fortune teller herself and could easily manipulate the elderly women who came seeking her services. One particular client, Faustina Setti, was drawn in by Leonarda’s promise of providing a husband. She convinced her to write all of her family and loved ones informing them of her great fortune and that she would be travelling to Pola to meet her future husband.
Leonarda made sure Faustina stopped in to say goodbye before her trip. Ever grateful, her client was happy to oblige. Leonarda drugged the wine she provided her guest and before long Faustina was rendered unconscious. Wasting no time, Leonarda took an axe and cut the woman into nine pieces, collecting the blood into a basin.
In her memoir, Leonarda goes into detail about her unsettling process.
“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.”
It turned out just one soul wasn’t enough to put Leonarda’s worries to rest. Her first kill had gone smoothly enough that her method varied little for the ones to follow. This time instead of a husband, she claimed to find a job for a Francesca Soavi at a girl’s school in Piacenza. Once again, farewell letters were written to explain her disappearance, and a final appointment made for Francesca to come visit Leonarda before her departure. The visit took place on September 5, 1940 and mirrored that of Faustina’s. Again, the remains didn’t go to waste and were used to make soap and more of Leonarda’s famous tea cakes.
Just to be safe, Leonarda decided a third victim was necessary. Virginia Cacioppo was lured into her trap with a promise of a secretary position in Florence. According to a chilling statement by Leonarda:
“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.”
Her third victim would prove to be her undoing. Virginia’s sister-in-law wasn’t satisfied with the explanation she was given for her disappearance and decided to look into it herself. When she learned Virginia was last seen entering the Cianciulli’s home, she relayed her concerns to the local chief of police.
After an investigation, Leonarda was arrested. She confessed to the murders almost immediately, and even made corrections to the official account of her crimes during her trial in 1946. She was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three in a criminal asylum.
Leonarda Cianciulli died on October 15, 1970 of cerebral apoplexy while housed at the women’s criminal asylum in Pozuolli. Artifacts from the case, among them the pot she used to boil the bodies of her victims, are on display at the Criminological Museum in Rome.