Here’s a piece of free advice for the world’s aspiring serial killers: You gotta have a gimmick.
Thanks to a generation of serial killer thrillers (i.e., the decade of films that were released following the success of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), most people tend to think of serial killers as sensational, gimmick-obsessed madmen with sexual hang-ups and an extreme form of obsessive compulsive disorder: We think of Jame Gumb from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; we think of John Doe from SEVEN; we think of Norman Bates from PSYCHO; we think of whoever that guy was from KNIGHT MOVES. (We all saw KNIGHT MOVES, right? No? I guess I’m the strange one.)
Of course, when delving into the sticky trenches of true crime, one finds that the gimmicks of real-life serial killers are far more disturbing than anything out of a Hollywood movie. People like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer did some of the most horrific things to people, and their crimes are so deeply depraved that they couldn’t possibly be filmed, even in a fictional capacity, by any reasonably sane film director. Well, except that all three of them have been the subject of biopics. (I’m actually fond of the trashy glories of Matthew Bright’s TED BUNDY.)
The serial killers with the most fascinating MO, at least in my twisted eyes, are the ones who get involved in cannibalism.
Cannibalism is a very curious taboo in human society, and it’s difficult for anyone, I think, to understand the mindset of the person who looks at their fellow human and thinks of… a meal. And of the real-life cannibals in the world, few are far more deliciously weird than Leonarda Cianciulli, the Italian serial killer and real-life cannibal, who, in 1939 and 1940, murdered three women and turned their bodies into practical pantry items.
Leonarda Cianciulli, a palmistry and and prognostication enthusiast, was born in a small town in Italy in 1894, and lived, as one might predict, a tragic life. She was arrested for fraud as a young woman, lost a home to an earthquake, eloped with a man whom her parents did not approve of (Cianciulli claimed that her mother had cursed the marriage), and lost most of her children to miscarriages or childhood infirmities; of her 17 pregnancies, only four children survived. To compound matters, all her preferred fortune-tellers kept predicting these tragedies. One of her fortune-tellers told her that her pregnancies would indeed end tragically, while a palm-reader told her that prison and mental asylums could be seen in her respective hands.
That was one astute palm-reader, it would prove.
Cianciulli would eventually wander down the path of murder and cannibalism by the most basic of motivations: protecting her son. Her eldest, Giuseppe, went off to war in 1939, and, perhaps due to some mental snap or perhaps because of a long-burning mental illness, somehow began to understand that human sacrifices (to what God or gods it is unknown) would protect him. By this point in her life, Cianciulli had become something of an amateur fortune-teller herself, and had a few regular clients who would eventually become her three victims.
Yes, three victims is not as “splashy” as some serial killers. In Peter Jackson’s THE FRIGHTENERS, a serial killer played by Jake Busey whined that his “score” wasn’t as high as it could be, lamenting that “that Russian cannibal creep is running around with a score of fifty-plus” referring to Andrei Chikatilo who was found guilty of 52 counts of murder in 1992. That’s a lot of mayhem and death inflicted single-handedly by a single person. From that twisted viewpoint, a list of only three murders seems like small potatoes. What’s notable about Cianciulli’s murders is the intimacy involved, the motivation of her killing, and, weirdest of all, the treatment of the bodies.
Cianciulli, who appeared to be a plump, friendly, grandmotherly type, described her MO in detail in an autobiography called AN EMBITTERED SOUL’S CONFESSIONS. If one has a strong stomach, and has resources deeper than a mere visit to Amazon.com, one may be able to track it down. A warning, though: It is reading only for the unhappiest of unhappy mutants.
Cianciulli’s victims were all middle-aged women who visited her regularly for prognostications. In each case, Cianciulli encouraged her clients to make big life changes that involved moving away to remote locations. For her first victim, Faustine Setti, Cianciulli encouraged her to write several postcards to family in advance, telling them that Setti had found a new husband in a faraway state and that she was happy. Once she had effectively spirited herself away, Setti was to visit Cianciulli one last time before an actual departure. Cianciulli then murdered her with an axe, and took her body into a large closet where Setti’s body was horribly rended and disassembled.
Cianciulli, in a weird bit of inspiration — perhaps she had recently read TITUS ANDRONICUS — collected Setti’s blood in a big vat, and elected to use it as a thickening agent in a batch of teacakes. These teacakes were enjoyed by Cianciulli and her husband, and were also (ulp) fed to her other clients. An actual quote from her autobiography confirms this. The postcards were then, presumably, mailed to her family, ensuring them that her disappearance was natural.
The exact same setup was practiced on her second victim, a woman named Francesca Soavi, whom Cianciulli found an imaginary job for in a faraway place. Same bout of postcards. Same fateful final visit. Same axe. Same closet. Same recipe. Her third victim, Virginia Cacioppo, was special in that her body was bigger and fattier than the first two. As such, not only was her blood harvested for teacakes, but her fat was collected and harvested in a large cauldron for use in soap-making. Cianciulli claimed, in a statement, that her body was particularly well-suited for soap and and for baking. “That woman,” she said “was really sweet.”
Cianciulli was investigated by Cacioppo’s sister-in-law and was eventually apprehended for the murders. She went to trial, and behaved in a coldly guilt-free manner, describing the murders as a matter of practical baking. She was not cruel or mean about her crimes. They just seemed, to her, a simple matter of course. There was no reason not to kill these women. There was no reason not to turn their bodies into snacks and soap.
Because of the soap-making detail, Cianciulli has since gained the grisly nickname of “The Soap-Maker of Correggio.” She spent three years in a mental asylum, although her exact mental infirmity is not a matter of record. She died in prison in 1970 at the age 76, six years before her first potential parole.
Cianciulli, while perhaps not well-known in America, has been the subject of films, plays, and TV specials in Europe in the intervening years. A 1977 Italian exploitation film called BLACK JOURNAL, starring Shelley Winters and Max Von Sydow, and based on Cianciulli’s memoir, can be found easily enough by horror fans (you can watch it in its entirely below).
Famed filmmaker Lina Wertmüller (LOVE AND ANARCHY, SEVEN BEAUTIES) also once scripted a comedic play about Cianciulli called LOVE AND MAGIC IN MAMA’S KITCHEN, which enjoyed a brief Broadway run in 1983.
These days, it’s hard to look at Cianciulli’s crimes, and not titter in incredulity. These crimes were so weird and so extreme that they can be the subject of a camp play and a cheesy exploitation film. She has become a gimmick killer of fiction and film. Most people cannot imagine the extremity of Cianciulli’s mind, and perhaps they shouldn’t. To Cianciulli, her actions simply made sense. They were calm, logical chores of the day, and not crimes of darkness, revenge, or passion.
All I know is I am personally, going forward, going to be suspicious of every teacake I am offered.