Leonarda Cianciulli, wife of a Government clerk, had 14 children. On her husband's mean pay it was hard to get food, soap and candles to light their rustic home amid the ricefields and stunted mulberry trees of the Po Valley. But she had imagination. To the villagers of Correggio she was known as a poetess and fortune teller; lovelorn women came up the canal path to her whitewashed door, with a few coppers for the cards.
When Faustina Setti, 50-year-old frugal spinster, plunked down her savings (30,000 lire) on the promise that the poetess would find her a mate, Mona Leonarda proffered a glass of drugged wine, then felled the spinster with a hatchet, chopped her into nine pieces, and kept the change.
Then she fired up the stove, crammed Faustina into several kettles (with "my formula of 10 Ibs. of caustic soda, alum and resin") and boiled them 24 hours. From this she made soap and candles. She ground the bones into flour and made cookies for her other clients. In the same way she murdered a 53-year-old widow (3,000 lire), then a 60-year-old retired soprano, Virginia Cacioppo, said to have sung Butterfly once at La Scala. The diva yielded 50,000 lire and assorted diamonds and rubies, as well as soap and candles.
At her trial in Reggio Emilia last week Poetess Leonarda gripped the witness-stand rail with oddly delicate hands and calmly set the prosecutor right on certain details. Her deep-set dark eyes gleamed with a wild inner pride as she concluded: "I 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 last days of the war. . . ."