Cianciulli was born in Montella. While still a young girl, she attempted suicide twice. In 1917 she married a registry office clerk, Raffaele Pansardi. Her parents did not approve of the marriage, as they had planned to marry her to another man. She claimed that on this occasion her mother cursed them. The couple moved to Pansardi's native town, Lauria, in 1921 where Cianciulli was sentenced for fraud and imprisoned in 1927. When released, the couple moved to Lacedonia. Their home was destroyed by an earthquake in 1930, and they moved once more, this time to Correggio, where Cianciulli opened a small shop. She was very popular and well-respected within her neighborhood.
Cianciulli had 17 pregnancies during her marriage, but lost three of the children to miscarriage. Ten more died in their youth. Consequently, she was heavily protective of the four surviving children. Her fears were fueled by a warning she had received some time earlier from a fortune teller, who said that she would marry and have children, but that all of the children would die young. Reportedly, Cianciulli also visited another Romani who practiced palm reading, and who told her, "In your right hand I see prison, in your left a criminal asylum."
In 1939, Cianciulli learned that her eldest son, Giuseppe, was going to join the Italian Army in preparation for World War II. Giuseppe was her favourite child, and she was determined to protect him at all costs. She came to the conclusion that his safety required human sacrifices. She found her victims in three middle-aged women, all neighbours.