Count Alessandro di Cagliostro

Cagliostro, Count Alessandro di (real name: Giuseppe Balsamo): (b. Palermo, June 2, 1743; d. Urbino, Aug. 26, 1795). Swindler, adventurer, occultist, and Freemason. There is much dispute over Cagliostro’s origins. It is usually stated that he was born Giuseppe Balsamo, the son of impoverished parents, in Palermo. At the age of 13, he ran away to seek his fortune and survived by becoming a petty criminal. When caught, he was brought back and sent to the monastery at Caltagirone to be trained by the apothecary monks. Although he gained a considerable knowledge of chemistry and medicine during his time there, he never developed the necessary temperament to become a monk. In 1769, at the age of 26, he left the monastery and set out to make his fortune. He soon fell in with a Greek teacher named Althotas. The pair traveled widely throughout Greece, Asia and Egypt before Cagliostro returned to Italy. In Rome he met and married a young and beautiful woman named Lorenza Feliciani. Lorenza was in every way a match for Cagliostro’s gifts for deception and deceit. Beginning in 1771, they couple set out on an unparalleled series of adventures and schemes throughout Europe. Their travels took them to the great cities of Italy, Germany, Russia, England, France, Spain, and Poland. Cagliostro’s training in the monastery gave him enough knowledge to pass himself off as a traveling physician, philosopher, and alchemist. He was particularly adept in getting the wealthy to buy a fake concoction which he claimed was an “elixir of immortal youth.” As he journeyed Cagliostro also spread a doctrine which he called “Egyptian Freemasonry” and established a number of lodges. Cagliostro’s greatest notoriety came as a result of what has come to be known as the “Diamond Necklace Affair.” In 1783-4, as France teetered towards revolution, another in an endless chain of scandals gripped the attention of the French court. Cardinal de Rohan had been convinced to purchase an extremely expensive diamond necklace in the belief that it was desired by Queen Marie Antoinette. In truth, the Queen had never expressed any such wish and the story had been made up by a group of schemers. The conspiracy never succeeded in doing much more than creating a great deal of embarrassment in the Court. Its members were soon hunted down by the French police. Cagliostro was among those arrested and detained by the authorities. The extent of his involvement in the scheme remains a point of debate even among modern scholars as does whether he was legally released or escaped from prison. Whatever the case, as soon as he was free of the Bastille, he quickly departed for England. His close call in France did nothing to change his ways and he soon was arrested again in England and spent a term on a prison ship. After his release Cagliostro returned to Italy. In May, 1789, he found himself arrested once more while in Rome. This time, however, his problems had nothing to do with any of his schemes. His Masonic activities were viewed as heretical by the Inquisition and he was condemned to death. This sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in the fortress of San Leone in Urbino. There was no escape this time and Cagliostro lived the remainder of his life a prisoner, dying at the age of 52. Was Cagliostro really just a poor peasant? The standard tale of his early years is based on a single, very unreliable source; a French spy and blackmailer named Theveneau de Morande, who testified under torture by the Inquisition. Throughout his life, Cagliostro insisted that he was the son of noble parents who had abandoned him on Malta. He also claimed that his knowledge of medicine, alchemy, mysticism, etc came to him not from Sicilian monks but by members of the Knights of Malta.