The Strange case of Count di Cagliostro
A cautionary story of guarding the west gate.
Alessandro Count di Cagliostro (pronounced “kally-o-stro”) was born Giuseppe Balsamo on June 2, 1743 in Palermo, Italy. Early in Cagliostro’s life his father died and because his mother was unable to support him, he was sent to live with his uncle until he ran away after which he was sent to a seminary and he again ran away.
Finally Cagliostro was sent to a Benedictine monastery, where he discovered a talent for medicine and chemistry. Although he was a very good student he tried to look beyond the basic information he was given . After several years Cagliostro once again ran away from the monastery joining a band of ‘thieves & thugs’, that committed petty crimes as well as murders. Constantly in police custody thanks to his association with the street thugs, it was only thanks to his uncle that he wasn’t sent to prison for his crimes. As quickly as he had become involved with the street thugs, when at the age of seventeen he began to feign interest in the occult and alchemy when a goldsmith named Marano arrived in Palermo and became associated with Cagliostro.
Marano met with many alchemists who had claimed to be able to transmute metals, but he believed that Cagliostro alone had the power to do so. Seeing that Marano believed in him, Cagliostro asked for sixty ounces of gold to conduct magical ceremonies and then would show Marano the location of a large cache of treasure hidden near the city. With some hesitation Marano gave Cagliostro the gold and at midnight that night he was led to the field some distance from Palermo. The only thing awaiting Marano were some thugs Cagliostro had hired to attack him. Soon after, Cagliostro fled Palermo and began his world travels.
Cagliostro traveled throughout the world, visiting Egypt, Greece, Persia, Rhodes, India and Ethiopia, studying the occult and alchemical knowledge he found in those countries. In 1768 Cagliostro returned to Italy first going to Naples, where he met one of the thugs who helped him attack Marano. The two men went to Naples and opened a Casino, to cheat wealthy foreigners out of money. Neapolitan authorities quickly discovered their plot and forced the men to leave.
Cagliostro went to Rome where established himself as doctor, making a very good living. While in Rome, he met and married Lorenza Feliciani, called Serafina. The couple traveled together to London, where Balsamo, now styling himself with one of several pseudonyms and self-conferred titles before settling on “Count Alessandro di Cagliostro”, allegedly met the Comte de Saint-Germain. Cagliostro traveled throughout Europe, especially to Courland, Russia, Poland, Germany, and later France. His fame grew to the point that he was even recommended as a physician to Benjamin Franklin during a stay in Paris.
Allegedly it was the Comte de Saint-Germain in London, who initiated him into the rites of
Egyptian Freemasonry, as well as the recipes for the elixirs of Youth and Immortality. After establishing Egyptian Rite Masonic Lodges in England, Germany, Russia and in France Cagliostro went to Paris in 1772, where he again sold medicines, elixirs and began to hold séances.
King Louis XVI became interested in Cagliostro, and was entertained by the Count who held magic suppers to entertain the court at Versailles. For many years Cagliostro was a favorite of the French court, until 1785 when he was involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, one of the major events that led to the French Revolution in 1789. Thanks to his involvement in the scandal, Cagliostro spent six months in the Bastille and then was banished from France.
Cagliostro went to Rome with his wife in late 1789, taking up the practice of medicine and séances once more. All went well for several years until he attempted to found a Masonic Lodge in Rome, after which the Inquisition arrested him in 1791, imprisoned him in the Castle of Saint Angelo (originally the tomb of Roman Emperor Hadrian in ancient times) in Rome and held a trial, accusing him of heresy, magic, conjury, and Freemasonry.
After eighteen months of deliberations, the Inquisition sentenced Cagliostro to death but his sentence was changed by the Pope to life imprisonment in the Castle of Saint Angelo. Cagliostro attempted to escape, but was easily overpowered. Then, he was sent to the solitary castle of San Leo near the city of Montefeltro, one of the strongest castles in Europe, where he died on August 26, 1795. The reports of Cagliostro’s death were not believed throughout Europe and only after a report commissioned by Napoléon did people accept the fact Cagliostro was actually dead.
Cagliostro is said to be one of the greatest figures in occult, although since the late 19th century he has been considered by many to be a charlatan. Many wild stories have grown up around him, which have obscured the true facts of his life, which are more unbelievable than the fiction.
Was Cagliostro a Model for Goethe’s Faust?
Said to be the last of the real European sorcerers, the infamous Cagliostro, his books and manuscripts had already been burned by the Church, and his reputation destroyed.
Cagliostro was famous throughout Europe in the late 18th century as a mystic, magician, Freemason, alchemist and a healer.
An exemplary humanitarian (though not a trained doctor), he treated thousands of poor people in clinics throughout Europe and refused payment. He was enormously popular among the common people – sometimes the police were needed to control the crowds around his clinics – but disdained by the elite – except for those who became his disciples.
He was ultimately exposed by his enemies – and the authorities – as truly being a Sicilian swindler named Balsamo.
He was accused of selling bogus remedies, and of faking séances and alchemical experiments. Questioned after séances, some children who had acted as mediums or pupils revealed that they had been coached by Cagliostro, and that in others he had simply led, or encouraged them. One particularly closely watched demonstration of the transmutation of gold by Cagliostro was exposed as a fraud.
Yet as much as he may have been guilty of those things, there was some undeniable legitimacy in him – he opened free health clinics and devoted himself tirelessly to the care of the poor until he was inevitably forced to leave town suddenly by jealous (or more responsible and ethical) medical professionals.
Fascinated by Freemasonry, uniquely suited to it, and always in need of an influential connection and a place to stay, he was an active Freemason, and invented the “Egyptian Rite,” founding lodges in Europe.
Because of his anti-Catholic antagonism (undoubtedly engendered by his childhood spent in Catholic institutions), his Freemasonry, his criminality, and his constant traveling, he was suspected by paranoid authorities of being a spy and agitator working to unite European revolutionary groups in an massive, international, anti-royalist, anti-Church, Illuminati movement spread among Masonic lodges – and perhaps they were right – he was all of those things, and in the opinion of the authorities, the Freemasons were indeed a secret international organisation of free-thinkers who were free to circulate and say what they wanted among their secret brotherhood – and revolution was imminent.
Protecting him, Cagliostro was popular among many, including the poor, whether as an entertainer, a true sorcerer, a celebrity, a charming scoundrel, a mystic guru, a friend, or even a pompous clown. Among the nobility and in the Church, he may have been more of a usually harmless but obnoxious irritant.
His connection to Freemasonry is also somewhat dubious in that his ‘initiation’ and subsequent associations in Freemasonry would be by today’s standards considered clandestine. The fact is that in Cagliostro day Speculative Freemasonry was more akin to the Wild West was to the early United States. New rites and Lodges popping up here and there and many for nefarious reasons, especially outside of England.
By today’s standards it is questionable whether Cagliostro would have met the standards for election to membership in any regular Masonic Lodge.
There are a few books on the subject of interest, including the one below in references. There was also several movies made about him, one starring Orson Welles. I have not seen this film but now that I know it exists I am going to try and find a copy. The costume he wears bears the square and compass as you can see.
Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th edition. Chicago. 1911
Spence, Lewis. The Encyclopedia of Occultism. University Press. New York. 1959
The Masonic Magician – by Philippa Faulks