Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Cagliostro




The subject of my paper is probably the man of the last century who has most engaged the attention of writers in every branch of literature. In our day Dumas, the unapproachable, has made him the hero of a famous romance, while Carlyle has written many winged words about him. Other authors of lesser calibre have tried their hand with him, and at the first blush it might be supposed that a subject less promising for novelty could hardly have been selected. There is one side of Cagliostro’s polygonal life (if I may use the term), however, which has not yet been duly regarded. Of the countless books published about him no two agree on simple facts: his birth, his influence, and even his swindling have been variously described. In this short sketch, in a word, I purpose to tell the truth about the arch impostor whose clumsy juggling makes one feel ashamed of one’s ancestors for letting themselves be deluded by such transparent frauds. Frederick Bülau, in his celebrated work “Geheime Geschichten und räthselhafte Menschen,” has completely succeeded in analysing the life of the great Copth, and the following details derived from his work, though they may prove disappointing, can be relied on for their accuracy.

Joseph Balsamo was born at Palermo on June 8, 1743, his father being a bankrupt bookseller, with a more than strong suspicion of Judaism about him. At the age of thirteen the lad was sent to the monastery of the Brothers of Mercy at Cartagirone, where he gained the affections of the frater apothecary, from whom he apparently acquired the elementary ideas he possessed on the various branches of medicine, which served him in good stead at a later date. During the lad’s stay with the pious fathers, he caused them considerable annoyance, one of his favourite tricks which scandalised them greatly being to substitute the names of brigands and light women for those of the male and feminine saints mentioned in the chapter of the martyrology he had to read during supper. The result was, that Joseph was turned out without a character. On his return to Palermo he appears to have lived by his wits, and he had considerable skill in fencing and drawing. The former accomplishment repeatedly got him into trouble, while the latter he employed to improve himself in forgery. One of the tricks he played is not without its humorous side: he obtained from a jeweller of the name of Murano sixty gold ounces, on a promise to help him in discovering an immense treasure buried in a cavern by the sea-shore; but when they reached it, the hapless jeweller was attacked by half-a-dozen demons, dressed all in red, who gave him a tremendous thrashing.

For this and similar matters,—which brought him into unpleasant collision with the police,—Balsamo thought it advisable to quit Palermo for a while, and he proceeded to Messina, where he formed the acquaintance of one Altolas—the sage Althotas of his own and Dumas’ romances—a clever Spanish or Greek adventurer, who had already travelled over a great portion of the East, and was probably an adroit conjuror. It seems certain that Balsamo made several trips to the Archipelago, Asia Minor, and Egypt, with this Altolas, who initiated him in his various tricks. While wandering about in this way, Balsamo picked up that smattering of Eastern languages which he afterwards employed to dazzle his dupes. At Malta he lived on intimate terms with the Grand Master Pinto,—not, as he says in his Life, because he was a son of a princess of Trebizonde, but as one of the numerous adventurers who profited by the Grand Master’s passion for alchymy. At any rate, Balsamo gained such credit with Pinto, that the latter gave him very strong letters of recommendation to Rome and Naples. At Rome especially, Baron de Bretteville, Envoy of the Maltese order to the Holy See, introduced him to the first houses: and at a later date Balsamo used to boast of the peculiar favour in which he stood with Pope Clement XIII. and Cardinal York. In 1770, he married a simple servant girl, Lorenza Feliciani, with whom he fell in love for her great beauty. It is probable that this marriage was only a speculation, and that he hoped to derive profit from his wife’s exceeding loveliness. In fact, he never behaved as a severe husband, and most indulgently closed his eyes to any eccentricities on the part of the fair Lorenza, who, in gratitude, was always his most docile instrument.

At this time Balsamo lived by forging letters of credit with two accomplices, Agliata and Nicastro. The latter having denounced him, Balsamo fled with Agliata to Bergamo, where he gave himself out as an officer in the service of the King of Prussia, but the police would not believe him. Whereupon Agliata bolted, taking with him the entire wardrobe of his partners, whom he left in a state of perfect denudation. Balsamo and his wife, in order to get out of the scrape, were obliged to assume a pilgrim’s dress, and announced that they were about to undertake a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella. They next turned up in London, where Lorenza made plenty of money, defrauding a Quaker, among others, of one hundred guineas. As for Balsamo, it appears that during his first stay in London, he was convicted no less than ten times of swindling. The result was that he thought it better to be off to Paris, but the faculty of that city refused him permission to practise as a physician. Lorenza having left him, he found means to punish her by imprisoning her for several months at Sainte Pélagie. He then made a trip through the Netherlands and Germany, and suddenly reappeared at Palermo with the name of the Marquis de Pellegrini. The vindictive jeweller recognised and had him arrested; but Lorenza contrived to form the acquaintance of an influential prince, who procured her husband’s liberation by thrashing the prosecutor’s lawyer as a warning example. Being in a state of terrible impecuniosity when liberated, he pledged articles belonging to his sister, and the poor woman was obliged to pay eleven gold onzas to redeem them, as Göthe tells us in his “Travels in Italy.”

Balsamo then proceeded to Spain, where he travelled in a Prussian uniform, and assumed the name of Dr. Tischio. He made a living by selling a water of beauty, converting hemp into silk, making gold of mercury, melting small diamonds to produce larger stones, but chiefly by predicting lucky numbers in the lottery—a secret he would not have failed to benefit by himself, if he had been completely convinced of its efficiency.

Returning once more to London, he was received there into a Freemasons’ Lodge, and from that moment dates the power he exercised so long, and the noise he made in Europe. Henceforth he only moved in the highest circles, leading the life of a prince, and cleverly giving his intrigues a new and more brilliant character. He managed to obtain an extraordinary influence over minds, especially of women and men of weak character. His portrait and that of Lorenza were worn on fans, rings, and medallions, and busts of him in marble and plaster were sold, bearing the inscription Divo Cagliostro, which was the only name he thenceforth acknowledged.

Even the worthy Dutchmen yielded, like everybody else, to the torrent. At the Hague all the masonic lodges rivalled each other in the brilliancy of the reception they gave Cagliostro, and in that town he was even compelled to open a ladies’ lodge. He invented a new masonic system, which he declared to be Egyptian, and incessantly propagated it, though he did not succeed in having it completely adopted till October, 1784, on the establishment of the grand mother-lodge, “for the triumph of truth,” at Lyons. It was said that he obtained the first idea of the system when in London, from a MS. by one George Copston, but he referred it to Enoch and Elijah, from whom the Egyptian high-priests had it. At the outset he only gave himself out as the Messenger of Elijah, or the Great Copth, but at a later date he promoted himself to the rank of Grand Kofi. He then asserted that he was the produce of the loves of an angel with a woman, and was sent into the world to lead the faithful to a higher degree of perfection by a physical and moral regeneration.

It is permissible to say that Cagliostro’s partizans adored him; they passed hours kneeling at his feet, and believed that the slightest contact with him sufficed to sanctify them. In the lodges, when that passage in the Psalms was chanted, Memento, Domine, David et omnis mansuetudinis ejus, the name of Cagliostro was substituted for that of David. Generally he retained a great part of the organisation and distinctive signs of the ordinary freemasonry, and merely augmented the number of degrees. He also opened lodges for all creeds, especially for the Jews, whom he declared the most honest people on earth. Moreover, he affected religion, combated atheism, and would not permit the saints to be turned into ridicule; hence many persons took him for an agent of the Jesuits, whose monogram he placed everywhere, recommending it to the respect of the faithful. But this affectation was entirely superficial.

On leaving the Hague, Cagliostro spent some time in Venice, and then returned to northern Europe. At Berlin he attracted no sympathy, although he announced to the Prussians that Alexander the Great was still living in Egypt as chief of a band of warrior-Magi, who had gained all his victories for Frederick II. The Prussians, as it appears, would not listen to him, so from Berlin he proceeded to Mittau. In this capital of Courland he operated with considerable success, and for a long time had many fervent and pious adherents belonging to the highest classes. Among these was Eliza von der Recke, who presently recovered her senses and published a very curious book against him. On this new scene Cagliostro pretended that he had been sent by his chiefs to recover, by his magical operations, treasures and documents relating to freemasonry, which had been buried for centuries in the domain of Wilzen. History does not tell us if his efforts were crowned with success.

From Mittau Cagliostro proceeded to St. Petersburg, where he tried to pass as a Spanish colonel, but the ambassador of that country protested against this assumption. Dr. Hugensohn, physician to the empress, also displayed such a determined scepticism, that Cagliostro found it useless to remain in St. Petersburg any longer. He therefore went through Warsaw to Frankfort, and thence to Strasburg, and the brilliant reception offered him in the two latter cities amply requited him for the coldness of the North. He started for Paris in the company of Cardinal de Rohan, but returned to Strasburg in 1781. The physicians who, like the priests, were ever his determined foes, opposed him so zealously that he thought it better to start at full speed for Naples, under the excuse that he was summoned by a dying friend. In November, 1782, he arrived at Bordeaux, as he said, on the invitation of the Minister de Vergenes, and remained in France till he was implicated in the famous trial about the Queen’s necklace. It is not at all probable that he took the slightest part in Madame de Lamotte’s swindling, for he had at his disposal very different means to plunder the Cardinal, and was the man to defend his protector sooner than let him be fleeced by others. It is believed, indeed, that Madame de Lamotte merely implicated him on the trial, because, when the affair became blown, he advised the Cardinal to tell the truth. In this investigation nothing affecting Cagliostro came out, except that on the day when the Cardinal was arrested he had invited the latter to sup in the company of Henri IV., Voltaire, and Rousseau. There was evidently some imposture in this, but it had no connection with the necklace affair. Still, from the beginning of the trial, he was placed in the Bastille, after he had refused the means of flight offered him, and the sentence, passed on May 8, 1786, condemned him to be banished from France. During the trial his adherents sent to Parliament an apology for him, splendidly printed and adorned with the portrait of Cagliostro—a memoir, in drawing up which Espremenil himself had a share, and which was presented to the judges by men of the highest rank. It states, “That Cagliostro is the son of a Grand Master of Malta; that he was mysteriously educated at Mecca and Medina; after journeys undertaken in his earliest youth, he was initiated in the secret sciences of the East in the Pyramids of Egypt; his instructor, the sage Althotas, to whom he owed all he knew, was a Christian and Knight of Malta, but was accustomed to wear and make his pupil wear the Mussulman costume; that on reaching the full maturity of his intellect and genius Cagliostro began traversing Europe as a physician and prophet; endowed with the power of raising the dead and exorcising spirits, he had everywhere shown himself the ‘friend of humanity,’ a title which public gratitude had justly conferred on him.” It makes one ashamed of humanity to think that there were men, not more than eighty years back, who believed in such absurdities.

When Cagliostro was restored to liberty, his adherents illuminated their houses, and celebrated his acquittal by magnificent fêtes. A number of distinguished men accompanied him to St. Dénis: and when he embarked at Boulogne, thousands of persons lined the shore, and asked his blessing.

He went across to England, and at once published a pamphlet, in which he accused the governor of the Bastille, the Marquis de Launay, and the Chevalier Chenon, of having robbed him of his most valuable articles. Fortunately for them, these gentlemen were enabled to prove in the most positive manner the falsehood of this accusation. Cagliostro also produced a Manifesto to the French Nation, dated February 20, 1786, in which he produced, under the form of prophecies, the very natural wishes of a man who has just left the Bastille; for instance, the destruction of that state prison, and the abolition of lettres de cachet. The publication of this Manifesto furnished him at a later date with an excuse for addressing the National Assembly from Rome, and asking permission to return to France, in consideration of the signal services he had rendered to the cause of liberty.

It appears that during his stay in London, after his escape from the Bastille, he formed a connection with a fanatic of a very different stamp—Lord George Gordon, with whom “Barnaby Rudge” has made us all so thoroughly acquainted. It is a curious fact, when we remember Cagliostro’s liking for Judaism, that Lord Gordon became a Hebrew in his later years. At the same period, Cagliostro also entered into relations with the Theological Society of the Swedenborgians. Per contrà, he found a rude adversary in Morand, the editor of the “Courrier de l’Europe,” who so pursued him with his biting sarcasms, while proving the truth of his statements, that the great Kofi could not prolong his stay in England. In Germany he had lost all credit. through the frankness with which Eliza von der Recke revealed Cagliostro’s nullity and her own weakness; and also, it must be conceded, through the false charge brought against him at Berlin, of being an agent of the Jesuits.

One illusion is, in truth, more easily destroyed by another illusion, than by the simple truth. Still Cagliostro succeeded in establishing a mother-lodge of Freemasons for Switzerland at Basle; but at Biel, the local authorities took umbrage at his performances, and his wife was obliged to declare on oath, in the presence of the magistrates, that her husband had always lived as an honest man and good Catholic; and the information collected by the authorities was, consequently, false. At Turin, the Sardinian government ordered him to leave the kingdom immediately: Joseph II. had him driven out of Roveredo, and that prince also had him expelled from Trent, where he had contrived to gain the good will of the archbishop by affecting a deep penitence and going frequently to mass. He proceeded thence to Rome, where his adventurous career was destined to end. His possible object was to employ, in his fashion, certain letters of recommendation given him by the archbishop, or he may have merely yielded to the entreaties of his wife, who wished to see her parents again. He lived there at first in great seclusion: but presently, impelled by necessity, as he declared, he crept into the Masonic body “for the meeting of sincere brethren,” and tried to propagate there the ideas of Egyptian Freemasonry. He must have felt, however, that the ground trembled under his feet, for he drew up an address to all the Roman lodges, urging them to liberate him, in the event of his being arrested, and, if necessary, to force the prison. Still it does not appear that he destroyed any of his papers, for an immense quantity was found at his lodgings. Betrayed by one of his adepts, he was arrested and taken to the Castle of St. Angelo, on November 27, 1789.

The Roman Inquisition carried on his trial with a patience and moderation that was not to be expected from such a tribunal, and gave it a laudable publicity. But, in conformity with its instructions, it paid less attention to Cagliostro’s trickery and schemes, than to his religious opinions. He at length confessed his irreligious principles and heresies: whereupon he was condemned to death. In 1791, Pius VI. commuted that sentence to imprisonment for life, and if he evinced a sincere repentance, the ecclesiastical penalties and censure would be remitted. Lorenza was shut up in a convent. It has been asserted that Cagliostro tried one day to strangle his confessor, in order to escape in his gown, and that in 1797, on the approach of the French troops, he was found dead in his cell, a victim to the Inquisition: but these reports seem to be false. His time had passed by: besides, he never had any great political importance, and even what he had was of no value, since politics had passed from the hands of intriguers into those of revolutionists and violent men.

Cagliostro’s person is described by some as repulsive, and even disgusting, while others judge it more favourably. He was of short stature, and of a brownish tint, as became a Sicilian; but at a later date he became very stout, without counting that he squinted. But, for all that, he had a splendid head, which might have served an artist as a model to represent the poet under the power of inspiration. His language was not free from the idioms of the Sicilian dialect: his tone, his features, and his manners were those of a pompous, presumptuous, and troublesome charlatan, and usually people ended by recognising him as such. It is said that his conversation in private circles was rather agreeable. His wife declared that the speeches he pronounced, sword in hand, were a gallimaufry of high-sounding and ridiculous tirades. But it is possible that she could not understand him; and besides, she found a way of purifying herself, when the crash came, by blackening her husband as much as she could.

The financial resources he had at his disposal, or really employed, were at various periods so extraordinary, that it is impossible to discover how he procured the money. When he travelled, his suite was always composed of six Berlines, each drawn by four horses. Following the usual tactics of medical charlatans, he sent in no bill to his patients, and claimed no fees from them: he merely accepted from their gratitude presents, or loans. It is said that he spared neither trouble nor care with his patients: and if some cases may be mentioned in which he was not successful, it is indubitable that he performed a great number of extraordinary cures. He distributed all his medicaments gratis, and he only demanded a small fee for his pills, through a chemist in his service. His pretended Egyptian wine was a powerfully spiced and stimulating beverage; while lettuce, and other plants of the same nature, were the components of his “refreshing powder.” He also employed arum maculatum, a very poisonous material, and large doses of sugar of lead for external use.[1]

Lascelles Wraxall.


  1. Those who wish to know more of this arch impostor can consult “Compendio della Vita e delle geste di Giuseppe Balsamo, denominato el Conte Cagliostro” (Rome, 1791); Göthe’s “Reisen in Italien;” and the “Memoirs of Baron Henry Von Gleichen” (Leipzig, 1847).