Sunday, June 28, 2009

Black Sheep Sunday: Giuseppe Balsamo / Count Cagliostro

Alessandro, Count di Cagliostro spoke of his childhood as few children would ever have imagined. He claimed his name was Acharat and that his parents were a Christian Prince and Princess of the Anatolian Christian Kingdom of Trebizond, who left him orphaned. He was raised by the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Althotas who gave him the name of Cagliostro.

At age twelve, Althotas took the boy with him on a grand journey into Arabia. Acharat claimed to have lived for three years in Mecca, in the palace of the Cherif, then wandered another three years in Egypt, Africa, and Asia. Upon arriving in Malta, he was initiated by Althotas into the ancient esoteric mysteries of the Knights. After Althotas' death, Cagliostro traveled in Greece, Sicily, and finally Rome.

On April 20, 1768, while still living in Rome, he married the beautiful fourteen year old Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani. Seraphina's parents were offended by Cagliostro's crudely lustful ways and would not allow the couple to stay with them. They set off on their own, parleying Cagliostro's winning charm and Seraphina's beauty and sexuality into steps up the social ladder.

For about 30 years, Alessandro, Count di Cagliostro traveled throughout Europe, selling potions, amulets, seances, and his mystic, psychic gifts to the wealthy and noble. Because the Egyptian Masonic movement tied in so handily with his growing reputation as a occultist, he advocated the society and founded several branches. He became very rich with his activities, living lavishly in Paris. In a city known for the elaborate decoration of it's civic and royal dwellings, Cagliostro's 1785 home left an impression.

Unfortunately for him, a political scandal surfaced in which he was implicated, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. He was arrested August 23, 1785. After spending nine months in the Bastille, he was acquitted, but pointedly told to leave France, partly from his flirtatious behavior and partly because of the background that came to light.

In preparation for this trial, his past was researched by Goethe of Weimar himself, who wrote in his Italian Journey, that Cagliostro's identification as Giuseppe Balsamo was made by a lawyer from Palermo who provided copies of pertinent documents. In 1787, Goethe interviewed Balsamo's mother and sister. Afterward, he called all of the Count's claims, "silly fairy-tales". From the research, it seems that Cagliostro wasn't titled or even a Trebizondian citizen.

He was born Giuseppe Balsamo in Palermo, Sicily in the Albergheria or Jewish Quarter, on 8 June 1743.*  His family struggled with money, but tried to provide their son with a good education. He was tutored, then placed as a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God. However, with his habit of being expelled from every school he attended, he never completed an formal education.

Instead, he joined vagabond bands of highwaymen, bilking, stealing, and assaulting his way through his teens. He was jailed several times, gaining a notorious reputation in the process.

Balsamo fled Sicily and actually did go to Malta where he joined the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and also became a skilled pharmacist. This background gave him the skills he needed to ply his mysticism and elixir trade through Europe. He was fortunate enough to meet other rogues along the way that added to his resume with forgery skills and helped him increase his charismatic manipulation of his wealthy marks.

In 1769, Giuseppe and Serafina Balsamo even tried to dupe the ultimate manipulator, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, as the seducer documented in his diary. However, he recognized that they weren't the pious pilgrims they claimed to be, gave them some alms, and sent them on their way. Since Casanova was recovering from pneumonia at the time, it gave him an uncharacteristic will to resist Seraphina's sexual advances.

In 1776, the couple was now the Count and Countess Cagliostro with nowhere to go but up. Between then and 1786, they traveled, claiming to be physicians and the discovers of an elixir that stopped aging. Balsamo claimed to be adept in magic and alchemy. It seemed that wealthy European royalty couldn't enrich the Balsamos fast enough.

On a 1789 trip to Rome, as the mystic attempted to found yet another Egyptian Freemasonry group under the Pope's nose, he was arrested on 27 December 1789 as part of an inquisition on Freemasonry. He was sentenced to death for being a Mason. Although the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the Pope, he lived only until 26 August 1795.

There are two paths of thought in the history of Alessandro, Count di Cagliostro. One believes that he was extraordinary medium who was misunderstood, libeled, and betrayed. They offer a sympathetic view of the man as a martyr to Masonry and deny that he was Giuseppe Balsamo. The other camp considers him a consummate con artist, a quack's quack, capable of great hypnotic charm and quick violence, who was the re-packaged Giuseppe Balsamo.

* Balsamo's great grandfather was Matteo Martello. Martello had two daughters, Vincenza (married Giuseppe Cagliostro from whom Balsamo would "borrow" his surname), and Maria (married Giuseppe Bracconeri). Maria had three children: Matteo, Antonia, and Felicitá. Felicitá married Pietro Balsamo, son of bookseller Antonino Balsamo. Before Pietro died bankrupt at age 44, they had son Giuseppe Balsamo and a daughter, "Signora Capitummino". The Signora had two daughters and a son. Felicitá was still alive in Palermo in 1787 when Gothe visited her.

The Washington Post
Monday, February 12, 1910
page 4, col 3


Cagilostro Asserted He Was Present At Crucifiction
Spurious Count Became Fabulously Wealthy Through Sale of Elixir of Youth--Performed Many "Miracles"--Actually Did Foretell Fall of Bastile--Sentenced to Prison by Pope.

From the New York Evening World.

"A liar of the first magnitude. Thoroughpaced in all the provinces of lying. What one may call the King of Liars."

Thus wrote grim old Thomas Carlyle. And the victim on whom he showered such abuse was Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, master of a thousand brilliant fakes. Even the man's high-sounding name was a fake. He was really Giuseppe Balsama, a Sicilian peasant's son. 

Cagilostro as a mere child was expelled from the local charity school for some abominable bit of mischief. Next he went into a Palermo monastery where h found work in the monk's apothecary shop. There he showed a positive genius for medicine and soon knew more about chemistry and the use of drugs than did any one else in the whole brotherhood. Incidently he learned a few tricks, too, a few great truths that always proved invaluable to doctors and showmen alike. He found out that many people trust physicians as they trust no one else. Also that a large percentage of the public are really fooled by any nonsense that is cleaver enough to attract them. On these teo human failings the lad built his future career of gigantic swindling.
Sold Mythical Treasure

So when a feat of audacious blasphemy on his part led the monks to kick him out, Cagilostro was quite ready to start upon his career. To provide himself with ready money for a tour of Italy, he tricked a rich Sicilian into buying from him at a large price, the secret of a treasure cave that did not exist. Driven out of Sicily, he wandered through Europe and the orient perfecting himself in the best art of all the fakers he met on the way and swindling every simple minded traveler he met. Then with a gloriously beautiful young girl whom ha had married in Rome, he launched forth as the discoverer of a miraculous liquor which he asserted would prolong life and restore youth. Pointing to his lovely young wife he related that she had recently been a whithered old crone of 80 and had been made a girl again by one draught of wine of Eygpt.

He himself he said had already lived for 2,000 years by constantly drinking this wine. He told as an eyewitness about events that had happened many centuries before and described the spiritual marriage feast at Canna in Galilee at which, he said he had been an honored guest. He also declared he had been present at the Cricifixion, and he used to burst into reminiscent tears at the sight of a crucifix. 
Traveled in Gilded Chariot

People listened greedily to Cagliostro's absurd lies. Through the sale of his wine of Egypt, he grew fabulously rich. He traveled from place to place in a gilded chariot with a retinue of servants. Princes and other notables vied with one another to do him honor. He speedily became one of the foremost men of Europe. Not content with claiming to have discovered the secret of perpetual life, Cagliostro proceeded to found a sort of masonic order with himself as its high priest. Thousands of people in all stations of life joined the cult and the man's wealth and fame still further increased. He next obtained favor and more money by establishing Masonic lodges for women.

Not were these the greatest of Cagliostro's impostures. He claimed to be of semidivine birth, said he had power of rendering himself invisible and added the information that he could not only make diamonds and other precious stones but could transform all metals into gold. The wonder was less that he should make such assertions than that nearly all _____ should believe him. By clever spiritualistic seances he apparently raised the ghosts of the great dead. He persuaded some of the craftiest noblemen of the day that they had actually seen him make diamonds and turn iron bars into gold nuggests. He was a brilliant hypnotist, too, at an age when hypnotism was thought to be a miraculous power.
Foretold Fall of Bastile

He went to Paris. There his vast charities made him popular. His boundless wealth backed his assertion that he could make gold. The neat, hand made miracles that he performed astounded the wisest Frenchmen. Prince Cardinal de Rohan, grand almoner of France and shrewdest of statesmen was utterly hood winked by him. In fact, Cagliostro has always been suspected of using the Cardinal as a dupe of the famous--or infamous--affair of the queen's necklace. As a matter of fact, some of the miracles performed by the archfaker still defy detection. He foretold many great events that actually occured. He readily announced the lucky numbers of the government lotteries. When temporarily locked in the Bastile prison in 1786 on suspicion of having shared Rohan's supposed guilt in the theft of the diamond necklace, he wrote on his cell wall "The Bastile shall be destroyed and the people shall dance on the [site?]". In three years his prophecy was fulfilled.

After a luxurious life in Paris, Cagliostro went to Rome. There the Pope condemned him to life imprisonment as an enemy to the Christian religion. He died in his cell August 26, 1795 having for years duped the whole world.  

The depths of Balsamo's outrageous behavior and claims are only hinted at here.  For more information, pro and con, consult the above newspaper article about him and the links below. 

Internet articles:

This  article on Cagliostro has an extensive bibliography:  Wikipedia

Alessandro, Count di Cagliostro


Great Theosophists: Cagliostro

The aptly named:  Count Cogliostro[sic]: Alchemist who could turn people into gold

Downloadable book:

The Life of Joseph Balsamo, Commonly Called Count Cagliostro [1791]

Engraving of Joseph Balsamo [Giuseppe Balsamo]:
Frontpiece [no artist or engraver attributed, undated],
The Life of Joseph Balsamo, Commonly Called Count CagliostroBarberi, Alessandro Cagliostro, Apostolic Chamber, Catholic Church. Camera Apostolica
C. & C. Kearsley, 1791

30 June 2009 Addendum added:

- Some dates corrected.

- Additional tidbits were found:

- This is the only mention of any possible children of The Balsamos that I've found, so far:
It is said, though with what truth cannot be stated, that "she occasionally spoke of a son who was a captain in the service of the dutch government."

Cagliostro, By William Rutherford Hayes Trowbridge, page 205.

What became of Seraphina? Around the time in 1789 when Balsamos was condemned to death, then had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, "His wife was shut up in a convent, and died soon after."

The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries By Charles William Heckethorn, page 79.

- Additional genealogical details of Giuseppe Balsamo's Palermo family was found in  

Count Cagliostro: An Authentic Story of a Mysterious Life By Constantin Photiades on page 58.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings, Readers:

    After reading more accounts of Balsamo's life, many of the details differ between authors. He was Cagliostro, he wasn't. He did go to Malta, he didn't. He was a montebank or he was a martyr for Freemasonry.

    This is indeed a "never-ending" story where you can create your own version.

    During the time he spent with Serphina (and the time she spent with others, doing her part to get them up that social ladder), it seems likely that, under normal circumstances, she had children. Instead, perhaps she was infertile. Or perhaps the couple consciously decided to remain unencumbered with by a family by whatever means they could.

    If you come across any interesting stories about the "Count" & "Countess", please share them with me. Although all accounts of these two are fascinating, I'm most interested in the question of children.

    Thank you, Julia