All the Year Round on Cagliostro-Part 1

All the Year Round on Cagliostro-Part 1. Image of the page from the periodical.
All the Year Round on Cagliostro-Part 1. Image of the page from the periodical.
This is a two-part 1875 article on Cagliostro published in Charles Dicken’s weekly periodical All the Year Around. Click here for Part II


In Joseph Balsamo, calling himself the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, pupil of the sage Althotas, foster child of the Scherif of Mecca, probable son of the last king of Trebizond, named also Acharat and the “unfortunate child of nature,” by profession healer of diseases, smoother of wrinkles, friend of the poor and impotent, grand master and founder of the craft of Egyptian freemasonry, necromancer, transmuter of metals, grand cophta, prophet, priest, moralist, and vagabond, we make the acquaintance of a being in whom Mr. Carlyle, after his grim fashion, rejoices, as being no shabby compromise of good and evil, truth and falsehood, but an unmitigated scoundrel, a “Liar of the first magnitude.” Not that this conclusion is by any means to be jumped at, for the evidence concerning this strange bird of darkness is puzzling and conflicting in the most extraordinary degree; and it is difficult, with the extant documents concerning Cagliostro open before one, to decide offhand that all the evil written of this man is truth, and all the good mere lies, or the insane ravings of dupes and imbeciles. The information afforded by the said documents is of the most meagre description, and is invariably supplied either by a partisan or by an enemy. Lives, memoirs, and letters of Cagliostro to the English people exist, but all bear the same romantic tinge, except only the narrative on which Mr. Carlyle bases his opinion. This is a matter-of-fact little volume, the second edition of which bears date 1791, Paris and Strasbourg, and is entitled, “Vie do Joseph Balsamo, connu sous le nom de Comte Cagliostro,” extracted from the proceedings instituted against him at Rome in 1790, translated from the original Italian, printed at the Apostolic Chamber, enriched with curious notes and adorned with his portrait. It assumes to come to us through the medium of the Roman Inquisition, and it is supposed that the proofs to substantiate it lie in the Holy Office there. Despite all this, the book is of very doubtful authenticity, and at best is, as Mr. Carlyle points out, the work of a reporting familiar of the Inquisition, himself probably something of a liar, reporting lying confessions of one who was “not so much a Liar as a Lie ! In such enigmatic duskiness and thricefolded involution after all inquiries does the matter yet hang.” This enigmatical darkness is, if possible, intensified by the Italian version, which I may safely assume to be the original of the French. This is in the form of letters from a “learned person,” residing in Rome during the arrest and trial of the prisoner, to a friend in Venice, where the book was published after being reviewed and approved by Tommaso Mascheroni, Inquisitor General of the Holy Office at Venice. This “Corrispondenza Segreta” commences on the 28th December, 1789, concludes on the 22nd April, 1791, was licensed on the 30th May of the same year, and therefore has every appearance of a genuine work more or less extracted from the evidence brought forward at the trial; but, after all, it has no stronger guarantee than the possible veracity of the “dotta persona,” “our secret correspondent” at Rome. The portrait affixed to the French version corresponds well with all descriptions of Cagliostro, and presents a man squat of build, broad of shoulder, with a bull-face and neck, and heavy, coarse features, dark tinted, unctuous, with eyes turned upwards with a look of greasy, overfed beatitude. Not only an unlovely countenance, but one which makes the gazer marvel that ever man or woman was imposed upon by this earthy or rather muddy-looking creature, whose animal features are made yet more repulsive by their sanctimonious smirk. How did this being rise high in bemused Europe, and lead a life of high priesthood, coaches and six, out-riders, liveries at twenty louis d’or apiece, universal open-handedness and benevolence? How did he become the confidant of cardinals and princes, and learn to count his adoring followers by thousands? Whence came he? What was he?

Concerning his parentage, curious reports were circulated, some holding that he was the offspring of the grand master of Malta by a Turkish lady, made captive by a Maltese galley; others, that he was the only surviving son of the last Prince of Trebizond, who was massacred by his seditious subjects, while his infant son (Cagliostro) was conveyed by a trusty friend to Medina, where the scherif had the unprejudiced generosity to have him educated in the faith of his Christian parents! The friend who nurtured the young prince was the sage Althotas, who instructed him betimes in the languages and lore of the East.

In the lifetime, however, of Cagliostro there were many who rejected these fables of Malta and Trebizond, and proclaimed him an Italian Jew. In truth, so far as truth can be arrived at, his name was Giuseppe Balsamo, and he was born at Palermo about 1743. His father was a more or less respectable shopkeeper, named Pietro Balsamo, who, not very long after being blessed with a son, departed this life, leaving his widow Felicita to provide for herself and cub as best she might. Giuseppe was favoured with uncles, who, after their clumsy good-natured fashion, tried to put the young ragamuffin in the right path, by placing him at the seminary of St. Roch, at Palermo, from which institution he ran away several times. At the age of thirteen he was handed over to the Father-General of the Benfratelli, who carried him off to the convent at Cartagirone. There he put on the habit of a novice, and being intrusted to the keeping of the convent apothecary, picked up, by degrees, that slight knowledge of medicine and chemistry which he afterwards turned to account. In these scientific pursuits, however, Giuseppe found but slight consolation for the dullness of monastic life, and his natural blackguardism peeped out in many odd ways, and brought upon his broad back many a thrashing. A favourite trick of his was, when ordered to read to the monks while sitting at table, to vary the dullness of the volume in hand by sundry alterations and additions, as they came into his head— thereby giving proof of his natural inventive power. The fast-feeding monks probably gave little heed to what the novice was reading, until one day, while reading out of the Martyrology, he went so far as to substitute for the names of holy women those of the most disreputable females in Palermo. This joke of young Balsamo brought upon him a shower of blows, multitudinous penances, and such mortifications as decided him on showing the Benfratelli a clean pair of heels. He now tried his hand at drawing and painting, became a practised swordsman, and put his powers of fence very frequently to the proof, by getting up “rows” for the enjoyment of his dissolute patrons and associates. To carry on the war he fabricated false theatre tickets, stole the money and plate of the uncle with whom he lodged; carried letters and messages between his fair cousin and her lover, making the latter pay smartly for his complaisance; and finally insinuated himself into the office of a notary—one of his relations—and found means to falsify a will in favour of a certain Marquis Maurigi, “to the great loss,” ejaculates his Inquisitorial biographer with horror, “and injury of a holy house.” He was also accused of forging passes for monks, who wanted the “key of the street,” and was strongly suspected of having assassinated a reverend canon.

Often arrested and locked up, this slippery customer invariably contrived to escape punishment, but at last fled from Palermo, in bodily fear of a jeweller, whom he had swindled out of sixty gold “ounces,” or about thirty pounds sterling. Supple, oily Balsamo had managed to persuade this goldsmith—an avaricious noodle named Marano—that a certain grotto, a little way out in the country, contained an immense treasure, which could be reached only by the employment of magic. Gradually extracting money from his victim “for preliminary expenses,” Balsamo at last set out with him on a dark night to discover the enchanted grotto. Arrived near the supposed treasure, the confederates went through sundry magical performances, uttered incantations, grasped the divining-rod, &c., but no sooner did the wretched goldsmith begin to dig down, than some confederates of Balsamo, dressed like devils, fell upon him, and beat him within an inch of his life. The goldsmith not only complained to the proper authorities, denouncing his tormentor as a sorcerer—an ugly accusation— but followed up this by a declaration that he would kill him “at sight.”

It was indeed time for our hero to try his hand at bigger game than Palermitan goldsmiths, and to show his conjuring tricks to more important audiences than Sicilian ne’er-do-weels. A natural born quack, he could not have been born at a more appropriate time. It was the golden age of impostors and gamblers, “quacks simple, and quacks compound”—mesmerists, magicians, cabalists, Swedenborgians, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, and others. For a while the Sicilian prospered but moderately. With the money made out of the silly goldsmith he reached Messina, where, according to his own account, he met the sage Althotas, of no particular nationality, but speaking many languages, including Arabic. The probably mythical Althotas, who gave himself out for a great chemist, persuaded Balsamo to embark with him, and the precious pair travelled about the Greek Archipelago, and at last landed at Alexandria. Here they performed various feats of chemistry, and, among others, “the operation of making, with hemp and flax, stuffs which imitated silk, and made much money.” From Alexandria they went to Rhodes, and again profited by their chemical operations. They then proposed to visit Cairo, but contrary winds drove them to Malta, where they remained, working in the laboratory of the Grand Master Pinto, until, on the death of Althotas, his companion made his way to Naples, with a Knight of Malta, who was also a great amateur of chemistry. After sundry adventures, more or less apocryphal, we find the future Egyptian freemason turning up in Rome, in circumstances calculated to shake any belief one might have had in the lucrative speculations of Althotas. Balsamo was clearly poor enough —to work, almost—but he preferred to sell engravings, washed with Indian ink, as veritable drawings, lodging meanwhile at the sign of the Sun, in the Rotunda. It is rather a puzzle how this miserable fellow, who was not only ugly and dishonest but poor, contrived to secure a pretty wife, but the fact is undeniable. Lorenza Feliciani was a beautiful damsel, with the slenderest “tocher” imaginable, but yet not altogether dowerless. She was nothing loth to wed bull-necked Balsamo, and her parents were so overcome by his eloquence, that they not only gave him their daughter but lodged the young couple for several months, until the conduct of Giuseppe towards his wife made a change of apartments necessary. The poor young woman, pretty and simple, was far from comprehending the sublime heights of rascality in which her husband mentally soared. He was tired of being a mere sordid villain, and, with the keen instinct of an inferior animal, felt that his beautiful wife might be made to introduce him to sumptuous palazzi, whence he, Balsamo, on presenting his credentials alone, would be summarily kicked. Like other long-winged birds of prey, however, he was slow at first, and as this early portion of his career is rather revolting than interesting, it may be rapidly passed over. We find him fabricating false notes at Rome and forged letters of recommendation at Bergamo; swindling in confederacy with sham marquises ; developing—after degradation unutterable at Barcelona, Madrid, and Lisbon—himself into—the illustrious Marchese Pellegrini, and finally into Count Alessandro Cagliostro; always with the beautiful Countess Seraphina—no longer Lorenza— under his wing. Still only slowly growing into the quack of quacks, the count, none the richer for his rascality up to the year 1772, finds his way, as plain Signor Balsamo, to London, where, after many intrigues, he plants himself on a Doctor Benemore, on pretence of painting the country house of the aforesaid doctor. Having outraged the hospitality of Benemore, who had rescued him from prison, he finally makes London too hot for him, and departs hurriedly to Paris. Sometime during these early wanderings he makes a visit to Holstein, a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Count Saint-Germain, of whom he may possibly have learnt some curious secrets. Be this as it may, he makes a brilliant figure in Paris, thanks to the patronage of a Monsieur Duplaisir, the nobility and gentry male and female, and the sale of a certain beautifier of the skin, a restorative water bringing back the outward appearance of youth, smoothing wrinkles, abolishing pimples, and converting a hide like a drumhead into a silky integument tinted with strawberries and cream. This is not all the aid he gives—for ready cash, and plenty of it—to ancient courtiers and faded ladies of quality. As he restores the outside, so does he revivify the inner man and woman. Cagliostro’s refreshing powders, of mysterious herbs, may be bought for a few shillings each ; but it is far otherwise with the “Wine of Egypt,” the true elixir of youth, capable of transmuting faded gentlemen of the Oeil de Boeuf into brisk young gallants, not merely “arresting decay” a la Saint-Germain, but bringing back again the fire of youth. This treasure brings in much welcome grist to the Cagliostric mill, for the quack’s campaigning expenses are heavy, what with his couriers, his running footmen, his lackeys, his valets de chambre, his cooks and confectioners, and his domestics of all kinds, attired in liveries at “twenty Louis apiece.” The rooms of his house hard by the barrier are furnished in the latest style; a magnificent table is opened to numerous guests, Cagliostro and wife, poor gentle ill-used Lorenza-Seraphina, are sumptuously attired. My lord is generous, he cures the poor gratis and gives them alms into the bargain. Nevertheless there are murmurs. The twenty louis liveries are not paid for, and the insolent tradespeople complain that they have been swindled. Simple quackery is hardly buoyant enough to float that very crank vessel, the “Joseph Balsamo.” Stronger measures must be taken. The world holds more than one Marano. Why not bring cabala, abracadabra, and the transmutation of metals to bear ? Why not raise the dead? Schrepfer has done it in Germany; why not Balsamo-Pellegrini-Cagliostro in Paris ? The dupes are ready, and only too willing to be plucked!
Two “persons of distinction” fall in the way of quick-eyed Giuseppe. They imagine themselves to be chemists, or, rather, alchemists; they seek the impossible, and find—a Sicilian vagabond. The count makes them believe that he has the secret of “augmenting gold,” nay, more than that, of making it; and, more precious yet, the science of prolonging life— dearest of all to one “person of quality, already old. Giuseppe melts a few Spanish pistoles with some other substances in a crucible, and produces a mass of gold much heavier than the pistoles. Apparently much gold is required for preliminary expenses, for the persons of distinction become alarmed and set a watch upon Giuseppe, who slips one evening out of his eyrie by the barrier and flies to Brussels, thence through Germany and Italy to Palermo once more, where he plumps into the arms of the duped goldsmith, and is forthwith laid by the heels in the city jail, on charges of swindling, forgery, and other smaller matters. Things look very black until Countess Seraphina intervenes, and by her influence with a great lord, who nearly murders the plaintiff’s advocate, sets her husband free. He is, however, ordered to quit Palermo, and sets forth again on that curious pilgrimage of his, in course of which he cannot be said so much to leave one place or to travel to another, as to be forcibly ejected, or kicked from one outraged city after another into space, to shake down or not, as Fortune may favour him. A great transmuter truly of fools and dupes into raging, pursuing furies.

Count and countess presently turn up again at Malta, driving a brisk trade in beautifying water, preservative pomade, and wine of Egypt, but making more profit out of alchemy and cabala. But three months suffice to suck the Maltese orange dry, and we next find Giuseppe at Naples, where his unquiet feet are permitted to rest for several months, chemistry and cabala again standing him in good stead. Here he finds a chemical monk who rules a chemical merchant, and is in turn completely the dupe of Cagliostro, who waxes fat, but is, at last, saluted with the inevitable chorus, “Move on.” Away now to Marseilles, where an ancient dandy supplies funds (ample enough) to purchase ingredients for the philosopher’s stone, which is to restore his youth and enable him to make gold.

Time wears on, but the old gentleman feels no younger, and burns for the moment when Balsamo’s magic cauldron shall be ready, but his impatience is a marching order for the Sicilian, who tells him that a long, difficult, and costly journey is necessary to find a certain herb, without which no philosopher’s stone and no regeneration can be produced. Away drives Giuseppe in a handsome travelling-carriage, well supplied with money; and the cry is, “Ho! for Spain, anywhere, anywhere, over the border!” before the storm bursts. The carriage sold at Barcelona, Balsamo, now Don Thiscio, plunges like a vulture upon Valentia and Alicante, where his Prussian uniform, which he loves above other disguises, fails to protect him from dire disaster and humiliation. But there is no keeping him down. Crushed into kindred mud at Alicante, he crops out at Cadiz, finds another chemical fanatic, and extracts from him a bill of exchange for a thousand crowns, besides watches and jewels, and board and lodging during his stay in Cadiz. The old, old story repeats itself again. The dupe becomes first impatient, then suspicious, and Cagliostro finally takes his departure for London, where he fares little better than on his previous visit, but takes a step which makes his fortune for several years at least. On this occasion he makes the acquaintance of a certain Miss Fry, and of a Mr., alias Lord, Scott —lottery-maniacs after the fashion of 1776. Cagliostro comes at once to the front, bold as brass. He can make gold chemically, he says, but, if they prefer a shorter way, he can pick them out good numbers. He, according to his own version of the story, picks out numbers so well in his lodgings, at Whitcomb Street, that Miss Fry wins two thousand pounds, and this lady presents his wife with a diamond necklace (only a little one, this necklace). Nevertheless Miss Fry proclaims herself a loser—robbed of considerable sums, and induced by the arch-quack to buy the diamond necklace, as he possessed the art of “augmenting” diamonds, by burying them for a considerable time in the earth, where they become soft, and swell, requiring only a pinch of a certain rose-coloured powder to become hard again, and increased in value an hundred fold. Numerous witnesses attest that they have heard him frequently boast of possessing the science of turning mercury into silver, and of increasing the bulk of gold by various chemical operations, into all of which enter the famous rose-coloured powder. At this, his second English avatar, Giuseppe is not known as Count, but, indifferently, as Captain or Colonel Cagliostro, of the Prussian service. His commission (forged, of course) is open to inspection, and he struts boldly about in his Prussian uniform, which gets him into many scrapes. Finally, his enemies overcome him, hunt him out of one jail into the other; lead him, in short, a terrible life; but, notwithstanding all this, he yet contrives, out of the very slough of despond in Whitcomb Street, to pluck the talisman which shall convert a mere second-rate jail-bird into a first-class impostor; the ugly grub dwelling in filthy mud-heaps into the gaudy wasp, whose buzz shall soon be heard from one end of Europe to the other, and shall finally be consigned to darkness and impenetrable night.

This talisman is freemasonry, into the ordinary mysteries of which he is initiated during his residence in England. When, exactly, or in what London lodge, is unknown ; but the fact is clear enough that Giuseppe is not only an ordinary brother, but one aspiring to reign, to create a new order of masonry specially prepared and doctored to suit the palates of Rosicrucians, Illuminati, and the like. To us, writing or thinking barely a hundred years after this wonderful career of Giuseppe, that old world, before the French Revolution cleared the atmosphere, appears utterly and completely mad, as mayhap we of this learned and scientific nineteenth century shall appear to the clever fellows of the twentieth. Before, then, pooh-poohing Cagliostro’s impudent career as impossible and apocryphal—as it certainly was not—let us glance for a short while at the peculiar phase of insanity which favoured his audacious enterprise.

In treating of the age of Cagliostro, and of the eighteenth century generally, it should never be forgotten that it was peculiarly and especially a period of transition. Science was in his cradle, as yet over weak for the strangling of serpents. To astronomy still clung odds and ends of astrology; chemistry was very alchemical, and smacked strongly of the Black Art, as its name implies. Herb doctors still gathered their simples under certain aspects of the heavenly bodies ; the whole positive knowledge of the period was curiously bemuddled with mystic twaddle, signs, and symbols. Science had not yet cut loose from the Supernatural, and the effect of new discoveries on old faiths and traditions was to produce a curious social salad, or rather salmagundy: Cavendish and Watt quarrelling over the discovery of the composition of water; Priestley discovering oxygen, and Johnson believing in the Cock-lane ghost. Freemasonry a hundred years ago was a very different organisation from the great brotherhood of to-day, and in Germany, especially, was intimately connected with the Illuminati. At Ingoldstadt we find, in 1773, Weisshaupt —a suppressed Jesuit, burning to found a sect of his own, to preach perfectibility and to regenerate the century—goaded into sudden action by an officer named Ecker, who, descending on the neighbourhood, founds a lodge of Freemasons in the next village, and produces immense excitement by alchemy, magic mirrors, and spirits evoked from the shades. Ecker draws after him a crowd of would-be adepts, to the despair of Weisshaupt, who at once launches the opposition Society of Illuminati to save the world from masonic superstition. After a while, however, we find the Freemasons and the Illuminati very good friends, until the formal suppression of the latter short-lived society. While freemasonry is thus for a time intermingled with magic, alchemy, cabala, and abracadabra, what could be a more natural thought to Captain Cagliostro than to graft his conjuring tricks upon a mystical stem, and bring before the masonic world an entirely new revelation of freemasonry? A name for the new masonry is quickly found. Let it be called Egyptian.

This is Part 1 of a two-part 1875 article on Cagliostro published in Charles Dicken’s weekly periodical All the Year Around.

Click here for Part 2

PeriodicalAll the year round, Volume 14 June 19, 1875, No. 342. Pages 281-286
PublisherCharles Dickens, Jr.
Original fromIndiana University
Digitized22 May 2009