Cagliostro’s Life

Alessandro Cagliostro: Cherubic, angelic.
Giuseppe (Joseph) Balsamo: (Part II)


(This biography of Cagliostro is continued from the biography of conman and thief Giuseppe Balsamo, who last we read, was travelling in Spain and Portugal, and had recently come into possession of a cane with a repeating watch surrounded by diamonds set in the handle, claimed to be stolen from the jeweler Silvestre. Then he vanished.)

London, 1776.

In July, 1776 a certain Count Cagliostro arrived in London with his wife Serafina. In his pocket he carried Spanish and Portuguese coins, and on his arm, a cane with a repeating watch surrounded by diamonds set in the handle.

At the house where he rented rooms, he developed a reputation (based on his own claim) for being able to pick lottery numbers by a secret method. In this arena he was quickly bested and fleeced by thieves and bullies with a better knowledge of English and of English laws than he had.

Read more about Cagliostro and Faust

While in London (according to Photiades (and de Morande)), some people recognised him to be Giuseppe Balsamo, returned under an alias, and a series of litigation and threats were begun by plaintiffs who had been cheated by Balsamo when he had visited London years before.

But it was also here in London that he formed the notion of a new form of Freemasonry. While he subsequently claimed to have already been a Mason for some time, he seems to have been motivated by his initiation into the Esperance lodge in London’s Soho district in 1776. The Esperance Lodge was rife with esoteric rites rooted in Templar legends and Rosicrucian enlightenment, and it is little wonder Cagliostro found an affinity there.

Read about the Palermo swindler Cagliostro may have been, Giuseppe Balsamo.

One day Cagliostro discovered the manuscripts of a Freemason named George Colton among the collection of a London Masonic bookseller on the supposed ancient Egyptian origins of Freemasonry.

Inspired, Cagliostro began to develop new rites and ceremonies drawing from alchemical and hermetic (Egyptian) influences. He invented a form of occult Freemasonry rooted in an Egyptian Masonic tradition, and “founded” at the time of the pyramids. Presiding over the sect through the centuries was a high priest called the Great Copt or Copthe.

To begin, Cagliostro only presented himself as a remote emissary of that sect, but in time, he let it be known that he was, in fact, himself the Great Copt. Impressed though they undoubtedly were, European Masons were hesitant to admit him as a superior on his say-so.

He also let it be believed that he was many generations old, had traveled far, and had been initiated into great ancient mysteries. He spoke vaguely and in multiple languages, letting his acolytes fill in unspoken and unfamiliar words with meanings of their own imaginations.

He made money partially through the sale of his chemical preparations, one of which he called Egyptian Wine, and another, the Restorative Powders of Count Cagliostro. A pomade for the complexion may have eased his way into the homes of many rich but lonely older women hoping to regain their lost youth.

His wealth increased through various means, but it went as it came, in part because of his generosity to the poor, and in part because of his grandiose spending. Although his disciples were eager to contribute, he refused them proudly. His wife, however, contrived to accept on his behalf.

His lottery picking skills led to his being prosecuted on charges of witchcraft by the gang hoping to uncover his lottery-picking methods.

Although they got possession of the manuscript said to be used by the Count, they were unable to make sense of it, or use it to any good effect, and so they continued to harass him. It is reported1 that he was arrested so often that he took rooms near the court.

In short time (December 1777), out of money, and with creditors at their heels, the Count and Countess Pellegrini (for the moment), were out the door, and headed for Brussels, and then Venice by July 1778.

Latvia, 1779.

In February 1779, the Count and Countess Cagliostro arrived in Latvia (then Courland) and Cagliostro announced that he had been sent to reform the Masonic movement in Eastern Europe, in order to re-introduce lost and corrupted Egyptian rites.

After a series of tests, and the exchange of signs and letters, Cagliostro was welcomed. In fact, Courland was a bit of a hotbed of Freemasonry, despite the political implications of sedition.

Cagliostro’s Own Version of his Life…

(in somebody else’s words).

“In the memorial published in his behalf at the time of the Necklace trial, Cagliostro gives a most romantic account of himself. He is ignorant, he says, of the place of his birth, but was brought up while a child in the city of Medina where he went by the name of Acharat, and lived attended by servants in a style of great splendour in apartments in the palace of the Mufti Salahayn the chief of the Mussulmans.

From Medina he pretends he was taken when quite a youth to Mecca, where he remained for three years petted by the scherif.

He is next taken to Egypt, visits the chief cities of Africa and Asia, and eventually sails from Rhodes for Malta, where apartments are provided for him in the palace of the grand master.

Here, he says, he assumed the name of Cagliostro, and the title of count. From Malta he proceeds to Sicily and Naples, thence to Rome, where he makes the acquaintance of several cardinals, and is admitted to frequent audiences of the Pope.

He professes to have next visited Spain, Portugal, Holland, Russia, and Poland, and gives a list of the nobles of these countries with whom he had become acquainted.

At length, in September 1780, he goes to Strasbourg where his fame as a physician had already preceded him. Here, he asserts with perfect truth, he cured the poor generally, and particularly sick soldiers and prisoners without fee or reward.

Strasbourg was soon crowded with strangers who came either to see him or to consult him. It is now that he makes the acquaintance of the Cardinal de Rohan whom he accompanies to Paris to prescribe for the Prince de Soubise suffering at the time from an accident to his leg.”

The story of the diamond necklace.

By Henry Vizetelly. P. 116.

He set up a Lodge of Adoption to allow women to participate in Masonic society, experimented in alchemy with his hosts, the von Medem family, and led them on a treasure hunt through their ancestral lands at Wilzen. Although they found the place where the treasure was buried, his occult powers were inadequate to enable him to overcome the terrible demons who were guarding it (as he explained it).

The von Medem daughter, Elisa von der Recke was wretchedly desperate to contact her beloved brother who had tragically died while they were apart and momentarily estranged. Cagliostro tried various methods, including a séance, during which Cagliostro’s child medium claimed to have a vision of the brother. Finally Cagliostro promised her she would have a vision in her dreams, but the effort and the excitement exhausted the overwrought Elisa. Cagliostro was disturbingly less than sympathetic.

Indeed, his occasional cruelty, vindictiveness, and vulgarity was causing them some misgivings, and it was soon time for Cagliostro to move on–he now had a mission to convince Catherine II of Russia to participate in the Masonic movement–and a few months later, in June 1779, Cagliostro arrived in St Petersburg.

St. Petersburg, 1779.

The Empress was already deeply suspicious of Masonry, and hostile towards Cagliostro. She quite reasonably saw Masonry as a potential source of rebellion against her. In this, Catherine shared the concerns of many other rulers throughout Europe who were discomfited to think that an international secret society of powerful men with unknown allegiances and conduits was operating throughout their territories.

Catherine disliked Cagliostro from the start, and her persistent and active animosity would trail him for the rest of his life.

He didn’t soothe her fears of subversion when he began offering free health care to St Petersburg’s downtrodden, and gained the hearts of the downtrodden masses. In 1780 Cagliostro retreated from St Petersburg for Warsaw.

Warsaw, 1780.

In Warsaw, things were different to start. King Stanislaus II welcomed him as a fellow Mason, eager to advance Cagliostro’s reforms. Cagliostro and Serafina enjoyed the social heights of Warsaw, and Cagliostro opened another clinic for the poor.

But soon greed and intrigue took over. Cagliostro’s fellow Masons were so enthused about his great abilities that they insisted on seeing some alchemical tricks, such as the transmutation of a base metal into silver.
Invited to Wola, a small town just outside of Warsaw and assigned an assistant, Count Mosna-Moczynski (who was essentially a spy for the local Masons), Cagliostro was to supervise the assistant in the production of silver, and then gold.


Fraud was rampant in the alchemical business, and because it was so easy for an ‘alchemist’ to slip gold or silver into the crucible when no one was looking, it was not uncommon for transmutation demonstrations to be done under a cloud of suspicion and close observation. In truth, no one had ever seen a real transmutation.

Consequently, the suspicions of Count Mosna-Moczynski. He had had suspicions about the silver transmutation process which had worked, and was now watching the gold transmutation even more closely.

Then one day during a séance, Cagliostro’s young spirit medium, a local girl, cried that he was acting improperly to her, and upon investigation, Mosna-Moczynski discovered that the girl had been coached and that the séances were frauds. His doubts increased, and his fellow Masons began to be uneasy.

Mosna-Moczynski had also overheard Cagliostro and Serafina talking about the disposal of certain items from the silver transmutation. Determined now, he searched the grounds under the laboratory window, and found some pieces of a broken flask–identified as the original flask used–which Cagliostro had given to Serafina to discard. In June, Cagliostro hastily returned to Warsaw, and concentrated on his clinic.

But his reputation was ruined, and worse, Catherine II of Russia’s disapproval of Cagliostro pressed the weak King Stanislaus II to withdraw his support for Cagliostro, so that by the autumn of 1780, Cagliostro had left Poland.

Frankfurt, 1780.

It was during this time, when passing through Frankfort, that Cagliostro was allegedly noticed by some high-ranking officials of the Strict Observance movement to whom Cagliostro belonged. They were said to also be members of the secret Bavarian Illuminati society founded by Adam Weishaupt in 1776. According to legend, Cagliostro was initiated into the Illuminati, joining many notable European free-thinkers of the time, including Goethe.

Onward they traveled, to Strasbourg, where Cagliostro had been invited by leading Masons. But on arrival the Masons were perturbed to discover that Cagliostro had thrown off the mantle of fellow Mason, and was now proclaiming himself as the founder and leader of Egyptian Freemasonry–the Great Copt himself!

Strasbourg, 1780.

Once again, Masonry turned its shoulder to Cagliostro, and he in turn, dedicated himself to healing the poor, visiting the sick, and giving away his medicines and elixirs. His generosity and compassion endeared him to the poor.

But through his healing, he began to convert some of the rich too. Hearing of his reputation as a healer, they began seeking him out for particularly difficult cases, and he ably cured them. His reputation grew still more, and soon, Cagliostro was hosting a salon at his house where notables would gather every evening and where Cagliostro held court.

Here in Strasbourg, he met Louis René Édouard, cardinal de Rohan, and the two became fast friends, with Cagliostro ultimately having considerable influence over the Cardinal.

It was at a dinner with Cardinal Rohan and guests that Cagliostro interrupted a conversation to suddenly announce that Empress Maria Theresa of Austria had just died over 600 kilometers away in Vienna.2

He saved the life of the wife of a wealthy silk merchant in Basel, Jacques Sarasin, in a last-hope effort to cure her of a wasting disease. His success in the face of other’s failures enhanced his reputation, and Sarasin’s gratitude was generous, paying him well for his effort.

But the local physicians were getting upset, if not a little jealous, and after several years residency, in 1783, Cagliostro left Strasburg and Cardinal Rohan for the south of France and Lyons to work on his Masonic mysteries, and look into setting up some more Egyptian Rite lodges, including the first and only Egyptian Rite lodge especially built in Lyons for that purpose. There he was acquainted with père Hervier, an early disciple of Mesmer, and with whom he may well have shared notes.

Having moved to Paris, Cardinal Rohan sent for Cagliostro to join him again, and so leaving Lyons, drawn moth-like to the City of Lights, Cagliostro went unknowingly to his doom–he and Rohan would soon fall into an un-controllable current of events.

Still, to his good luck, he didn’t return to Paris until after the necklace was sold.

Paris, 1785.

It is at this point that any story of Cagliostro, already a story of Cagliostro and somebody else–probably Balsamo–stops, and almost incidentally turns to a larger story of a great scandal–the notorious “Affair of the Diamond Necklace”.

The Necklace was a hugely expensive diamond necklace stolen from Paris jewellers who thought they were selling it to Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette thought Rohan was behind it, and many of the French people thought Marie Antoinette was behind it. Many also assumed Cagliostro had a hand in it, but they were to be surprised – it was really a dispossessed woman from a destitute once-Royal family who was behind it.

Charged and imprisoned in the dreaded Bastille, Cagliostro was ultimately acquitted, but then, arbitrarily banned from France, and given weeks to get out.

But even out he wasn’t going to be in the clear. The possibility that Cagliostro had orchestrated events ultimately leading to the downfall of the French monarchy, led the aristocratic heads of other European states to consider that he might be an agent for anti-monarchists, exporting revolution throughout the lands.

Perhaps there was some truth to that – during the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, when he was imprisoned in the Bastille, Cagliostro had accepted legal support from anti-Bourbon royalists hoping to put the duke d’Orleans on the throne.

The King’s enemies had drafted Cagliostro, and although he seems to have been unaware of the implications, he was now a revolutionary.

Cagliostro left Paris for a triumphant return to London.

London, 1786.

Cagliostro was wildly welcomed in England where for a while, he was a celebrity of the highest order.

Pressed by his new advisors on his release, Cagliostro sued for redress, and allowed a defiantly anti-Bourbon letter (“Letter to the French People”) to be published in his name in papers in both England and France.

Cagliostro was allowed back to France to have his case heard, but given his new association with treasonous revolutionaries, he justifiably feared it was a trick to lure him back where he would be thrown into jail forever, and declined to leave London under any pretext.

Agents for France worked to counter Cagliostro by destroying his reputation, particularly through the person of trash newspaper editor/extortionist/fifth columnist and spy Theveneau de Morande, part of whose business plan was to extort money from people who didn’t want things (true or not) published about them in his newspaper, the Courier de L’Europe.

De Morande had earlier allegedly demanded a bribe from Cagliostro to keep from exposing him in the paper, but Cagliostro had refused, and now, encouraged by his political masters in Paris, de Morande began delving more deeply into Cagliostro’s affairs and history.

Over time, he uncovered Cagliostro’s enemies. Disillusioned former acolyte Eliza von der Recke was among the first. She had drifted from his side into the enemy camp, and now furnished de Morande with stories of Cagliostro’s fraudulent séances and indebtedness. Soon more stories came in from all parts of Europe, including Russia, Poland, and Italy.

De Morande put the pieces together and soon he had established that Cagliostro and Count Pellegrini were aliases of the Sicilian adventurer, Joseph Balsamo.

Cagliostro responded to de Morande’s articles by publishing his “Letter to the English People”

Basel, 1787.

De Morande pressed on with his humiliating attacks, and soon, Cagliostro was on the move again, this time heading back to Switzerland, and the generous patronage of Jacques Sarasin, one of Basel’s leading bankers and silk merchants.

But Cagliostro could not escape the spread of the stories that were coming out of Russia and Poland and other places where Cagliostro had left enemies and disheartened ex-followers. The stories were not so much pursuing him, as pervading every nook and cranny of Europe so that soon Cagliostro was so notorious as to be unable to find a refuge in Europe.

Catherine of Russia herself wrote several plays against Masonry and Cagliostro particularly, and paid to have them staged in Russia, France and Germany where Cagliostro was most influential.

Then word came from France that Cagliostro’s case had been lost, and worries arose that there might be a counter-suit.

Finally, Cagliostro’s friend and companion from England, fellow Mason Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, who had come with his wife to join Cagliostro began complaining that Cagliostro was failing to live up to his promises to him. This led to a considerable darkening of the mood within the Basel community, and divisions began to form around them.

In July of 1788 the Cagliostros left yet another town under a cloud. This time though, it was under a cloud of smoke from all the burning bridges. Cagliostro had turned his friend and companion, de Loutherbourg into an enemy; had insulted his primary benefactor and most stalwart supporter, Jacques Sarasin; and had embarrassed Swiss society with the whole mess.

Romish Wanderings, 1788.

Bit by bit, the Cagliostros made their way to her home in Rome – it was likely a choice between her home there or his in Palermo, and going home to his place in Palermo was impossible if he was actually the small-time wanted criminal Balsamo there. “Cagliostro” had no home. They were expelled from Roveredo, an Austrian town in the Tyrol region under the orders of Emperor Joseph II, and then from Trent under further orders from the Emperor, castigating the bishop who had given him refuge.

First Palermo, Russia, France, England, and now the Austrian Empire were off-limits to Cagliostro. But Rome was hardly a retreat for a notorious Freemason because Freemasonry was a heretical practice in the eyes of the Roman Inquisition, and Cagliostro would not be able to practice it in Rome.

And yet… already Cagliostro was dreaming of a new Catholic order headed by himself and based on Egyptian Freemasonry, while Serafina dreamed of reconciliation with her worried family.

Once in Rome, Cagliostro was initially welcomed.

Rome, 1789.

According to Iain Mccalman3, it was Cagliostro’s wife, Serafina who caused his downfall. Returning to Rome she re-united with her uneasy family, and was compelled to confess both her sins and his to a priest of the Roman Inquisition.

Serafina, close to her family, but still the wife of Cagliostro, schemed to free herself from him. She had had enough of physical abuse, prostitution, poverty, scandals, debts, humiliation, and constant flight. She longed to be joined with her family and Church, and freed of Cagliostro.

But Cagliostro kept an eye on her, and refused to let her rejoin her disapproving family.

She contacted priests, behind his back, hired spies as servants, and increased her surreptitious contact with her nearby family. She provoked him into blasphemies and heresies, all of which were dutifully noted and reported back to the Inquisitors.

Serafina was carefully leading Cagliostro into a trap. By building up a body of evidence she planned that he would be arrested and imprisoned by the Roman Inquisition, leaving her free to remarry, and lead a normal Catholic life.

But when word arrived that the Bastille has been destroyed, and that Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were already essentially prisoners of the revolution, Cagliostro envisioned that he could return and live in France as a hero of the Revolution. He wrote requesting permission to return and Serafina saw that her plan was about to collapse.

It had taken years for her to get back to Italy and to be near her family and now time was running out.

In November the Church agreed to take a formal deposition from her. An Inquisitor, Dom Giuseppi Tosi, was slipped into the courtyard while Cagliostro was away, and a bizarre interview began with the Inquisitor in the courtyard calling up questions, and Serafina, by the window of her upstairs bedroom, answering down in return.

In late December (27 December 1789) Cagliostro was arrested. In the final moments, he realized that Serafina had betrayed him. He was taken to Rome’s Sant’Angelo prison for fifteens months of interrogation.

Prison, 1789.

Serafina was removed to a convent (Santa Apollonia of Trastevere). Whatever her plans may have been, once again, Serafina was screwed. They never let her go: it is presumed she died there, as she was never heard from again.4

Cagliostro was tried and convicted of being a Freemason and a heretic. He was sentenced to death, but according to legend, when the Pope pronounced Cagliostro’s death sentence, a mysterious stranger approached, spoke a few words to him, and the Pope commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in the San Leo prison fortress.

Cagliostro was a special prisoner–a political hot potato, and a formidable opponent. Far away in Rome, the Church worried that he would continue the revolution from within the prison walls, so he was isolated and kept from seeing visitors or having any communication whatsoever with the outside world–but Cagliostro was exceptionally adept at charming, deceiving, bewildering, and frightening his jailers.

They also feared that the French Revolution might come to Italy, specifically looking to free him.

The French Revolutionary wars spread conflict all over Europe–everywhere Cagliostro had been it seemed–perhaps he was a contagion of dissent, or perhaps he followed in its currents, flowing from opportunity to opportunity. Free-thinking is a dangerous thing, however well-intentioned–it is by definition ‘free’ and thus–uncontrolled.

But Cagliostro didn’t survive prison, and by the time the revolutionaries came for him in 1797, they were too late by several years.

Patriotic Polish soldiers had joined the French Revolutionary army, hoping to strengthen their own nation, and thus it was that the Polish Legion was in Italy in 1797 under General Jean Henri Dombrowski, heading south through San Leo, and demanding to know where Cagliostro was.

They were shown to an unmarked spot below the castle walls, at the end of the western wall, between two sentry towers. According to one grotesque story, they dug up the body, buried less than two years, and toasted Cagliostro by drinking wine from a piece of his skull.

He had died 26 August 1795, seemingly of a series of strokes. He died unrepentant. According to witness Marco Perazzoni, interviewed when he was 92 years old, but only a child at the time, following in the small procession, he was buried as a heretic in an unmarked grave, in unconsecrated ground, outside the prison walls, with a stone under his head for a pillow, and a handkerchief on his face. There was no coffin.

Selected References

Sources and some important works:

  1. Barberi []
  2. This astounding piece of clairvoyance could conceivably be explained by Cagliostro having received information via a secret semaphore system. This was in 1780, and within a dozen years (1792) there would be a permanent semaphore relay system built between Paris and Lille, a distance of 230 kilometers (about 143 miles) that could transmit a message in a space of about a half hour. It was used to carry dispatches for the war between France and Austria (War of the First Coalition in 1792-1797). This was followed by a Paris–Strasbourg line. []
  3. The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason []
  4. Tovazzi wrote in his journal that he had heard (in the first months) that she was doing well in the monastery, and went out sometimes accompanied by a maid, and a guard (16 Apr 1790). []