10 - The Rise and Fall of Count Cagliostro
The motion picture, "Black Magic" starring Orson Wells was based upon the life of Count Cagliostro and was chiefly concerned with his hypnotic powers. However, for the sake of story value the picture, as most made for popular appeal, sacrificed fact for effect. One example of this is his being killed in the end in a duel with the lover of d'Oliva, the girl who supposedly was under his spell and who bore a striking resemblance to Marie Antoinette. And the famous diamond necklace affair was exaggerated, at least where the Count was concerned. Here are the facts:
Count Cagliostro was born Joseph Balsamo in Palermo to "parents of humble extraction" on June 8, 1743. And it was there that he received his elementary education at the Seminary of St. Roche. At thirteen he was brought to the convent of the Order of Benfratelli at Cartigirone where he first became familiar with chemistry and medicine only to be expelled later. After a life of dissipation in Palermo he finally had to flee for duping a goldsmith named Marano of sixty pieces of gold, saying he'd help him find a buried treasure, by magical means. But when Marano went to the designated cave he found instead a band of Balsamo's confederates dressed as spirits who beat him up.
At Messina Balsamo met a travelling mountebank named Altotas, who spoke a variety of languages. They travelled to Egypt, finally coming to the island Malta, where they met Pinto, the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, a searcher after the philosopher's stone and alchemist. He took the two adventurers under his wing, working in his laboratory until Altotas died, then Balsamo went to Rome where he married a beautiful girdle maker, Lorenzo Feliciani.
After a series of disreputable adventures in Italy, Spain and Portugal he came to London in 1776. He had many aliases but now called himself "Conte di Cagliostro". The name came from an uncle on his mother's side, the title of nobility being assumed. His wife called herself the "Countess Serafina Feliciani." Cagliostro announced himself as a worker of wonders, dropped hints that he was the son of the Grand Master Pinto of Malta and the Princess of Trebizonde, foretold lucky numbers in a lottery and got into trouble with a gang of swindlers, so went to London again to avoid being imprisoned.
There he found a book on mystical writings by George Coston which suggested to him the idea of the Egyptian ritual, so he got initiated into a masonic lodge, and became the greatest masonic imposter in the world, and though bitterly repudiated by the English members and the Continental lodges, he still made thousands of dupes, and leaped into fame as the Grand Master of the Egyptian Rite.
Among the many gadgets used for his deceptions was the magic mirror. Madame Du Barry in her memoires relates that one day the Cardinal de Rohan paid her a visit. During the conversation the subject turned to Mesmer and magnetism. "My dear Countess" said the Cardinal, "the magnetic sťances of Mesmer are not to be compared with the magic of my friend the Count de Cagliostro. He is a genuine Rosicrucian, who holds communion with the elemental spirits. He is able to pierce the veil of the future by his necromatic power. Permit me to introduce him to you."
Curiosity got the best of Du Barry and she consented. Next day they came, Cagliostro magnificently dressed, diamonds sparkling on his breast and fingers, his walking stick encrusted with precious stones. However, it was his bold, gleaming eyes which struck Madame Du Barry. She saw Cagliostro was no ordinary quack. After a short discussion on sorcery Cagliostro took from his breast pocket a leather case containing a magic mirror and handed it to the Countess, saying that she may read of her past and future in it. "If the vision be not to your liking," he impressively remarked, "do not blame me. You use the mirror at your own risk."
Opening the case she saw a "metallic glass in an ebony frame, ornamented with a variety of magical characters in gold and silver." Cagliostro said some cabalistic words, and told her to look steadily into the glass, which she did. In a few minutes she became extremely agitated and fainted away. This story she tells herself but has never mentioned what she saw in the glass, and afterwards refused to receive Cagliostro under any circumstances. Probably it was a hallucination of her head falling under the guillotine but who knows? Or perhaps mental telepathy from the Count? Who knows?
Cagliostro usually travelled in a coach with flunkies and outriders in gorgeous liveries of red and gold; vehicles filled with baggage and paraphernalia. Best of all he carried with him an iron coffer which contained the silver, gold and jewels reaped from his dupes.
It was in January 30, 1785 that Cagliostro made his first appearance in Paris, where he achieved his greatest success, the way having been previously paved by St. Germain and Mesmer. Cardinal de Rohan selected and furnished a house for him, visiting him three or four times a week. All sorts of rumors spread about the pair: that the Cardinal helped Cagliostro with his magical experiments, that gold and diamonds were made there. But no one ever saw the inside of the laboratory except these two. All that was known for certainty was that the apartments were furnished in Oriental splendor, and that with kingly dignity Cagliostro received his guests in a dazzling costume and gave them his hand to kiss.
Cagliostro gave away large sums of money to the poor and even healed many afflicted with various nervous diseases through suggestion and hypnotism. From the rich he accepted all they had to offer with haughtiness and reserve, so that some of the highest dignitaries of Paris came to see him. Hats and neckties were named after him. Count Beugnot in his interesting autobiography describes Cagliostro as, "of medium height, rather stout, with an olive complexion, very short neck, round face, two large eyes on a level with the cheeks, and a broad, turned-up nose.
His hair was dressed in a way new to France, being divided into several tresses that united behind the head, and were twisted up into what was then called a club. Cagliostro set off his costume with lace ruffles, several valuable rings, and shoe buckles of antique design but bright enough to be taken for real diamonds. The whole man made an impression on me that I could not prevent."
Cagliostro often boasted of his great age.
One day at Strasburg, he stopped before a large crucifix of large wood and contemplated it with a sad countenance.
"The likeness is excellent," he said to one of his votaries, "but I cannot understand how the artist, who certainly never saw Christ, could have secured such a perfect portrait."
"You knew Christ, then?" inquired the neophyte, breathlessly.
Cagliostro (1743-1795) a famous spiritualist and magician, was better known for his skill as a charlatan. He is noted for making, by alchemy, the diamond of Cardinal de Rohan and he was involved in "The Affair of the Queen's Necklace." At the peak of fame he was captured by the Bastille and condemned to death by the Inquisition. His sentence was later altered to life imprisonment.
"We were on the most intimate terms."
"My dear Count! - "
"I mean what I say. How often we strolled together on the sandy shore of the Lake of Tiberias. How infinitely sweet his voice. But, alas, he would not heed my advice. He loved to walk on the seashore, where he picked up a band of lazzaroni - of fishermen and beggars. This and his preaching brought him to a bitter end."
Turning to his servant, Cagliostro added: "Do you remember that evening at Jerusalem when they crucified Christ."
"No, Monsieur le Comte" replied the well-tutored lackey, bowing low, "you forget that I have only been in your employ for the last fifteen hundred years."
At the height of his fame Cagliostro was arrested and thrown into the Bastille, charged with complicity in the diamond necklace affair. However, unlike the picture "Black Magic" the Count was acquitted and his part in this celebrated intrigue has always been a mystery.
He was banished from France by order of the King. He went direct to London. There he filed suit against the Governor of the Bastille, Marquis de Launay of criminal misappropriation of his effects, money, medicines, elixirs, alchemical powders etc. etc. which he valued at a high sum, "appealing, of course, to the hearts of all Frenchmen as a lonely and hunted exile." When the French government gave him special permission to come to Paris to prosecute his suit, Cagliostro refused, hinting that it was their way of getting him in the dungeon there once more:
In London he became deeply involved in debt and had to pawn his effects. He was unable to impress the common-sense, practical English with his pretensions to animal magnetism, occultism, mystical powers etc. One of his schemes was to light up the streets of London with sea water which he proposed to turn into oil with his magical powers. The newspapers ridiculed him, the freemasons repudiated him with scorn and would have nothing to do with his Egyptian Rite.
In the Scottish Rite Library, at Washington, D.C. is an old print which depicts the unmasking of the famous imposter at the Lodge of Antiquity, published November 21, 1786 at London. At a banquet one evening one of the brothers, Marsh, instead of singing gave a clever imitation of a quack doctor selling nostrums, and dilating bombastically upon the value of elixirs, balsams, (Balsamos), and cordials. He, Cagliostro, wasn't slow to recognize that he was the target for Marsh's ridicule and left the hall shortly to the jeers of the other members.
By this time he was on the Continent again to escape the law; the police now fully aware of his impostures. He was forbidden to practice his peculiar system of medicine and masonry in Austria, Germany, Russia and Spain. So he went to Rome, where freemasonry was a capital offense Greewin says: "There was one lodge. There is reason to suppose it was tolerated only because it enabled the Holy Church to spy out the movements of freemasons in general."
Then just when his exchequer became depleted he and his wife were arrested and put into the fortress of San Angelo on the night of Dec. 27, 1789. The Holy Inquisition tried him. Cagliostro's wife appeared against him and lifted the veil of Isis that hid the Charlatan's career. The Egyptian manuscript of George Coston, as Henry Ridgely Evans points out in his book "The Old And The New Magic", the seals, the masonic regalia and paraphernalia were mute and damning evidences of his guilt.
He was indeed a freemason, even though he was not an alchemist, a soothsayer, the Grand Kophta of the Pyramids. Cagliostro's line of defense was that he "had labored throughout to lead back freemasons, through the Egyptian ritual, to Catholic orthodoxy." He harangued the Holy Fathers for hours, since he found his appeal for mercy useless. But finally he was condemned to death as a heretic, sorcerer and freemason, but Pope Pius VI, on the 21st of March 1791, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.
He was taken back to San Angelo, and put in a gloomy dungeon, where no one but the jailer came near him. But still his spirit was unconquered. Expressing the greatest contrition for his crimes, he begged the Governor of the prison to send him a confessor. The request was granted and a Capuchin monk came. During the confession he leaped at the monk and tried to strangle him but the confessor proved to be a member of the church militant, and vigorously defended himself.
His attempt proved futile, and soon after the Pontifical government ordered Cagliostro to be brought at night to the fortress of San Leon, in the Duchy of Urbino. From there all traces of what happened to him is lost. It is believed that he died in the month of August, 1795. The following item is the only thing preserved today of his fate: "News comes from Rome that the famous Cagliostro is dead in the Fortress of San Leon." (Moniteur Universal, 6 Octobre, 1795). Everything surrounding Cagliostro's death is shrouded in mystery.
The man who lived so bombastically had died so unostentatiously; no friends, no ceremony, no mystic lights and regalia. His wife escaped severe punishment by immuring herself in the convent of St. Appolonia at Rome, where she died in 1794. She was more sinned against than a sinner, as Evans points out.
In the book Cagliostro by W.R.H. Trowbridge originally published in 1910, and later republished by University Books, there is the following paragraph which traces the family history of Cagliostro, pages 21 and 22: Such scant consideration as the family may have enjoyed was due entirely to Guiseppe's mother, who though of humble birth was of good, honest Sicilian stock.
Through her he could at least claim to have had a great-grandfather, one Matteo Martello, whom it has been supposed Cagliostro had in mind when in his fantastic account of himself at the time of the Necklace Affair he claimed to be descended from Charles Martel, the founder of the Carlovingian dynasty. This Matteo Martello had two daughters, the youngest of whom, Vincenza, married Giuseppe Cagliostro of Messina, whose name and relationship to Giuseppe Balsamo is the chief argument in the attempt to prove the identity of the latter with Cagliostro.
Vincenza's elder sister married Giuseppe Braconieri. The former was Giuseppe's mother. He had also a sister older than himself, Maria, who became the wife of Giovanni Capitummino. On the death of her husband she returned with her children to live with her mother, all of whom Goethe met when in Palermo in 1787.
The poverty in which Pietro Balsamo died obliged his widow to appeal to her brother for assistance. Fortunately they were in a position and willing to come to her relief. Matteo (Martello) the elder, was chief clerk in the post office at Palermo; while Antonio was bookkeeper in the firm of J.F. Aubert & Co. Both brothers, as well as their sister, appear to have been deeply religious, and it is not unlikely that the severity and repression to which Giuseppe was continually subjected may have fostered the spirit of rebellion, already latent in him, which was to turn him into the blackguard he became."
My first introduction to Cagliostro was through Henry Ridgely Evans' book, which I first read when I was about thirteen. There is no mention in it of my namesake, Matteo Martello. But I have always been intrigued and fascinated by Cagliostro. I have felt a strong kinship to him for a long time, but it wasn't until years later while living in New York that I discovered that we had something in common in our ancestry: the name Martello. Prior to this discovery I once attended a combination spiritualist-reincarnationist meeting in which the medium said to me "you were the Count Cagliostro in your former incarnation."
Not that I believed this but I was struck by the fact that of all the things she could have said, of all the people she could have named, she came out with Cagliostro! I had published one article on Cagliostro in a past issue of Psychic Observer, written before 1 went to this meeting, but published afterwards!
Tracking down my own family history I discovered that over six hundred years ago my ancestors were originally Danes who had sailed off the coast of Northern Italy, many of them remained, intermarried, they and their wives migrating to the south of Italy, some to Sicily. Even today there is an entire town in Italy where all the inhabitants are named Martello! Unlike many whose names were abbreviated from longer ones, such as Martiello, Martinello, Marteriollo, and who today carry the name Martello, ours has always been that.
It is more than possible genealogically that Matteo Martello was an ancestor to both Cagliostro and to this writer. The word itself means "hammer" in Italian. The Anglicized version of my Italian name is "Lion (Leo) Hammer (Martello)." In the Webster's Collegiate Dictionary there is the following: "Martello Tower or martello, n. Fort. A circular masonry fort."
Solomon's Great Circle