Count Di Cagliostro, born Giuseppe Balsamo on June 2, 1743, in Palermo, Italy lost his father, a jeweler who went bankrupt and died just a few months before Giuseppe Balsamo was born. Unable to support her son, Giuseppe’s mother sent him to live with an uncle who ensured the young boy would receive an education. Sent to live in a Benedictine monastery it was here Balsamo discovered a natural talent for chemistry, medicine, and spiritual rites. However, he was never satisfied with the basic teachings taught to him and ran away from the monastery to join a gang of ‘vagabonds’ who committed murder and petty crimes. Sent back to live with his uncle, he escaped a prison sentence and began to feign an interest in the occult.
Not having rid himself of his newly acquired criminal mindset, Balsamo became a thief, a charlatan, a pimp, and a gigolo. He met a wealthy goldsmith named Vincenzo Marano and convinced the older man to hand over seventy pieces of silver. In exchange for the money, he would reveal a hidden cache of treasure buried several hundred years previously deep within the bowels of the city. Marano believed Balsamo’s knowledge of the occult and was confident they would be kept safe as they prepared for the expedition to Palermo but Balsamo attacked Marano and left him bleeding as he fled with the silver and began to travel the world.
In 1768 having trodden through Rome he became a secretary to Cardinal Orsini, however, the young Balsamo found the job to be boring and began to lead a double life selling “Magical Egyptian” amulets and engravings. He was introduced to and married Lorenza Feliciani, a young seventeen year-old girl he would know as Seraphina and the couple lived in Rome with her parents until his coarse sexual behaviour toward their daughter contrasted with their deeply religious beliefs and the two young people were asked to leave.
They travelled to London where Balsamo, claiming several pseudonyms finally settled on a self-conferred title, “Count Alessandro di Cagliostro”. In the April of 1776, Cagliostro was admitted as a Freemason and in the December of 1777, Cagliostro and his wife left London to travel through Europe in search of converts to his self appointed “Egyptian Freemason Lodge”.
Some people dismissed him as a self imported Jesuit spy while others suspected he was a sorcerer. Many wondered if he was really the head of an Egyptian Masonic cult and still others, through a veil of deceit and intrigue saw him as an agent for an international revolutionary conspiracy. But no one knew where he came from and or what he was truly capable of. The wise dismissed him outright claiming he was a fraud and considered his admirers as overcredulous fools.
In January 1785 the couple travelled to Paris to meet with Cardinal Rohan. It was in France, Cagliostro was prosecuted having become involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and was held in the Bastille for nine months. But when no evidence could hold him accountable, he was released but banished from France by order of Louis XVI. Cagliostro returned to England with his wife to pursue his penchant for freemasonry.
But, once they arrived in Paris, the French police and the Italian Inquisition began to study Cagliostro’s past and concluded he was Giuseppe Balsamo which he emphatically denied in a published open letter to the people of France. Having received a public apology, Cagliostro returned to Italy where he was met by two members of the Roman Inquisition.
Although only hearsay, it is alleged it was his wife, Seraphina who betrayed him and on 27 December 1789, he was accused of practicing freemasonry and arrested and imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo where he was brought to trial. Cagliostro stated he had, in fact, been born to Christians of noble birth but had been abandoned as an orphan on the island of Malta. He had been raised at “the Palace of the Mufti Salahayam” in Medina, Arabia until he had traveled as a child to Mecca and Cairo then returned to Malta where he had been a member of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It was there he told the court he studied alchemy, the Kabbalah and magic. Nevertheless, he was accused of heresy, magic, con-jury, and Freemasonry and the Roman Inquisition sentenced Cagliostro to death.
- Main Image: Karl Köhler on Unsplash