Count Cagliostro, alias Joseph Balsamo, known also as “Cursed Joe.”

One of the most striking, amusing, and instructive pages in the history of humbug is the life of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, whose real name was Joseph or Giuseppe Balsamo. He was born at Palermo, in 1743, and very early began to manifest his brilliant talents for roguery.

He ran away from his first boarding-school, at the age of eleven or twelve, getting up a masquerade of goblins, by the aid of some scampish schoolfellows, which frightened the monkish watchmen of the gates away from their posts, nearly dead with terror. He had gained little at this school, except the pleasant surname of Beppo Maldetto (or cursed Joe.) At the age of thirteen he was a second time expelled from the convent of Cartegirone, belonging to the order of Benfratelli, the good fathers having in vain endeavored to train him up in the way he should go.

While in this convent, the boy was in charge of the apothecary, and probably picked up more or less of the smattering of chemistry and physics which he afterwards used. His final offense was a ridiculous and characteristic one. He was a greedy and thievish fellow, and was by way of penalty set to read aloud about the ancient martyrs, those dry though pious old gentlemen, while the monks ate dinner. Thus put to what he liked least, and deprived of what he liked best, he impudently extemporized, instead of the stories of holy agonies, all the indecorous scandal he could think of about the more notorious disreputable women of Palermo, putting their names instead of those of the martyrs.

After this, Master Joe proceeded to distinguish himself by forging opera-tickets, and even documents of various kinds, indiscriminate pilfering and swindling, interpreting visions, conjuring, and finally, it is declared, a touch of genuine assassination.

Pretty soon he made a foolish, greedy goldsmith, one Marano, believe that there was a treasure hidden in the sand on the seashore near Palermo, and induced the silly man to go one night to dig it up. Having reached the spot, the dupe was made to strip himself to his shirt and drawers, a magic circle was drawn round him with all sorts of raw-head and bloody-bones ceremonies, and Beppo, exhorting him not to leave the ring, lest the spirits should kill him, stepped out of sight to make the incantations to raise them. Almost instantly, six devils, horned, hoofed, tailed, and clawed, breathing fire and smoke, leaped from among the rocks and beat the wretched goldsmith senseless, and almost to death. They were of course Cursed Joe and some confederates; and taking Marano’s money and valuables, they left him. He got home in wretched plight, but had sense enough left to suspect Master Joe, whom he shortly promised, after the Sicilian manner, to assassinate. So Joe ran away from Palermo, and went to Messina. Here he said he fell in with a venerable humbug, named Athlotas, an “Armenian Sage,” who united his talents with Beppo’s own, in making a peculiar preparation of flax and hemp and passing it off upon the people of Alexandria, in Egypt, as a new kind of silk. This feat made not only a sensation but plenty of money; and the two swindlers now traversed Greece, Turkey, and Arabia, in various directions, stirring up the Oriental “old fogies” in amazing style. Harems and palaces, according to Cagliostro’s own apocryphal story, were thrown open to them everywhere, and while the Sharif of Mecuca took Balsao under his high protection, one of the Grand Muftis actually gave him splendid apartments in his own abode. It is only necessary to reflect upon the unbounded reverence felt by all good Mussulmen for these exalted dignitaries, to comprehend the height of distinction thus attained by the Palermo thimble-rigger. But, among the many obscure records that exist in the Italian, French, and German languages, touching this arch impostor, there is a hint of a night adventure in the harem of a high and mighty personage, at Mecca, whereby the latter was put out of doors, with his robes torn and his beard singed, by his own domestics, and left to wander in the streets, while Beppo, in disguise, received the salaams and sequins of the establishment, including the attentions of the fair ones therein caged, for an entire night. His escape to the seacoast after this adventure was almost miraculous; but escape he did, and shortly afterward turned up in Rome, with the title (conferred by himself) of Count Cagliostro, the reputation of enormous wealth, and genuine and enthusiastic letters of recommendation from Pinto, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. Pinto was an alchemist, and had been fooled to the top of his bent by the cunning Joseph.

These letters introduced our humbug into the first families of Rome; who, like some other first families, were first also as fools. He also married a very beautiful, very shrewd, and very wicked Roman donzella, Lorenza Feliciani by name; and the worthy couple, combining their various talents, and regarding the world as their oyster, at once proceeded to open it in the most scientific style. I cannot follow this wonderful human chameleon in all his transformations under his various names of Fischio, Melissa, Fenice, Anna, Pellegrini, Harat, and Belmonte, nor state the studies and processes by which he picked up sufficient knowledge of physic, chemistry, the hidden properties of numbers, astronomy, astrology, mesmerism, clairvoyance, and the genuine old-fashioned “black art;” but suffice it to say, that he travelled through every part of Europe, and set it in a blaze with excitement.

There were always enough of silly coxcombs, young and old, of high degree, to be allured by the siren smiles of his “Countess;” and dupes of both sexes everywhere, to swallow his yarns and gape at his juggleries. In the course of his rambles, he paid a visit to his great brother humbug, the Count of St. Germain, in Westphalia, or Schleswig, and it was not long afterward that he began to publish to the world his grand discoveries in Alchemy, of the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Elixir of Life, or Waters of Perpetual Youth. These and many similar wonders were declared to be the result of his investigations under the Arch of Old Egyptian Masonry, which degree he claimed to have revived. This notion of Egyptian Masonry, Cagliostro is said to have found in some manuscripts left by one George Cofton, which fell into our quack’s hands. This degree was to give perfection to human beings, by means of moral and physical regeneration. Of these two the former was to be secured by means of a Pentagon, which removes original sin and renews pristine innocence. The physical kind of regeneration was to be brought about by using the “prime matter” or philosopher’s stone, and the “Acacia,” which two ingredients will give immortal youth. In this new structure, he assumed the title of the “Grand Cophta” and actually claimed the worship of his followers; declaring that the institution had been established by Enoch and Elias, and that he had been summoned by “spiritual” agencies to restore it to its pristine glory. In fact, this pretension, which influenced thousands upon thousands of believers, was one of the most daring impostures that ever saw the light; and it is astounding to think that, so late as 1780, it should, for a long time, have been entirely successful. The preparatory course of exercises for admission to the mystic brotherhood has been described as a series of “purgation, starvation, and desperation,” lasting for forty days! and ending in “physical regeneration” and an immortality on Earth. The celebrated Lavater, a mild and genial, but feeble man, became one of Cagliostro’s disciples, and was bamboozled to his heart’s content⁠—in fact, made to believe that the Count could put the devil into him, or take him out, as the case might be.

The wondrous “Water of Beauty,” that made old wrinkled faces look young, smooth, and blooming again, was the special merchandise of the Countess, and was, of course, in great request among the faded beaux and dowagers of the day, who were easily persuaded of their own restored loveliness. The transmutation of baser metals into gold usually terminated in the transmigration of all the gold his victims had into the Count’s own purse.

In 1776, the Count and Countess came to London. Here, funnily enough, they fell into the hands of a gambler, a shyster, and a female scamp, who together tormented them almost to death, because the Count would not pick them out lucky numbers to gamble by. They persecuted him fairly into jail, and plagued and outswindled him so awfully, that, after a time, the poor Count sneaked back to the Continent with only fifty pounds left out of three thousand which he had brought with him.

One incident of Cagliostro’s English experience was the affair of the “Arsenical Pigs”⁠—a notice of which may be found in the “Public Advertiser,” of London of September 3, 1786. A Frenchman named Morande, was at that time editing there a paper in his own language, entitled Le Courrier de l’Europe, and lost no opportunity to denounce the Count as a humbug. Cagliostro, at length, irritated by these repeated attacks, published in the Advertiser an open challenge, offering to forfeit five thousand guineas if Morande should not be found dead in his bed on the morning after partaking of the flesh of a pig, to be selected by himself from among a drove fattened by the Count⁠—the cooking, etc., all to be done at Morande’s own house, and under his own eye. The time was fixed for this singular repast, but when it came round, the French Editor “backed down” completely, to the great delight of his opponent and his credulous followers.

Cagliostro and his spouse now resumed their travels upon the Continent, and, by their usual arts and trades, in a great measure renewed their fallen fortunes. Among other new dodges, he now assumed so supernatural a piety that (he said) he could distinguish an unbeliever by the smell! which, of course, was just the opposite of the “odor of sanctity.” The Count’s claim to have lived for hundreds of years was, by some, thoroughly believed. He ascribed his immortality to his own Elixir, and his comparatively youthful appearance to his “Water of Beauty,” his Countess readily assisting him by speaking of her son, a Colonel in the Dutch service, fifty years old, while she appeared scarcely more than twenty.

At length, in Rome, he and the Countess fell into the clutches of the Holy Office; and both having been tried for their manifold offenses against the Church, were found guilty, and, in spite of their contrition and eager confessions, immured for life; the Count within the walls of the Castle of Sante Leone, in the Duchy of Urbino, where, after eight years’ imprisonment, he died in 1795, and the Countess in a suburban convent, where she died some time after.

The portraits of Cagliostro, of which a number are extant, are pictures of a strong-built, bull-necked, fat, gross man, with a snub nose, a vulgar face, a look of sensuality and low hypocritical cunning.

The celebrated story of “The Diamond Necklace,” in which Cagliostro, Marie Antoinette, the Cardinal de Rohan, and others were mixed in such a hodgepodge of rascality and folly, must form a narrative by itself.