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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 offence 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 sea-shore 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 Scherif 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 alchymist, 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


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


At length, in Rome, he and the Countess fell into the clutches of the

Holy Office; and both having been tried for their manifold offences

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

hodge-podge of rascality and folly, must form a narrative by itself.

Next: The Diamond Necklace

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