Cagliostro: Master Magician of Fraud

by Jay Robert Nash

The most flagrant and flamboyant charlatan of the 18th Century was a self-styled magician named Cagliostro (1743-1795). Born Joseph Balsamo in Sicily of poor parents, this uneducated peasant boy rose from abject poverty to fabulous riches. Many times a millionaire, Cagliostro's obsessive pursuit of fame and fortune, however, brought him only to a final destination—a dank prison cell where he died in agony.

The boy lived in the squalor of Palermo where he learned the techniques of pickpocketing and burglary. An unaccountable curiosity led him to read. He studied mysticism, ancient cults, and supernatural powers. To make his fortune, he decided to become an alchemist. Alchemy was then a process of treating common metals with chemicals that would, it was claimed, change them into silver or gold.

Cagliostro, the greatest swindler of the 18th Century, conning kings a
Cagliostro, the greatest swindler of the 18th Century, conning kings and queens to a great fortune. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

By the time he was seventeen, Balsamo had, through trickery and guile, gained a considerable reputation as a successful alchemist and medium. He swindled considerable gold from a goldsmith and fled to Messina where he adopted the title of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro.

With his stolen gold, Cagliostro toured Africa and Asia. In Egypt, he studied the pyramids and became knowledgeable in the history of secret sects and their rites. From this, he organized a loose brotherhood, which he labeled Egyptian Masonry. At age twenty-three, Cagliostro sailed to the Mediterranean island of Malta where he met the powerful Pinto, grand master of the Order of the Knights of Malta, an organization that stemmed from the crusaders of 800 years earlier and was now a Masonic sect of great political influence.

Cagliostro's wife, Lorenza, an inventive partner in his confidence gam
Cagliostro's wife, Lorenza, an inventive partner in his confidence games; they were tried, convicted and imprisoned by the Inquisition. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

Pinto was impressed with the erudite and cunning Cagliostro, providing him with considerable funds with which to travel to Italy as a sort of Masonic spy in high places, sending back information to his mentor in Malta. In southern Italy, Cagliostro established a lavish resort, which was little more than a gambling casino. He traveled for some time, meeting the hypnotist, Franz Anton Mesmer, creator of mesmerism, and learned how to hypnotize even the most sophisticated person. (Mesmer, a charlatan of sorts himself, later denounced Cagliostro as a fraud, a clear-cut case of the pot calling the kettle black.)

Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who welcomed Cagliostro to her court
Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who welcomed Cagliostro to her court, until he was suspected of masterminding the "Affair of the Necklace." (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

In Rome, Cagliostro met a beautiful young girl, Lorenza Feliciani. They married and she joined him in his fabulous confidence swindles. Establishing themselves in various Italian cities as nobles and renting huge villas, Cagliostro and his wife cultivated the company of aristocrats and held séances and demonstrations of his magical alchemy, where he supposedly changed stones into rare gems and rope into strands of priceless silk. These "miracles," of course, were nothing more than the magic tricks Cagliostro had perfected over the years.

All during his travels through southern Europe, Cagliostro continued to establish branches of his own sect of Egyptian Masonry and these naive groups regularly sent him money to establish new chapters. His ego bloated by his own impossible claims, Cagliostro insisted that he could perform acts of astounding wizardry, such as bringing forth spirits.

Cagliostro also claimed that he could heal all manner of illnesses by laying his hands upon sick people and by pronouncing secret oaths. Doubters were fearful of denouncing his frauds, however, since they believed he might bring upon them death-enveloping curses. "Remember," Cagliostro was fond of saying, "I can afflict as well as heal!"

Enormous amounts of money began to flow into Cagliostro's coffers, gifts, donations, and outright payments from the nobility for his cures, his séances, his advice on matters of health, hygiene, and even sex. He became the highest-paid oracle on earth. Coupled to this princely income were great gluts of cash he received from the dozens of Masonic sects he had established in Italy, Greece, Spain, and France. He became a court favorite of King Louis XVI and his tempestuous, beautiful queen, Marie Antoinette. In 1785, however, the powerful Cagliostro was undone in the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace, a colossal swindle that, ironically, had nothing to do with Cagliostro.

The fabulous necklace (containing 540 diamonds) purchased for Queen Ma
The fabulous necklace (containing 540 diamonds) purchased for Queen Marie Antoinette in a colossal swindle first attributed to Cagliostro. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

A Count LaMotte and his scheming wife inveigled Louis de Rohan, the cardinal-archbishop of Paris, into purchasing a fabulous diamond necklace from court jewelers to secretly present to Marie Antoinette as a gift, in return for her political favors. Rohan delivered this necklace to a woman he thought was the queen when meeting her in a shadowy garden. The woman was an imposter, who took the necklace to LaMotte, who, in turn, sold off the diamonds one by one to fences. Rohan was disgraced and Cagliostro was accused of masterminding the swindle. Though later exonerated, Cagliostro was banished from the French court and moved to Rome.

Count LaMotte who fled to England
Count LaMotte, who fled to England after perpetrating the notorious "Affair of the Necklace," a scandal that contributed to the French Revolution and the eventual downfall of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

The great swindler grew even richer in Rome, where he purchased a lavish villa and continued his magical rites and séances, by then claiming to be thousands of years old and that he had personally known Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba. These performances, however, were reported to members of the Inquisition and caused Cagliostro and Lorenza to be arrested on December 27, 1789, charged as heretics.

Lorenza, reportedly under torture, confessed to heresy and wholly implicated her husband. She was sent to the convent of Santa Appollonia in Trastevere where she remained a prisoner and died many years later. Cagliostro was sentenced to death, but Pope Pius VI commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. In the Vatican fortress prison of San Leo, Cagliostro lived miserably in a sparsely-furnished cell, chained to the floor. He slowly went insane, and died on August 28, 1795. One account held that he was strangled to death by his wardens, who believed that followers of his Egyptian Masonic sect were planning to free him.

Orson Welles, playing Cagliostro in the 1949 film, <em>Black Magic</em
Orson Welles, playing Cagliostro in the 1949 film, Black Magic. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

Cagliostro came back to chilling life in the moody 1949 film, Black Magic, starring the unpredictable genius, Orson Welles (an amateur magician), who plays the alchemist with sinister verve. "Cagliostro was a man after my own heart," Welles told this columnist in 1977, "an actor to the bone."