1902 Encyclopedia > Alessandro Cagliostro

Alessandro Cagliostro
Italian occultist and adventurer

ALESSANDRO, COUNT CAGLIOSTRO, (1743-1795), the arch-impostor of modern times, was born at Palermo in 1743. Joseph Balsamo—for such was the count's real name—gave early indications of those talents which afterwards gained for him so wide a notoriety. He received the rudiments of his education at the convent of Cartagirone; where, being employed to read to the monks during dinner, he scandalized the good fathers by repeating the names and detailing the adventures of the most notoriously profligate females of his native town. For these and similar misdeeds he was expelled from the convent and disowned by his rela-tions. He now signalized himself by the ingenuity with which he contrived to perpetrate crimes without exposing himself to the risk of detection. He began by forging tickets for the theatres; then he forged a will; he next robbed his own uncle, and ultimately committed a murder. For the last offence he was imprisoned and brought to trial; but through a defect in the evidence, he escaped with his life. On his release he engaged a goldsmith, by name Marano, to assist him in searching for a hidden treasure,— Marano paying 60 oz. of gold in advance to defray expenses. On arriving at the cave where Joseph declared the treasure to be, six devils, prepared beforehand, rushed out upon the goldsmith, beat him soundly, and left him insensible. Dreading the vengeance of Marano, Balsamo quitted Sicily, and visited in succession Greece, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Bhodes (where he took lessons in alchemy and the cognate sciences from the Greek Althotas), Malta, Naples, Rome, and Venice. At Rome he married a beautiful but unprincipled woman, with whom he travelled, under a variety of names, through the various countries of Europe. It is unnecessary to recount the various infamous means which he employed to support himself during his travels. At Strasburg he reaped an abundant harvest by professing the art of making old people young ; in which pretension he was seconded by his wife Lorenza Feliciani, who, though only twenty years of age, declared that she was sixty, and that she had a son a veteran in the Dutch service. In Paris he was implicated in the affair of the diamond neck-lace ; and though he escaped conviction by the matchless impudence of his defence, he was imprisoned for other reasons in the Bastille. On his liberation he visited England, where he succeeded well at first; but he was ultimately outwitted by some English lawyers, and was confined for a while in the Fleet. Leaving England, he travelled through Europe till he arrived at Rome, where he was arrested in 1789. He was tried and condemned to death for being a Freemason, but the sentence was afterwards commuted to perpetual imprisonment. He died in the fortress prison of San Leo in 1795. The best account of the life, adventures, and character of Joseph Balsamo is contained in Carlyle's Miscellanies. Dumas's novel, Memoirs of a Physician, is founded on his adventures. See also a series of papers in the Dublin University Magazine, vols, lxxviii. and lxxix.

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