Cagliostro, Count Alexander

, a noted impostor, whose true name was Joseph Balsamo, was born at Palermo the 8th of June 1743; Peter Balsamo being his father, and Felix Braconieri his mother, both of humble parentage. He was still a child when his father died; and was therefore brought up by the relations of his mother, who caused him to be instructed in the first principles of religion and philosophy, but it was not long before he shewed how little he was disposed to either, by running away more than once from the seminary of St. Roche at Palermo, where he had been placed for education. In his thirteenth year his guardians delivered him to the care of the general of the friars of mercy, who took him along with him to the monastery of that order at Cartagirone; where he was entered as a novice, and committed to the tuition of the apothecary; under whom, as he says, he found means of acquiring the first elements of chemistry and physic. But neither here | did he make any long stay. He continued to shew himself on his worst side, and his superiors were frequently obliged to give him correction for obliquities in his conduct. When, according to the custom oi monastic foundations, it came to his turn to read during dinner-time, he never read what was contained in the book, but delivered a lecture according to the dictates of his fancy. He himself confesses, that in reading from the martyrology, instead of the names of the holy women, he inserted those of the most noted courtesans of the town. At length, being weary of repeated chastisement, he threw off the cowl, and went back to Palermo, where for a time he studied drawing; and without making any reform in his manners, addicted himself to excesses of every kind. It was his greatest pleasure to rove about armed, and to frequent the company of the most profligate young men of the town. There was no fray in which he was not concerned, and he enjoyed nothing more than when he could resist the magistrate, and deliver the prisoner from his authority. He even stooped to the mean felony of forging the tickets of admission to the theatres; and from an uncle, with whom he lived, he stole considerable sums of money and other property. In a love intrigue between a person of rank and a cousin of his, he made himself the letter-carrier, and occasionally demanded of the lover at one time money, at another a watch, and always something of value, in the name of the fair one, which he appropriated to himself. He then insinuated himself into the good graces of a notary, to whom he was related; and, for the sake of a bribe, counterfeited a will in favour of a certain marchese Maurigi. The forgery was discovered some years afterwards, and the affair being brought before the judges, was fully proved; but this was at a time when the persons interested were not at Palermo. He was likewise charged with having murdered a canon, and with obtaining several sums of money from a monk for giving him written permits of absence from his convent at various times; all of which papers were found to be forged.

For such transactions as these he was several times arrested and put into prison; but either for want of sufficient evidence, or from the complicated nature of the business, or from the extensive influence of his relations, he as often found means of soon regaining his liberty. At length he was forced to take to night for cheating a silversmith, | named Marano, of upwards of sixty ounces of gold, under pretence of shewing him a treasure hid in a cave. On bringing him to the place, he began to exhibit a variety of fantastical mummeries, as if practising some magical rites, which terminated in the appearance of some accomplices of Balsamo, who, in the disguise of theatrical devils, belaboured the shoulders of poor Marano. The silversmith, though highly incensed at this infamous treatment, thought it not prudent to have recourse to the law, but resolved to have his revenge by murdering the impostor, which being suspected by Balsamo, he thought it expedient to remove to another place.

From a newspaper of the time of his being arrested at Rome it appears that he was strongly suspected of witchcraft, which suspicion was grounded on two circumstances. The former, that, under pretext of relieving one of his sisters who was possessed by a devil, he obtained from a countryvicar, named Bagario, a pledget of cotton dipped in holy oil, though none of his sisters were possessed. The other was the apparition of a lady. It was affirmed, that, being asked in a certain company, in what attitude and employment the absent lady was at the moment they were speaking of her; Balsamo, to satisfy their curiosity, immediately drew a quadrangle on the floor, and passing his hands to and fro above it, she was fairly seen upon the floor playing at cards with three other persons. A servant was directly dispatched to the lady’s house; who found her exactly in the attitude and employment with the three friends as represented in the figure.

Balsamo, who had quitted his country, Palermo, in the manner above mentioned, now began to roam about the world. We can here only follow his own account, till we meet him at Rome, for want of other traces and informations. With the money he had procured by his fraud on the silversmith he travelled to Messina. Here he got acquainted with a certain Altotas, a Greek, or, according to others, a Spaniard, who was versed in several languages, possessed a number of Arabic writings, and gave himself out for a great chemist. With this new friend he took ship, visited the Archipelago, and landed at Alexandria in Egypt, where they staid about forty days, and his fellow traveller undertook a variety of chemical operations, and among the rest that of making a sort of silky stuff from temp and flax, by which he got much money. From | Alexandria they proceeded to Rodi, where they likewise obtained some money by chemical operations. Quitting the isle of Rodi they bent their course to Grand Cairo, but by contrary winds were driven to Malta, where they remained some time, working in the laboratory of the grandmaster Pinto. Here Altotas died; and Balsamo resolved to go, in company with a knight to whom he was recommended by the grand-master himself, to Naples.

It is impossible by any means to contract the numberless tricks and stratagems of this grand impostor, in almost every part of Europe, within the limits prescribed to the articles of this work. His astonishing ingenuity in every species of fiction and deceit, exceeds all that has been recorded in the annals of ancient or modern roguery, insomuch that he was held for a real prodigy by every one to whose ears his fame had reached. His impostures in each of the places he visited would fill a considerable volume; and we must content ourselves with adding, that, for some enormities committed at Rome, he was thrown into the castle of St. Angelo, where he died towards the latter end of 1794; referring such readers as would wish to know more of him to the Italian original, published at Rome by the apostolical chamber, under the title of “Compendium of the Life and Actions of Giuseppe Balsamo, otherwise called count Cagliostro, extracted from the documents of the process carried on against him at Rome in the year 1790,” &c. 1


From the last edition of this Dictionary.