Cagliostro, Conte di Alessandro

Cagliostro, Conte di Alessandro (1743-1795)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Born Giuseppe Balsamo, in Palermo, Italy, as a child he frequently got into trouble with undesirable young companions. He later claimed to have spent his youth in Alexandria, learning the art of alchemy. In 1770 he married the beautiful Lorenza Feliciani (also known as Serafina) and the two appeared in London in 1776, presenting themselves as the Count and Countess Cagliostro. The real Countess of Cagliostro was his godmother.

Earlier, in 1766, he had met Pinto, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Malta, who encouraged him to take an interest in occultism and, specifically, alchemy. Malta was considered a center of mysticism and magic at that time and Cagliostro vigorously pursued that interest. Ten years later, in London, he was initiated into Freemasonry. He gained a reputation for making predictions, three times winning the lottery. Under the sponsorship of the Grand Lodge of England, he traveled Europe, visiting Masonic lodges and being received by kings and nobles. He is reputed to have been an exceptional healer and to have successfully conjured spirits and exorcised demons. He was a good hypnotist and became the rage of fashionable society. Opinion is divided as to whether Cagliostro was genuine or a charlatan.

In 1779, in Courland, a principality under the protection of Prussia, he discovered a ritual in an Egyptian papyrus. He named it "The Egyptian Rite." It involved hypnotizing a young child and through it receiving visions and prophesies. He went on to establish a number of lodges of Egyptian Freemasonry.

The following year, while in Strasbourg, France, Cagliostro made the acquaintance of Cardinal Louis de Rohan, who was out of favor with Queen Marie Antoinette and desperately wanted to get back into favor. After witnessing many of Cagliostro's feats, the cardinal thought the mystic could help him.

Cagliostro and Serafina moved to Paris, where he quickly established a reputation as a master magician. He apparently conjured up the spirits of dead statesmen and famous authors. Soon he was being called the "Divine Cagliostro" and was introduced to the Court of Louis XVI.

He continued to establish lodges of his Egyptian Freemasonry which admitted both men and women. Cagliostro, as Grand Master, adopted the title "Grand Copt," while Serafina was Grand Mistress of the Order. There seems to be no doubt that a great deal of money was paid by the many who sought membership. The lodge was headquartered in Faubourg Saint Honoré.

Cagliostro got caught up in a scheme engineered by the Comtesse de Valois la Motte. The countess talked Cardinal Rohan into signing a note for a substantial sum to pay for a necklace much admired by the queen. She reasoned that if he presented the necklace to Marie Antoinette, the queen would immediately take him back into her favor. But once the necklace had been purchased, the countess made off with it instead of taking it to the queen. When apprehended she accused Cagliostro of masterminding the plot. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille.

Cagliostro managed to talk his way out of the Bastille and he and his wife made their way to England. From there he wrote and published a book, Letter to the French

People (1786), in which he criticized the French monarchy and foretold the French Revolution. Subsequently the Courier de l'Europe, a French newspaper published in London, exposed him by printing what it claimed to be sordid details of his life. Cagliostro and Serafina left London and wandered about Europe before deciding to settle in Italy. In Rome he tried to establish lodges of Egyptian Freemasonry, right within the bounds of the Papal States. But Masonry was anathema to the Roman Catholic Church, and on September 27, 1789, he was arrested by order of the Holy Inquisition and imprisoned in the Castle of Saint Angelo. After eighteen months of interrogation and torture, he was sentenced to death. The Pope commuted this sentence to life imprisonment. After an unsuccessful escape attempt, he was sent to the solitary Castle of San Leo, near Montefeltro in the Apennines, where he remained until he died on August 6, 1795. It was named that his wife had denounced him to the Inquisition as a heretic, magician and conjurer of demons. There are also conflicting stories of his death: that he died of apoplexy or syphilis, or that he was strangled by his jailer.

Serafina was confined for life in the penitentiary at the Convent of St. Appolonia and died there in 1794.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.